Greg Freeman, 53, is a solo bagpiper. He’s not Scottish, he’s Welsh and Swedish and he picked up pipes for a marching band in his high school in Houston, Texas. With time, he switched to guitar, but the skills stayed with him. “They put the pipes into my cognitive neural pathways when they were developing,” he jokes. He went back to the instrument after a friend asked him to play at a wedding. But his Valley Piper fame came a bit later, with Covid.
When the pandemic began, Freeman started to play in his Carmel Valley yard, much to his neighbors’ delight. They encouraged him to take this joy further to the powdered-sugar sand of Carmel Beach, “an insanely beautiful place,” according to Freeman. Especially at sunsets.
It is sunset time when you can encounter the Valley Piper standing at the northernmost opening to the beach off Ocean Avenue, providing a majestic soundtrack to the spectacle of crashing waves. Not every night, because it’s a hobby, not work, even if he makes some money off it. He works as a winemaker as his day job, at Chalone Vineyard, where he recently played for the annual blessing of the grapes.
Weekly: Tell us about the pipes.
Freeman: The whole instrument is basically tuned to A. I can play a C major scale or A minor song, and that’s really it. For me, at this point it’s all a matter of focus. That’s how you control the pitch and try to keep it smooth and even. If you blow or squeeze too hard the pitch goes up. If you blow too soft, it goes down. I get distracted easily because there are waves, dogs, kids, people. But fortunately, the songs are really in my fingers. I can totally space out and the song keeps going.
Is it tiring? Does it take a lot of stamina? Special breathing?
Yes, all of that. It’s aerobic. It took me a year to get my cheeks and lips to play longer. I can probably play for an hour-and-a-half at this point. I get into that Scottish mentality. Last night a Scottish girl came up to me and said I nailed it and I play like a Scot.
How big is your repertoire?
I have about 62 songs right now, traditional Scottish songs and a handful of oddballs like “Danny Boy’’ that is Irish, but close enough. “Amazing Grace” because everyone wants to hear it. I also do “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven, and military songs. Every now and then people ask me to play at their wedding or to go on the beach and play at their memorial. One time something told me to go to 13th Street. I was standing there playing “Danny Boy” and this guy asked me if I’m here for Dan’s memorial. So I stayed for Dan’s memorial. Many people showed up and cried. That’s probably my most impactful experience here so far.
And this killer outfit?
When I was in the band, they required the whole outfit. When I started in November, I was wearing jeans and a sweater. But my friends said I needed some street cred. I think it works.
Do you keep up with the world of pipes?
I try to, but I prefer to be a lone wolf. If you play with other pipers, you have to play exactly the same. Otherwise, it does sound bad. I prefer to play songs my own way, I like being on my own schedule, stop and talk to someone for 20 minutes or just go home.
What is your passion? Pipes or winemaking?
Both. It comes to the same thing, expressing yourself creatively, with passion for what you do. With winemaking, you try to make the best wine at all times. With music, you try to make the best sound all the time. I approach it the same.
What is the weirdest thing you saw here playing at Carmel Beach?
I’ve seen a lot of people falling down, packs of dolphins out there, wedding proposals and some amazing sunsets. Someone brought a cat to the beach and that was cute. Also, people put booze in my box. French Champagne. Scotch, a lot of beers. Someone gave me a framed photo of me and the sunset, and said I got her through a difficult phase in life.
Why do you do this?
The coolest thing for me is this is a way to interact with people that would never make contact with me. Whatever divides people, music is a portal. Twenty Pakistanis will look at me and wave. Where else am I gonna get that? I’m learning that everybody is nice. I think about that a lot.