LOU AND PETER BERRYMAN
Sing Out! Magazine
by Matt Watroba
It's the typical story: boy meets girl in high school, they play in folk bands, they marry and move to Canada for five years, move back, divorce and form a fresh guitar/accordion duo producing songs that are being sung by amateurs and professionals all over the world. OK, perhaps it's not typical. But then there is very little that is conventional about Lou and Peter Berryman.
Their lives together have taken them from the high school prom to the Kennedy Center on a path filled with friendship, hardship and creative drive. Their songwriting style is a welcomed throwback to the days of Tin Pan Alley, where one wrote the words, the other the music, and all with complete devotion to the craft. But where the songsmiths of the'30s and '40s spent most of their time saying 'I love you' in 32 bars over and over again, Lou and Peter have redefined subject and device when it comes to the craft of composing songs. Their unusual take on the world has lead to creations that are unlike any others. They are admired by, not only thousands of music fans, but by some of our greatest living songwriters. It all started in high school in Appleton, Wisconsin.
With Peter on guitar, and Lou on the five-string banjo, they played in a variety of folk bands in high school. Influenced by the recorded rejects from the radio station where Peter's mom worked, the teenaged musicians gobbled up the likes of Woody Guthrie, The Weavers and Jimmy Driftwood. Lou even recalls the time Peter and another friend drove 30 miles to Oshkosh to hear Josh White. This early exposure to folk and blues continues to inspire them to this day.
Influenced by those records and by folk, blues and jug band music, Peter was beginning to see himself as an artist and a writer.
"I remember just being totally taken with the idea that you could just write a song," Peter recalled in a recent interview. "It's like you have this blank piece of paper in front of you and essentially it's the same piece of paper that Jimmy Driftwood has in front of him. The potential is there for it to be as much of an actual song as a Jimmy Driftwood song or a Beatles song or whatever." Peter's excitement for and astonishment with the process has changed very little in 35 years.
After high school and a little college in Madison, Peter and Lou married and moved to Canada. The five or so years spent there were difficult but influential.
"Those were hard and interesting years full of all the trauma you can imagine," Lou recalls. "Two twenty-year-old kids deciding to get married and go off up to Canada all by themselves. Peter and I stopped being kids for a while. We kind of missed the late '60s and early '70s because of the fact that we were so serious. It was too much responsibility too early on."
Once back to the States, the couple decided to end the marriage and essentially begin the musical partnership that is still going stronger than ever today. The folk scene in Madison, WI, was beginning to bloom and more opportunities to perform were presenting themselves. It was a bar in an old, dying railroad hotel that allowed Peter and Lou a chance to hone the craft of performing, build a loyal fan base and expand their portfolio of original songs. Both Peter and Lou smile when they reminisce of those days.
Peter remembers it this way: "We knew a bartender who worked at the Club de Wash and he was a fan of our music. They couldn't have rock and roll because there were still people living upstairs. We wanted people to pay attention so we said the only way we would play there is if they charged a cover at the door. We finally agreed to charge a quarter. The 25 cents was not for the money, obviously. It was to let people know that there was something going on there. And you would be surprised how people would come to the door and talk among themselves and try to decide ... and this was on the honor system too!"
One night here and there, turned into two nights a week for five years. It was becoming clear that The Berrymans were ready for the next step. Their unique songs and performances were just too good to stay confined to their little section of the Midwest. Both Peter and Lou agree enthusiastically that it was old song singer, Michael Cooney, who gave them the encouragement, the guidance, and the boost they needed.
"We opened for Michael in Madison in around 1982 and almost instantly formed a mutual admiration society," Peter remembers. "He was the reason we began touring nationally." Lou adds, "I feel that meeting Michael completely changed us. He told us that we could play for a larger audience. He wrote letters to the people around the country he thought we could play for, and he sent us their names. We were completely ready to accept that kind of help."
But none of this would have been successful if Lou and Peter hadn't had what you need to win over and sustain an audience. And their audience loved them. Their early output of original material would be enough to keep most performers satisfied and on the road for years, but Lou and Peter don't settle. Every new recording is full of material that stretches and explodes with original ideas and fresh musical wordplay. It is that distinctive mosaic of melody and lyric that keeps their fans hanging on every line and sometimes every word. And, although they are most likely unaware, the fans are an important part of the songwriting process.
"I don't know how many other songwriters write like I do as far as their audience goes," Peter muses, "but Lou and I both use the audience as sort of a third writer. When you play a song to a good audience you can tell where it's weak and where it's strong, where it's working and where it's not working. That has always been very valuable to me. And we continue to do this. Lou agrees. "When you play night after night you really learn how to listen to your audience and react to them and try to keep them going. We have always listened very hard to the audience."
Peter and Lou's admiration for each other contributes greatly to the success of their songwriting. "I'm constantly amazed. He's so persistent." Lou brags on her partner, "He is not one of those self-satisfied artists who can just sit down and say, 'I have just squirted out this great work of art'... He is constantly reworking and refining."
"Lou is really very diplomatic," Peter brags back. "There really is a personal level when you're co-writing with someone. You have to be careful of each other's feelings because you can sink an artistic idea right in mid-stream by being too critical too soon. I think of melody as our secret weapon. I don't like that phrase but I think many of our songs that have gotten around, like the 'F-Word' song, wouldn't have gotten anywhere if it wasn't for that set melody. She has so many influences. And she has a great feeling for our instrumentation." He adds, "I have never known her to be stuck in a musical rut. She is so open to input."
Lou and Peter Berryman have spread their music through 12 recordings and hundreds of performances on both coasts, the Midwest, Texas and Canada. They win new fans everywhere they go. And the old fans? They keep coming to hear the new songs and to watch the astonished reaction of the folks hearing this delightful duo for the first time.
"For our entire lives we've wanted to make a living that didn't entail getting dressed up and taking the bus to work everyday," Lou added with a satisfied laugh, "and we've been working ever since we were teenagers at developing some sort of art." --Matt Watroba