Bil Lepp went from being a church pastor to a world-class liar. It wasn't a downhill slide. He had a natural ability to stretch the truth and worked at it until he became a professional liar.
No, Lepp isn't a career politician, but rather a multi-year winner of the Golden Shovel award at the West Virginia Liars Contest. He brings his talent for telling tall tales to the three-day Weber State University Storytelling Festival, which starts Tuesday.
The festival continues through Thursday, with more than 100 professional and amateur tellers at three venues -- at Ogden's David Eccles Conference Center, on Weber State University's Ogden campus, and at the Davis Conference Center in Layton. Admission to all events, except the Storyteller Banquet, is free.
"Williams Tell," the15th annual Weber State University Storytelling Festival, features three nationally known tellers named William: Bil Lepp, Bill Harley and Willy Claflin.
"I'm the true genius of the three," Lepp said with a laugh.
Harley and Claflin have performed at past WSU festivals. Harley is a Grammy award-winning performer known for tales about childhood and family life. Claflin, often assisted by a moose named Maynard, likes turning traditional tales upside down.
"Bill and Willy both sing, but they don't let me sing," said Lepp, who is coming to Ogden for the first time.
Lepp lives in Charlestown, W. Va., and grew up in a family of storytellers.
"We'd sit around the Thanksgiving supper table, with people talking about things that were happening in their lives, and no one in the family bothered to stick much to the truth. I grew up thinking that my grandfather rode with Lawrence of Arabia in World War I," he said. "So my brother and I were both already sort of adept at exaggeration, and just took it to the long form."
Lepp's brother won West Virginia's Liars Contest, part of an Appalachian culture celebration, six times before he died. Lepp has won five times, and his children have also earned Golden Shovels.
"We're actually bringing them up to be great liars," he said with pride.
After he started winning contests, Lepp began earning a little money on the side, telling stories at Cub Scout banquets.
"I did it for eight or nine years before I realized there were festivals around the country and people making a living telling stories at them," he said.
As he gained more national attention, Lepp was able to let go of his jobs, including the part-time pastor work. He's been telling stories full time for eight years now.
"My wife and I went into it with the idea that it would be like a paid vacation, and I'd keep doing it until the work dried up," he said. "Fortunately, the work hasn't dried up."
Mountains from molehills
Reviewers have compared Lepp to Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Cosby and a Wonderbra.
"I like the Wonderbra description, about taking little things and lifting them up into something mighty big and mighty interesting," he said.
He doesn't think he has much in common with Foxworthy -- maybe his looks and a bit of Southern charm.
"I like to think when people tell Jeff Foxworthy that he reminds them of me, he's saying, 'I remind you of who?' " said Lepp.
The similarity to Cosby is that both tell funny stories, rather than a quick series of zingers.
Lepp won't say that his stories aren't true.
"But they didn't happen, by and large," he said. "The people in the stories might not be real people, and the events and things they're doing, maybe nobody really did them, but they're about things everybody does. ... They explore the foibles of human nature, and how we manage to get ourselves into bad situations, dumb situations -- and even trying to get out, we further complicate the problem."
The stories cover everything from dressing up like a deer and driving around with a mannequin on the hood, to riding a horse named Diablo to impress a woman.
"A lot of my stories are based on things I've thought about doing throughout the course of my life, and realized they were bad ideas," he said. "When I realized they were bad ideas, I thought, 'This would make a good story,' and explored the possible consequences of my actions, had I done those things."
One of his most popular stories involves a pet called Buck Dog.
"I really did have Buck Dog, he passed away a couple of years ago, and he really was half German shepherd and half basset hound," Lepp said. "The story grew out of Buck's real heritage and lineage."
The tale begins with Lepp trying to help the dog get used to the sound of gunshots, so that he could be a better hunting dog.
"After that, the whole flying through the air, tied to Buck with piece of string, on a flying train, that didn't happen exactly as I describe it," Lepp admits.
WHO: Bil Lepp, Bill Harley and Willy Claflin
WHAT: 'Williams Tell,' Weber State University Storytelling Festival
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: Peery's Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden
ADMISSION: Free; http://community.weber.edu/storytelling
ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES: Lepp performs multiple times during the festival; see schedule on Page 5D.
A sample of Bill Lepp's storytelling: