Singer and songwriter Bruce Piephoff is closely associated with the music scene in his native town of Greensboro, NC, and also did extensive work as an artist-in-residence at schools and colleges in several Southern states before the government funding for this wonderful program was truncated. Hard Times for Dreamers, a new album he was working toward completing in the fall of 2002, is a title that perhaps sums up the trials and tribulations of a non-commercial musical artist attempting to survive from his creations. It would be hard to find any aspect of Greensboro that lends support to such a performer. In some three decades of musical activity there have often been years at a time in which not a single club in Greensboro presents music such as Piephoff's, while only a few of the city's record stores carry his releases, all of them on his own Flyin' Cloud label. Needless to say, none of the local radio stations program his music, or any other local music for that matter.
Piephoff was something of a latecomer to music, beginning guitar at 18 while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. His father had been a shade-tree guitarist and had exposed him to the folk music of artists such as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Weavers. Piephoff still owns these original albums from his father's collection, as well as the old man's somewhat valuable Martin D-35. The Chapel Hill college music scene was where his performing life began, with the small stages of various coffeehouses more than just an inkling of what was to come. While cover songs by Dylan as well as Hank Williams, Lightnin' Hopkins, the Carter Family, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, and legendary Chapel Hill fingerpicker Elizabeth Cotten were in his repertoire, Piephoff began writing and performing his original material from the beginning of his career.
As could be expected, music had a bad influence -- at least in the eyes of some who were passing judgment. He decided to drop out of college during his sophomore year and go for a music career, leading to time spent on the hectic music scenes of both New York City and Nashville. Eventually he would return to school, acquiring a B.A. in English and a M.F.A. in creative writing at Greensboro's UNCG. On this campus he studied poetry with noted writers Fred Chappell and Robert Watson and began to draw a line between pure poetry and song lyrics in his own creations. Recordings such as the excellent Slaughterhouse often include performances of poetry as well as singing.
In 1986 he was given the opportunity to work in the North Carolina Visiting Artist Program, a lauded program that has placed many of the state's performers in genres such as old-time music and jazz in concert settings throughout North Carolina, not just in the larger towns. This led to a visiting artist position at Southeastern Community College in the state's hideously named and quite remote town of Whiteville. It was a year's position, which included a salary and health benefits -- for a professional musician, kind of like waking up in the acceptance line at the Pearly Gates.
The responsibilities of the position largely consisted of performing all around the community and nearby ones as well, in venues such as schools, churches, and nonprofit group meetings. There were also exchanges with other artists in the Visiting Artist Program, which was the only program of its type in the entire United States. Further Piephoff postings placed him in Brunswick County near the beach; Valencia Community College in Orlando, FL; and then back to Wadesboro, NC, to work at Anson Community College. His final such job under the funding program was at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, NC. Nearby Virginia continued its own artist-in-residence programs, however, so Piephoff was able to continue these activities in several parts of that state, including Danville.
By 2001, however, Piephoff was facing the sad reality that in the aftermath of Newt Gingrich and the "Contract with America," arts funding had been cut to the point where it could no longer pay for a slice of onion, let alone a whole sandwich. He has gone back to relying on his performances and recorded releases. He began pressing singles in the '80s and full collections of material on cassette in 1990 such as Hamburger Square, which, like much of his material, was inspired by something in North Carolina, in this case a historic downtown Greensboro neighborhood. This set was reissued on compact disc combined with Anson County, a 1993 set that seems to mark a more refined, mature stage in his musical development. A steady series of release since that time has often featured some of the best area musicians, including mandolinist Arnie Soloman, Dobro and lap steel picker Scott Manring, and percussionist Murray Reams. ~ Eugene Chadbourne