Piephoff prepares to introduce a new cast of fools, dreamers and good people

by Jordan Green

The white Christmas lights twinkle on Elm Street. Shoppers drift up and down the sidewalks and a block away a drum corps makes cacophonous music. And inside a brightly lit art gallery singer-songwriter Bruce Piephoff plays a song called ‘“Hard Times For Dreamers’” for a crowd of three.

It’s the title track of Piephoff’s 2003 album. To be fair, it’s six o’clock on a Friday night, still a little early for most.

Piephoff talks between his songs in an intimate, started to fill. Some of the 30 or so people in the audience appear to be old fans, some Christmas shoppers examining colorful pots.

A photographer couple tells of their devotion to Piephoff.

‘“We drove by and we saw one guy in here, so we said, ‘Uh oh, we’ve got to get in there,’” Anthony Smith says, ‘“By the time we got parked and got in, there was a crowd.’”

Elizabeth Larson, who recently moved to Greensboro from Virginia, adds: ‘“One time I bought six of his CDs. He said, ‘Thanks, you paid my electrical bill for the month.’ I definitely know what that’s like.’”

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conversational manner grounded in both the circumstances of the gig and the raw material of the songs.

‘“See what a big draw I am in Greensboro?’” he says. ‘“People are afraid to cross the railroad tracks, but I’m not.’” Later, he adds: ‘“Well, I’ll play the same regardless.’”

As the proprietor of Two Art Chicks, some friends and the occasional customer sip red wine and listen while the cheese platter remains undisturbed, Piephoff picks out the quiet melody on a capoed guitar and blows into a harmonica. Then the longhaired 56-year-old folksinger, who played basketball for Grimsley High School back in the mid-’60s, sings a song that is every bit Greensboro but seems strangely removed from the gloss of New York-style discos and glowing talk about the promise of regional economic development plans, the talk about transportation and logistics as the future.

The song mentions the ‘“old shuttle looms’… replaced by the faster air jet looms,’” the ‘“cheap imports from Asia’” that ‘“only spell our doom,’” and the North American Free Trade Agreement. The quiet shame of a family trying to adjust to textile industry layoffs emerges in poignant relief.

‘“Now Christmas is coming and there’s no toys under the tree,’” he sings. ‘“Well there ain’t even a tree; we could still be happy/ Gonna make it up to Danville, they got a little work/ To get us through the winter and keep from going berserk.’”

Earlier in the week he’d sat at a table at Tate Street Coffee and talked about a song he wrote, ‘“Twenty Miles From Baghdad,’” about a lonely American soldier taking shrapnel in his leg in a surreal landscape of heat, sand and destruction. The song charted on national folk music radio in 2004. At first audience approval was about 50 percent; now, he says, positive reaction outweighs negative roughly 4 to 1. Piephoff sprinkles conversation with references to the war and local events as he drives home a point about unpleasant subjects and historical memory.

‘“It seems like Greensboro has the best and the worst,’” he says. ‘“We produced Edward R. Murrow and the Klan. Some audiences don’t want to be reminded of history, but you need to be, or you keep repeating it. When this Iraq thing started I just saw so many parallels with Vietnam.’”

Piephoff’s 14th album ‘— part of a prolific recorded body of original songs that began in 1988 ‘— comes out early next year. More lively than this year’s stripped down Bright Leaf Blues, it features a stellar lineup of local guest musicians who might not be household names even in the Greensboro bar scene. The lineup of the new album, titled Fools Get Away With the Impossible, includes Sam Frazier on lead guitar, Reneé Mendoza of Filthybird on guest vocals, Polecat Creek player Laurelyn Dossett on harmony vocals, multi-instrumentalist Scott Manring, bass player Chris Micca, drummer Scotty Irving and 12-string guitar player Dakota Joe.

Piephoff’s 20-year-old son David is responsible for the cover artwork for the new album. The painting of bar patrons rendered grotesque and suffering shows a welter of humanity; some of the barflies argue passionately while others nod off at the bar. Piephoff says his son’s painting is based on the album’s third track, ‘“Maybe In Time.’” It’s a story about two reunited friends, one who has just returned from Iraq and one just released from rehab.

Piephoff’s songs create a panorama of humanity, a set of characters drawn to reveal imperfections, yearning, humor and resilience. There’s a song Piephoff introduces as ‘“about one of my brothers in law who shall go unnamed’”: ‘“He got drunk at the David Allen Coe show and all the motels were closed/ When the state trooper told him to blow he said no/ So he’s calling me collect at half past three from the county jail.’”

Then there’s the more tenderly evoked account of the group of Latino immigrants working the farms up and down the Atlantic seaboard in ‘“Riding the Stream.’” Piephoff sings: ‘“The pain of the lonely so far from Mexico/ Lonely ’cause no one speaks the language that we know/ We work for the coastal farmer and he hides us away/ ‘Cause with illegal status they won’t let you stay.’”

Piephoff’s songs are populated by the ‘“fools’” who ‘“get away with everything,’” because, as the song says, ‘“they’re the only ones who’ll try.’” Most of them swim against the prevailing currents without much hope of beating the odds. That spirit is most apparent in ‘“That Don’t Stop the Train,’” a song on Hard Times For Dreamers.

‘“Like Eudora Welty singing a John Prine song,’” he sings. ‘“Like standing on a mountaintop huffing on a bong/ Like drawing cartoons in algebra class/ Like telling a bully to kiss your ass.’” Then the kicker: ‘“Some people value freedom more than fortune or fame/ Dogs bark, snakes hiss, but that don’t stop the train.’”

By the second set the gallery has