This seems like a stripped-down version of the usual release by this Greensboro, North Carolina singer/songwriter and poet. A 1994 entry in the compact disc format, Bootlegger is just long enough to pass for a vinyl album. Some people in the "less is more" philosophy to the point of putting it on their license plates will be happy with this release, but in this case there is no question that the series of later, packed-to-the-rafters epics that Bruce Piephoff has put out will have a much more favorable impact on the listener. While some of his late-'90s efforts have 24 different compositions, this has only a dozen. The accompanying musicians also represent a compact unit, although there are a few Piephoff releases that have even less backup.
This group, a quartet including Piephoff, features musicians that have been active on the Greensboro music scene from the '70s onward. Collectively, string players Brad Newell and Scott Manring, and percussionist Murray Reams, represent the possibility of influences from outside the usual old-timey, country blues and folk that underpin most of Piephoff's repertoire. The bands these musicians have either fronted or been members of include efforts at punk rock, psychedelic rock, new wave, swing jazz and fusion jazz. Reams was even one half of the group Chuck, a band whose harsh noise rock was known for clearing clubs. None of these influences make it onto this record, however.
All of these players subjugate any and all outside interests to provide the usual sort of instrumental accompaniment one finds on Piephoff's albums. Manring is the old hand, having played on many of them and here providing dobro and banjo instrumental flourishes that are authentically rootsy, if sometimes timidly sparkless. Newell provided the home studio and production expertise this time out, but came up with a tape that lacks acoustic dimension. In fact, it can be said that one of the problems with this set is that the instrumental group only rarely creates a sound that is attention-grabbing. When the track "White Haired Boy" comes along it is as if a bucket of ice-cold water has been tossed in the face of a listener who at that point might be excused for starting to nod off. Manring comes up with a tuning and riff that makes grand use of the chubby sound of his instrument's low strings. It is a great slide guitar number, Piephoff's lyrics coming out of a kind of insulting, taunting tradition in country mined by writers such as Lefty Frizzell and Roger Miller.
When Piephoff gets into something like this he really cannot be topped, adding much interesting detail, and vocally handling it all with finesse. "Here I Have Lived" is easy to appreciate as both a song and a concept for a song, and several poems recited to the accompaniment of solo drumming or banjo come off nicely. On the other hand, if the common use of an album title is to summon up something in the nature of a grand theme, Bootlegger seems somewhat humdrum , though the liner notes by Michael Parker attempt to create a link between liquor and music manufactured by big companies and that which is created by individuals. Though there is a song here called "Bootlegger," and sorry, it is no "Thunder Road" or "White Lightnin'," it is a bit of a strain finding much that this artist has in common with homemade booze, other than the homemade part. Bootleg liquor is illegal; writing one's own music isn't, at least not yet. Bootleg liquor is popular in North Carolina, while it is an unfortunate fact that the local populace is generally too busy getting drunk to appreciate the fine songwriters living right in their neighborhoods.