Bruce Piephoff,
Deep River Anthology
(Flyin' Cloud, 2001)

In Deep River Anthology (the title an allusion, perhaps, to the Spoon River Anthology, poet Edgar Lee Masters' collection of small-town stories in verse), North Carolinian Bruce Piephoff has mixed warm, homespun lyrics and accomplished country-folk guitar stylings to craft a highly listenable, if sometimes less-than-polished, album. The record is enhanced by the presence of Claire Holley, one of the most-lauded of a group of young Southern singer-songwriters, singing harmony vocals on a number of tracks.

As a songwriter, Piephoff's lyrics are simple but not simplistic, effective and memorable if not necessarily profound. "I Want to Be a Tree" is a good example, a wistful celebration of the simple things in life -- cold beer, old cars, six-strings and, of course, trees -- which begins "I wanna be a tree/A big oak tree/With big strong limbs/You can climb on me/Bright leaves in the fall/I'd stand tall/With deep roots to keep me/From the howling wind/A tree is a friend/I just wanna be a tree/I'm tired of bein' me."

Songs such as "Writer's Block Blues" also tap into a vein of humor, with lines such as "Lately I can't write a lick/And nobody's to blame/Only writing that I do/Is on checks when I sign my name/I tried writing in the buff, lying in my bed/But no new thoughts seemed to come/From deep inside inside my head..." and, after a witty catalogue of the writing practices of famous writers, "There's one method I still like/George Sand used it too--/It's getting up to write after/Love-making's through!" Such sentiments will draw a familiar chuckle from anyone who's spent time staring at an empty page.

Piephoff's rich, mellow voice fits songs like "I Want to Be a Tree" as easily as sliding into a groove. His vocals also prove supple enough to handle a variety of styles and tempos, although they occasionally sound a little too high and light for some of the bluesier songs.

Where Piephoff falters lyrically is when he ventures into social commentary, as in "The Ballad of Ricky Lee Sanderson," where he writes from the persona of a converted death-row inmate, with the cringe-inducing refrain "I needed money for more drugs/Now I'm just a thug/Sitting on death row to be killed." Likewise, "Two Sisters" is an awkward account of a robbery/kidnapping, while "Welfare Hotel" strives to be a Pete Seegeresque rant on behalf of the downtrodden, and doesn't quite succeed. However, "China White" is a sensitive account of heroin addiction, in which the insistent beat and repetition underscore the intensity of the addict's need.

Listeners familiar with the genre won't find much that's new in the hints of country, blues and gospel that flavor Piephoff's folky sound. What they will find is music that's welcoming, familiar and skillfully played and sung. With nineteen tracks, Deep River Anthology is excessively long and several weaker songs could easily be cut, which would heighten the unity and coherence of the album. But on a hot summer day when Southern sounds go down as sweet as iced tea, listeners probably won't complain too much about the length.

[ by Erin Bush ]
Rambles: 23 February 2002