The Mabel Tainter is an elegant old building in downtown Menomonie that is part church, part theater, part library and community center.
Named after a lumber baron’s daughter, who loved music and died in 1886 at age 19, its 313 seats come in four sizes: small to extra-large. The 1,597-pipe organ is a rare type, from 1890. Walls and fixtures are from a bygone world, too, carved and stenciled by hand.
It is grand and quirky, one of a kind. No wonder Lou Berryman calls it one of her favorite Wisconsin places to perform.
She and Peter Berryman, her ex-husband, have spent the past 25 years singing about the Midwest’s most peculiar and enduring qualities. Their disarming ballads and peppy folk songs – with topics from bowling to winter – are known for their clever lyrics.
A lot of professors – especially English professors – get to their shows, I was told, before hearing the Berrymans for the first time, in the early 1990s. That was not a drawing card for me, yet I became a quick fan, too.
What’s not to love? Consider the chorus to “Forward Hey,” written for a 2002 video to promote Wisconsin:
“Oh hey, look at that! There’s a fish on a hat!
“And we’d like to treat everyone here to a cow souvenir.
“There’s a loon! There’s a deer! There’s a guy with a beer!
“There’s the moon in the top of the trees,
“And it’s still full of cheese!”
Their newest CD, “Some Days,” was released this fall, in time for deer hunting season. Everybody together, now, as we chime in with the chorus of “Dem Deer.”
“Dem deer dey’re here
“Den dey’re dere
“Dey’re here, dey’re dere
It may play better in the Northwoods than the Manhattan basement cabaret, where the Berrymans will be in March, but that doesn’t seem to matter much. The musicians have an odd repertoire of about 150 songs, on a dozen recordings.
If you live in Madison, as the Berrymans do, “Pflaum Road” is worth smirking about – but outsiders may sit clueless. “Cheese & Beer & Snow” and “Why Can’t Johnny Bowl?” have a bigger geographic point of reference.
“We don’t have aspirations to grow beyond ourselves,” Lou says. “We’re happy with the place we’re at.”
That said, critics elsewhere have found universal appeal to some of the ditties.
“Once in a while a song comes along that so successfully crystallizes familiar thoughts that you feel you could have written it yourself,” writes the San Francisco Bay Chronicle. “A lot of people feel that way about (the Berrymans’) ‘Why Am I Painting the Living Room’.”
“Lou & Peter Berryman write very eccentric, very funny satirical songs,” writes The Boston Globe. “If Tom Lehrer had grown up in America’s Dairyland, his songs might sound like theirs.”
There are musical responses to social issues, too, ways “to voice our left-leaning principles,” Lou says. Those play nicely “in all the little Madisons” around the country, like Berkeley, where they’ll be Jan. 28.
This music has been presented in all kinds of unusual venues, art fairs and food festivals, small folk music gatherings to the state’s biggest events. The musicians have sung on a hay wagon, atop the giant Hayward fish, before conventions of coroners and science fiction buffs (that’s two events, not one).
Peter says they’ve also performed at “funerals, wakes, weddings, bars, folk clubs, restaurants, churches, barns, nature preserves, hospitals, living rooms, coffee houses, libraries, city parks, bed and breakfasts and just about every UW campus in the state.”
He’s loved it all, even the “gig on a small boat where no one could hear us over the roar of the engine.”
It is not a high visibility operation, and a ticket to their show typically is $15 or less. The two just kind of go about their business, doing their thing, getting cited in PhD papers and having people bring their song lyrics to shrinks, to explain how they feel.
“We absolutely love the fact that we can play at an opera house one night, then a women’s banquet the next,” Lou says. “And we’re basically doing the same show.”
She and Peter are good friends who met in high school, were married for a half-dozen years, divorced and for decades have been married to other people.
“I never know what to say about it,” says Lou. “We were friends before we were married, and didn’t make very good partners married. But we could be good friends.”
Where are the Berrymans headed this winter? Their Annual Early New Year’s Eve Show will be 8-10:30 p.m. Dec. 31 at Zion Lutheran Church, 2165 Linden Ave., Madison. Fifty percent of proceeds go to Atwood Community Center.
Other Wisconsin dates include The White Gull Inn, Fish Creek, Jan. 11; Prairie Lakes UU Fellowship Hall, Ripon, Jan. 14; The American Club, Kohler, Feb. 4; The Pump House, La Crosse, Feb. 18; Jensen Center, Amherst, April 22; and First United Methodist Church, Madison, April 29.
The duo also performs in Minnesota, California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts before the end of April.
For more about Lou and Peter Berryman, or to order their music, see www.louandpeter.com or call 608-257-7750. Holiday orders will be shipped first-class within 24 hours after they are received.
For more about the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, see www.mabeltainter.com or call 715-235-9726.