Tall Tales from West Virginia's Top 'Liars' Each year on Memorial Day weekend, West Virginia's best storytellers compete for the prestigious title of "Biggest Liar," in a tall- tale contest that draws large crowds. Two contest judges, including a five-time champion, spin a couple of whoppers.
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Tall Tales from West Virginia's Top 'Liars'

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Tall Tales from West Virginia's Top 'Liars'

Tall Tales from West Virginia's Top 'Liars'

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott. This week, America got a new idol. Tomorrow West Virginians will crown a new liar. Not just any old liar, the biggest liar. It's a title awarded annually at one of the states premier folk life festivals, the Vandalia Gathering. Bil Lepp will be one of the judges. He's a professional storyteller and has won the competition's top prize many times. For him, a good lie requires technique.

Mr. BIL LEPP (Five-Time Liar Champion): I think the most important thing is that it starts out at least a little bit believable, and then the exaggeration gradually expands until you've taken us somewhere that's totally unbelievable, but you've done it in a subtle way so that we just go along with whatever's going on.

ELLIOTT: Now you had your last West Virginia liars championship title back in 1999. Can you give us a little sample of your best lie back then?

Mr. LEPP: Sure. Aside from being five-time champion of the West Virginia Liars Contest, I also served four years as the United Methodist pastor, and the first church I had was in a little town called Meadow Bridge, West Virginia, and one winter day, all the local religious leaders decided that all the pastors from the area should meet in Beckley, so I volunteered to drive.

We were coming home from the meeting. I had the Catholic priest and the Baptist minister in the backseat of my car, and in the front seat of my car, I had won as a door prize, I had won an offering plate. And my dog, Buck Dog, had crawled up in that offering plate, curled up and gone to sleep.

Well, naturally, being three pastors, we'd stopped on the way home and bought a bucket of fried chicken, and that was sitting on the seat between me and Buck Dog. Well, we were going down Sandstone Mountain, and a blizzard hit.

I looked in the rearview mirror, and I saw an 18-wheeler coming down the mountain, totally out of control, headed straight for the back of my car. Well, just before it hit, Buck Dog sensed the tension, woke up, looked out the back window, saw what was going on, grabbed that bucket of fried chicken and pulled it in the offering plate with him.

So when that truck hit, it shot Buck Dog out the windshield in that offering plate like a Frisbee flying through the sky, and then me and the Catholic priest and the Baptist minister, we flew out the window next. So there we were, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister and a Methodist pastor flying through the sky, not a punch line in sight.

When the truck split in half, it was carrying tennis shoes, about 50,000 pair of shoes flew up into the sky. Well, Buck Dog flew all the way down the mountain to the New River, which was frozen over, and he hit so hard in the offering plate that it knocked his hind end out of the offering plate, but the chicken was still in the offering plate, so Buck was holding on with his front end, sliding across the ice.

And then me and the Catholic priest and the Baptist minister, we hit next and slid across the ice in a somewhat tangled, ecumenical movement, as those 50,000 pair of shoes fell in the woods behind us. And that's when I said to those two guys with me, I said, I sure hope nobody's watching us 'cause here we are three pastors living up to all the stereotypes people have about clergy, what with us chasing half a buck and the offering plate and a bowl full of fried chicken out on the thin ice while a 100,000 souls are lost in the wilderness behind us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONNIE COLLINS (Storyteller): Isn't he great? People love Bill.

ELLIOTT: That's 90-year-old storyteller Bonnie Collins. She's a legend in West Virginia, and she's judged the Liars Contest since it began more than 20 years ago. This is the first time she's sharing the bench with Bil Lepp.

Ms. COLLINS: He was such a good liar, they had to disqualify him.

ELLIOTT: So you got kicked out of the contest, you were just too good of a liar.

Ms. COLLINS: Yep, that's true.

Mr. LEPP: Well...

Ms. COLLINS: It's true, isn't, Bill?

Mr. LEPP: Yes, it is true.

Ms. COLLINS: Yes.

Mr. LEPP: I also got hired by the West Virginia Department of Culture and History, which runs the Liars Contest; therefore, I wasn't allowed to enter it. But I've always thought that just proves that if you lie good enough, long enough, eventually, the government will hire you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: So what is it about West Virginia and West Virginians that makes such good liars?

Mr. LEPP: I think part of it is it's not always the easiest place to live. You know, it's certainly easier in my time than it was when Bonnie was my age or before that, but the only way to feel better about yourself or to have a good time was to sit around and make up stories and try and forget about some of the tough things that were going on. So people just developed a durable and lasting wit.

Ms. COLLINS: Yes. We're a hardy group. I was put down all my life. I was born fat, and I was - my family teased me in high school, they said many things, real hurtful things and I laughed them off. And then when I met a man I fall in love with and he admired my smart mouth, and I decided if they're going to laugh at me, I'll let them laugh with me. And I think God has a sense of humor, he made me. Jim and Mary Jones went to their doctor and Jim told his doctor, he said doctor, the Lord is so good to me, when I got to the bathroom he turns the light on. And then I turn - through, he turns it off. And the doctor told his wife when he got her in the office, he said, Jim says that the Lord turns the light on and off when he goes to the bathroom. She said that old dummy been peeing in my refrigerator again.

ELLIOTT: Okay then.

COLLINS: I hope you're mike's dead now.

Mr. LEPP: I think one of the nice things about the tall-tale form is that you can sort of brag about yourself without actually looking like you're bragging, because if you look at characters like, you know, Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, those people were developed so that cowboys and loggers could talk about how great they were without saying I'm the greatest person in the world.

COLLINS: Yes.

Mr. LEPP: You know, they invent a character to represent themselves that 50 feet tall and can cut down more trees than a steam engine. So at the liar's contest, you know, I present these sort of bumbling characters that get themselves into difficult situations through their own sort of stupid mistakes, but also through their own innate common sense they're able to elevate themselves out of the position. So it's, it's kind of a nice fun way of saying look at how great we are by showing how stupid we can be.

ELLIOTT: Bil Lepp and Bonnie Collins are two of the judges of the West Virginia Liar's Contest held Sunday in Charleston. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. LEPP: Thanks for having us.

COLLINS: Thank you a lot.

ELLIOTT: To hear the tale of the ghost barber as only Bonnie Collins can tell it, go to our website, npr.org.

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