Songs From The Corn Belt
Acoustic Guitar Magazine
by Ben Elder
"The key thing to know," says Lou Berryman somewhat cryptically, "is that we collaborate, but we don't work together." This description of songwriting craft makes a little more sense once you've experienced the hilariously skewed songs of Lou and her partner, Peter Berryman.
For more than 20 years, the duo (not couple) from Madison, Wisconsin, has been sharing stages and "a friendship that survived a brief marriage." During that time, armed with an accordion and a Guild 12-string [guitar], they've thumbed their noses at the notion that folk music must be self-indulgent, whiny, and depressing. They've also filled three songbooks and ten albums with their melodically and lyrically intricate songs (all are available from them at Cornbelt Records, Box 3400, Madison, WI 53704; 608-257-7750).
"It's almost impossible for either one of us to work on our stuff when there's anyone in the entire house," says Peter. Since each Berryman has long since been remarried to another spouse, the two work out songs in their respective homes on their Macintosh computers and send changes back and forth via E-mail, MIDI interfaces, and Finale Allegro software until rehearsing (together at last) and the final test -- performing in front of an audience.
Peter starts the song with lyrics set to a working tune or meter, and Lou, with her affinity for cabaret and musical theater, works out the final melodies. "Peter comes up with a song idea," she says, "and I try to get him to not tell me about it until he's got something going. We have this little tender plant coming up, but we don't know if it's a weed or a perennial."
The Berrymans have built a loyal following that extends beyond their home state, even though Wisconsin is a favorite song topic. (The other 49 get equal time in the fill-in-the-blank generic ode to home, "Your State's Name Here." Minnesota Public Radio commissioned a Berryman original, and for this, they set uniquely local place names ("...Brooten and Brainerd and Marble and Maynard, Edina, Mankato, Lake Woebegon ha ha ha...." to that most familiar of piano melodies -- hence, "Chapsticks."
Among their many fans is Tom Paxton, who praises the Berrymans and Tom Lehrer in the same sentence. Lehrer himself told them, "I love your material, and if I were still performing, I'd steal it!" Many other folkies have covered their songs, especially the one about foul-mouthed kids -- "A Chat With Your Mother," a.k.a. "The F-Word Song," which Pete Seeger calls "one of the greatest American folk songs of the 20th century."
Recently the mailman has been bringing royalty checks from a surprising source. A "sophomoric bar song" ("that Peter wrote," Lou hastens to clarify) from their first album, called "Are You Drinking With Me Jesus?" was covered by alternative rock icons Mojo Nixon, Jello Biafra, and Dick Montana and the Beat Farmers.
Just as the Berrymans' songs are delightfully strange, so are the songs' origins. "A lot of creativity," notes Peter, "comes from misreading bad handwriting or recording stuff at the wrong speed. It's just like all those famous painters throughout history who had terrible eye disorders. We're carrying on a proud tradition."