December 2, 1945 - February 13, 2019
A vast community of musicians, music lovers, and instrument builders is mourning the death of Paul Hostetter, of cancer, on February 13, 2019. He was 73. Paul lived for 50 years in Bonny Doon, a remote, hilly community in the redwoods above Santa Cruz, Calif., and yet he was a daily force in the lives of people around the world.
Paul was a brilliant musician who out of natural curiosity and generosity helped shine a light on the wonders of indigenous international music—long before the term "world music" had its own Wikipedia entry. He was stupendously gifted in the demanding old craft of lutherie, which he liked to say "simply means working with wooden stringed instruments." He was a tireless, at times dogged communicator and critic, who spent hours every day sharing his thoughts and insights on everything from violin sound post placement to the appropriate strings for the valiha, Madagascar's endemic bamboo harp (strung classically with strands of bicycle brake cable, for the record). He stayed in touch with colleagues and friends in places he had visited—Ireland, Bali, China, Madagascar, England, Quebec—and in even more in places he'd never been.
Paul was someone any good musician would want to play with. He could coax music out of nearly any fretted instrument but was an intuitive master on guitar, mandolin, and banjo (and harmonica, too). He sang with superb pitch in a soulful tenor. He loved wry country blues and crooked mountain fiddle tunes but he was equally at ease playing traditional melodies from Sicily, Puerto Rico, and the Seychelles islands; slack-key guitar tunes from Hawaii, jigs and reels from Ireland and Canada, polskas from Sweden, and dance tunes with complicated time signatures from Greece and the Balkans.
Fiddle and banjo player Paul Brown, the former host of National Public Radio's Morning Edition show, invited Paul to perform with him in string bands at festivals. "He had a way of blending with whatever style he was working in," Brown said in an interview. "The magical thing about Paul is that he always added something significant to the music without being showy. He had wonderful timing, perfect attack, and amazing chord sense."
No wonder he was just as adept with small tools, wood, and glue. Paul built or repaired hundreds of instruments: violins and violas, classical and steel-string guitars, banjos, ouds, rebecs, bouzoukis, cellos, gadulkas, and of course the many kinds of mandolins, including "reso-phonic" mandolins whose strings excite a spun metal cone.
Paul's grasp of guitar lore and design led him to collaborate during the founding of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company in 1976. Ideas and specs he drew from a vintage Gibson Nick Lucas Special helped shape the company's diminutive but deep-bodied "H" model. According to company owner Richard Hoover, more than 1,720 H model guitars are now in the hands of players, among them blues artist Otis Taylor and former Dylan sideman Happy Traum. As a luthier, Paul worked on guitars and other instruments owned by David Lindley and Jody Stecher, among many others.
Paul credited his father, grandfather, and the other men in his family for teaching him to handle tools. "I grew up with the attitude that when you needed something, you just made it," he once told a writer. He worked for a short time as a restoration specialist at San Francisco's de Young Museum, but quit to work in his own shop. (For a close-up view of Paul's theories and practices as a luthier, visit lutherie.net
.) Later, with house jacks and determination, he rescued a dilapidated mid-1800s farmhouse from settling into a ravine. That house became his final home.
Growing up in Detroit, he took up guitar as a teenager, dropped out of high school, and got a job at Joe and Mary Fava's music shop teaching blues and folk-style guitar. He knew Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye. He played rhythm guitar in recording sessions at Motown Records. (Anyone who knows what cuts he's on should reach out to his family.) While still in Detroit, Paul attended Monteith College, a liberal arts branch of Wayne State University, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy. His experience there was broader than it sounds. He worked in a range of disciplines, among them metalsmithing, a skill that enabled him to support himself designing and making wedding rings.
After a stint in Denver and a few forays to northern California in the late 1960s, Paul moved permanently to Bonny Doon in 1970. In 1972 he met Irene Herrmann, a musician who moved in with him a year later. They married in 1983, had two splendid daughters—Kaethe, now 35, and Marandi, 33—and dug themselves deep into Santa Cruz culture. They separated in 2000.
"Paul could amaze you with the depth of his knowledge", said Will Spires, a fiddler and guitarist and an instructor in anthropology and history at Santa Rosa Junior College, in a remembrance on Facebook. "It isn't just his wide range of interests and accomplishments—music foremost—but also philosophy, natural history, politics, architecture, bench crafts, education, language, literature, and the rest. You couldn't raise a topic in conversation upon which he didn't have some info and an opinion." A mandolin buff with whom he traded notes pegged him as "pleasantly cantankerous but charming nonetheless."
In 2000 Paul and Robin Petrie, his wife-to-be, fell in love after playing together in a concert for Gourd Music in Santa Cruz. They eventually married in Ubud, Bali. Robin is a ceramic artist and musician from the Bay Area who shares not only Paul's wicked sense of humor but also his passion for far-flung musics and art and the cultures they spring from. For eighteen years she and Paul played as a duo and in various acoustic bands in the greater Bay Area. They made regular visits to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, classical Indian concerts, and the San Francisco Opera, for a start. They also travelled the world extensively, always searching for the true artisans, as on their visits to remote potteries in Burma and gamelan factories in Bali.
Paul is survived by his brother, Mark Hostetter in San Diego; his sister, Janet Hostetter in St. Paul, Minnesota; his wife, Robin Petrie, in Bonny Doon and Berkeley; and his daughters by his earlier marriage, Kaethe in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Marandi in New York City. Paul considered his daughters his proudest achievements. "Seeing them grow up to become strong, happy, successful humans is the best," he told a writer from the San Lorenzo Valley Press Banner in 2007. A celebration of his life is being planned; check Paul's Facebook page for updates.