The Foxhole Folk of Bruce Piephoff:
Greensboro troubadour releases his 24th record
If you tend to feel that every place has its own particular sound, a mysterious quality that emerges from the people, the weather, the trees, the landscape, the history, the food, etc — something like the sonic terroir that colors and shapes whatever music comes from a locale, then you might find yourself thinking that singer/songwriter and poet Bruce Piephoff makes the sound of North Carolina. He’s got songs about the Nantahala Gorge, about Tarheel old time banjo legend Charlie Poole, about the Cape Fear River and all kinds of local spots, roads, highways and bars from the area. There’s tobacco, BBQ, sweet potatoes, literature, humidity, booze, sun, wanderers, workers and down-on-theirluck characters in his songs. Greensboro’s Lee Street makes regular appearances in some of Piephoff’s work.
Piephoff, from Greensboro, is about to release his 24th record. It’s a split record with fellow North Carolina singer/songwriter David Childers called “Army Town Madrigal,” titled after a song inspired in part by the role Greensboro played in readying troops for World War II in the 1940s. A show with both songwriters will celebrate the release this weekend. I spoke with Piephoff by phone last week about his career, the new record and songwriting.
“David and I each do six songs each, and they kind of alternate, and they kind of interact and speak to one another,” says Piephoff. “We didn’t plan it this way, but it kind of makes sense it being Memorial Day Weekend.”
There’s a consistency to Piephoff’s work, a sense of giddy humor and also a sense of in-the-bone sadness or at least of sun-bleached grit. Piephoff describes the new record as “more of a strippeddown kind of thing” than 2014’s Soft Soap Purrings, which was recorded at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium in Kernersville and had a smoky, jazzy late-night feel.
“I don’t like to put out the same kind of record twice,” says Piephoff.
Piephoff is a folk singer, playing familiar chord progressions on acoustic guitar and singing melodies that harken back to Bob Dylan, to Woody Guthrie, to the Carter Family, to Townes Van Zandt, or to Elizabethan ballads, pulling structures and stories from his rambling life, from the air and from history. His singing is casual, with lots of nods to the gruff spoken-word styles of late-era Dylan, Tom Waits, solo Keith Richards and even Hoagy Carmichael. But Piephoff has a poet’s taste for wordplay and he likes to stuff his lines full, taking the lyrics high on the syllablecount meter.
“I started writing songs when I was about 18 or 19 and playing guitar,” says Piephoff, 67. “I started off with the craft of songwriting. I was into people like Dylan and the Beatles, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Nick Drake — there was a lot to soak up. After I’d been at it for a while, at the age of 28 or 30, I started writing poetry, just to try something different, a different form.”
Piephoff entered the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Greensboro, working with state Poet Laureate Fred Chappell.
“They always tells you, write about what you know,” says Piephoff. “I’ve always picked out particulars that I was familiar with.”
Many of Piephoff’s songs suggest a history of hard-traveling, the life of a restless American wanderer-bard.
“Being of my generation — when your heroes are people like Kerouac and Dylan, that kind of beat thing — there’s this romantic fascination with the freedom that people like hobos have,” says Piephoff. “I try to give a voice to the people that are interesting to me. The people that survive and get by on their wits and their grit.”
Anytime a songwriter has lines about people going down to the plasma center, like Piephoff does, you know there’s harsh, naked truth at hand.
The troubadour tradition comes through strong in Piephoff’s work — after all, he has a song about playing pool with Townes Van Zandt at a bar in Nashville. But his lyrics are also threaded with allusions to other artists — musicians, writers, poets, painters, you name it. Petrarch, Dante, Van Gogh, Poe, Flaubert, Debussy, Artie Shaw, Shakespeare, Blake, Monet and Al Jarreau all get referenced in one place or another. And he has what you might call praise songs about figures like Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams, Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, and baseball great Babe Ruth. (That wide-ranging American swirl must run in the family, too; Piephoff’s son, David, has done the artwork for a number of his father’s record covers, with paintings that bring to mind a mix of Thomas Hart Benton and Mad Magazine.)
For all of its “live free” potential, the life of the troubadour also allows for the expression of another American quality: a work ethic.
“I do believe I’m in it for life. I’m a lifer,” says Piephoff. “I do believe it’s important to keep working.”
A strain of Piephoff’s material is wildly funny, almost absurd, in the spirit of Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” or even of the more dada Captain Beefheart. With Piephoff, describing him with a dizzying list of comparisons somehow seems appropriate. Imagine novelist Barry Hannah as a folk singer and you might be approaching what Piephoff’s up to. Or, if you’re looking for a more recent point of comparison, Piephoff is like an older cousin to alt-country wildman Todd Snider. Listen to the song “Tater Town Tammy,” off 2008’s The Chestnut Tree, which includes this line: “She’s on her third or fourth Bloody Mary, and now everything’s looking scary.” He sings of the title character: “She’s a Texas League girl falling between her Gong Show and her Grammy.”
The comic-tragic balance is something Piephoff stays attuned to.
“That’s something I’ve always appreciated in writers, the ability to talk about things that are tragic and tough but to always have some humor,” he says, “foxhole humor, if you want to call it that.” !
JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courantand numerous other publications.
Bruce Piephoff and David Childers perform at 8 p.m. on May 28 at The Crown (310 South Greene St., Greensboro). Tickets are $15. Call 336-333- 2605 or visit carolinatheatre.com for more information.