Trey Kay, Todd Melby Published

A Fiddler Contemplates The Fate Of The Mountain State

Photo Credit: Jordan Beck

Phillip Bowen grew up playing the fiddle. The 38-year-old learned classical violin as well as how to improvise on the fiddle, combining musical styles and genres. Now, he’s turned to songwriting, becoming a phenomenon on social media. Bowen releases his first album soon, with a wide range of offerings. 

Us & Them host Trey Kay talks with Bowen about his music and the songs that focus on memories of things past as well as the Mountain State reality of today. Bowen sings about his small hometown of Montgomery along the Kanawha River; another song mourns the loss of family members, while yet another may just steal the show. 

“Vampire in Appalachia” offers a heartbreaking look at the ways his native state has become overshadowed by black lung illness from the coal industry and an opioid crisis that continues to take lives. 

This episode of Us & Them is presented with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council, the Daywood Foundation and the CRC Foundation.

Subscribe to Us & Them on Apple Podcasts, NPR One, RadioPublic, Spotify, Stitcher and beyond.

Listen to Philip Bowen’s entire performance on Mountain Stage. He appeared on Jan. 8, 2023 at a show recorded at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, West Virgnia. Also on the lineup were: Tim O’Brien Band, David Mayfield Parade, Dirty Grass Players and Lauren Calve.

Kathy Mattea introduces West Virginia native Philip Bowen to a packed auditorium at a recording of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mountain Stage. Credit: Chris Morris/Mountain Stage
Philip Bowen performing his original tunes about West Virginia with the Mountain Stage Band. Credit: Chris Morris/Mountain Stage
“There’s a vampire in Appalachia and we’re running out of blood.” — Montgomery, West Virginia native Philip Bowen.

Watch a video of Philip Bowen performing ”Vampire in Appalachia” live on Mountain Stage.

Credit: Chris Morris/Mountain Stage
Philip Bowen is a TikTok sensation with a series of posts he calls “Does It Fiddle?” For this, he takes a popular song from a genre you’d never imagine would feature a fiddle and he makes it funky. This TikTok post, which features Bowen improvising a fiddle solo over Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise,” has garnered 1.2 million views and counting. Credit: Philip Bowen’s TikTok
Gary Bowen, of Montgomery, West Virginia, shows the tiny violin that his son Philip learned to play when he was four years old. Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
This Charleston Gazette clipping features 10-year-old Philip Bowen performing in a fiddle competition at the Vandalia Gathering. The gathering is an Appalachian folk arts festival that’s been held every Memorial Day Weekend on the grounds of the West Virginia State Capitol since 1977. Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Lou Ann and Gary Bowen in the parlor of their home in Montgomery, West Virginia. Their house sits on the bank of the Kanawha River, which is the subject of their son’s song “Old Kanawha.” Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
For 40 years, Larry Groce has vetted acts for the popular radio program Mountain Stage, a show that he co-founded. Groce says he loves a good fiddler. 

“You know, a fiddle is probably the closest thing to a human voice expression, because you can do so much with the fiddle. You can make it cry, You can make it laugh,” Groce told Us & Them host Trey Kay. “To me, the very best people are the most expressive. It’s not the ones who can play the fastest, not the ones who can, you know, impress you with their gymnastics. It’s the people who talk to you with their instrument and make you feel like you’re experiencing something that’s almost a physical place… I think Philip understands what his licks mean and why he’s playing them… He can play well. But I think he’s got the heart and the soul is his strong suit.”

Credit: The Charleston Gazette-Mail
After Philip Bowen’s debut performance on Mountain Stage, host Kathy Mattea congratulates him with a hug. Credit: Chris Morris/Mountain Stage