Bruce Piephoff,
The Chestnut Tree
(Flyin' Cloud, 2008)

The 16th album from folk singer-songwriter Bruce Piephoff offers us a chance to meet 10 people we otherwise would probably never encounter. This odd but interesting assortment includes farmers, wanderers, eccentrics and even a few well-known individuals. Through detailed lyrics, we get insights into their unique perspectives on life.

Piephoff and his 1968 Martin guitar are accompanied here by a small cadre of able musicians. But his voice and his words are the stars of the show.

These "story-song character sketches" require active listening. This isn't a CD that can fade into the background. No lyrics are printed in the album liner notes, either, so you must pay close attention to the music. Piephoff (PEE-off) starts us off with "Notes from Knoxville," which is an apt prologue to the tales that will follow: "God bless our loved ones / Each and every one." It's a catchy tune that will stick in your head long after the stereo is turned off. Then it's time for the personal encounters to begin. We find out about fictitious folks (or at least, unknown to us) in "Tator Town Tammy," "Earthly Waters," "Ralph," "Count No Count's Nightmare #36" and "Jasper's World of No Return." I will date myself by revealing that these tales remind me of the old Kenny Rogers hit, "Coward of the County." Those of you "of an age" will understand what I mean.

Three of Piephoff's songs are about real-life historic figures. "Jesse" is a tribute to Olympic athlete Jesse Owens. "Ballad of Charlie Poole" honors the banjo player and leader of the North Carolina Ramblers in the late 1920s. And the title track, "The Chestnut Tree," explores the mindset of Anne Frank as she hides in an Amsterdam attic but is able to see a tree outside through a small window. Given that Piephoff has Dutch ancestors, his devotion to this serious topic is both appropriate and admirable.

But not every tune is about people. "Orbit Bath" describes the variety of experiences that take place every day, somewhere, as our planet turns. "When the Moon is Big Above the Cape Fear River" is a love song that shows up in the middle of the CD. With both the farming and wandering themes referenced here, its refrain echoes a voice that could emanate from at least one of the previous characters mentioned: "I'm thankful I got no place left to go." "Catherine's Song" is a nice dedication that could easily be mistaken for an early Simon & Garfunkel piece.

The musical lineup is interrupted by three stream-of-consciousness "spoken word poems:" "Hucksters," "Writer's Block at Weymouth" and a eulogy called "For Marvin." Bruce's speaking voice comes complete with Carolina lilt, which is refreshing to the ears.

The disc begins to wind down with "The Day Will Come," a feel-good benediction that predicts a time when "We'll no longer have to run / We'll be showered in the sunshine with relief," and "When the clouds disappear / We'll no longer live in fear / That day will come / The day will come." "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" is a pseudo-ghost story that concludes the recording. Who knows but that an anonymous person could be the best adviser?

Though I've compared him to other artists above, please understand that Bruce Piephoff is a seasoned musician and storyteller, and definitely an expert guitar picker. And why shouldn't he be, after spending 15 years traveling throughout the South as an employee of the government-funded Visiting Artist program? His only failing might be that he wants to share so much information that he sometimes has more words to express than can easily fit into his melodies. In any event, The Chestnut Tree provides the perfect (and slightly quirky) entertainment for an otherwise boring or dreary day.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Corinne H. Smith

21 June 2008

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