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North Carolina songwriters sing of the swing

The St. Louis Cardinals baseball club is a franchise rich in history and characters. There's Stan "The Man" Musial's perfect nickname and, these days, Albert Pujols' perfect bat. On the mound, you've got Bob Gibson and his microscopic ERA, Dizzy Dean and his quote-worthy brashness, and Steve Carlton and his wicked slider--Hall of Famers all. The gutsy, World Series-winning dash from first base executed by Roxboro's Enos "Country" Slaughter, another Card who's in the Hall, even offers some local flavor.

But when singer/songwriter/poet/ace yarn-spinner Bruce Piephoff decided to write about a Cardinal, he chose a first baseman who played in only 91 games during his four-season major league career and finished with a .244 average. Tom Alston might not have put up compelling numbers, but he had a back story that appealed to Piephoff. A Greensboro guy like Piephoff, Alston was the first black player on the Cardinals, and the songwriter based his tune "Big Foot in the Door" on Alston's journey, as well as the years that followed his time in the bigs.

"I had heard about the story of Tom Alston from a friend who collected baseball cards, and then there was a big article about him in the newspaper," recalls Piephoff, whose work suggests what Guy Clark might sound like had Clark sprung from the Piedmont instead of Texas. "I used that article and info from The Sporting News and a few other sources to get the facts together."

Piephoff offers some stats in "Big Foot in the Door," including Alston's home run and RBI totals for the then minor league San Diego Padres, and August Busch makes a cameo--beer in hand, no doubt. The song's refrain also does a little name-dropping: "Give you two Stan Musials, one Steve Bilko / Throw in 'Country' Slaughter if you let Alston go."

"For the chorus, I had the idea of kids trading baseball cards and how, if you knew a local player, he would be more valuable to you than a famous player like Stan Musial," Piephoff explains.

But Piephoff doesn't spin your cap with an abundance of facts and figures.

"I wanted to be very simple and direct and observational in the language," he says, "and let the listener draw his own conclusions." A grabby, rolling melody and Piephoff's Elizabeth Cotten-style guitar playing create a nice setting for that.

Piephoff wrote "Big Foot in the Door" in 1984 but didn't record it until his 1990 album, Hamburger Square. A live version of the song appears on 1997's Hobo Nickel, and Piephoff paid yet another visit to it for his latest record, Bright Leaf Blues, released earlier this year. The song's lyrics and an accompanying study guide were even published in Our Words, Our Ways: Reading and Writing in North Carolina, a language arts textbook used for middle school students.

You can find "Big Foot in the Door" on Diamond Cuts: Turning Two, too, the second volume in a series of baseball-song compilations from Washington, D.C.-based, volunteer-driven organization Hungry For Music. Raleigh's Kenny Roby has contributed two songs to the series, the ruminative "Ace, My Radio & Baseball" and the soulful stunner "The Sweep," which sounds like The Band and reads like Ring Lardner.

But North Carolina's--and perhaps the world's--baseball song MVP is Chuck Brodsky. The folk-leaning singer/songwriter, raised in Philly and settled in Asheville, has placed a song on all eight Diamond Cuts releases (each of them pulled from his wonderful Baseball Ballads, an album that sounds like it was recorded by the light of a transistor radio tuned to a Phillies game) and has been called "baseball's troubadour poet laureate" by Tim Wiles of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

Brodsky has a knack for building songs around truly memorable baseball folk, the kind of characters that are so fascinating they have to be real: catcher/spy Moe Berg, tripping hurler Dock Ellis, white Negro League player Eddie Klepp, and the star-crossed Eddie Waitkus, the inspiration for the fictional Roy Hobbs.

But here's the question: While there are outstanding boxing songs (Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," Tom Russell's "Jack Johnson" and Warren Zevon's "Boom Boom Mancini" for starters) and even some terrific hockey songs (check out the Tragically Hip's "Fifty Mission Cap" and Chixdiggit's "(I Feel Like) Gerry Cheevers" if you don't believe me), why is baseball miles ahead of all other sports when it comes to musical tributes?

"Baseball is deeply rooted in our culture," offers Jeff Campbell, the man behind Hungry for Music. "It was the first widely organized sport in America, and the pace of it allows for stories to unfold on the field, so you get a real narrative, something that works well in songs."

As for Piephoff, he's content to not speculate and just acknowledge that baseball is in his bones: "As a little kid, it was all baseball for me. I remember seeing Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in a home run derby at Greensboro's War Memorial Park."

Bruce Piephoff plays Carrboro's Open Eye Cafe at 8 p.m. on July 15. Kenny Roby will be at Sadlack's July 13, 20 and 27. And Chuck Brodsky will be back in the Triangle in early August. For additional information on the Diamond Cuts series, visit www.hungryformusic.com.

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