A chance meeting at an open mic in Washington in 1994 led to a musical and romantic partnership that after 23 years has resulted in hundreds of gigs, two CDs, and two daughters. Laurie Rose Griffith met Peter Mealy that night, but their first introduction proved unremarkable. Griffith actually showed up late and missed Mealy’s set. She only remembers that Mealy’s long hair reminded her of Journey singer Steve Perry and that he tried to get her to buy his cassette. A few months later they met again at another open mic in Falls Church where Mealy was hosting as a sub for a friend. That time, they made more of a connection.
“I met him again at the open mic and really liked him and also really liked what he played, sort of an instant attraction,” said Griffith. “And then about a week later I had a gig down on Connecticut Avenue in D.C. and he came up for that and just watched it. A week later we had a date down here.”
Mealy had established himself in Fredericksburg as the manager of Picker’s Supply and a versatile musician who played guitar and upright bass. Originally from New York, Mealy moved to Northern Virginia with his family when he was 18. At first he was not thrilled with the move.
“I had really just discovered Greenwich Village,” said Mealy. “This was in the late ’60s. That was pretty cool and pretty inspiring and then my dad said we’re moving to Virginia … I was devastated but I was really into playing guitar at the time. I first heard Doc Watson and bluegrass which I never heard in New York, so that kind of made it OK. I discovered some music that wasn’t present where I was growing up.”
Likewise, Laurie Rose Griffith had transplanted her life to the D.C. area after graduate school in Athens, Ohio, where she studied international affairs.
“I was coming to D.C., I thought, to get a job in international development in the city because it’s one of the main places to do that,” said Griffith. “I didn’t end up doing that at all. It’s really hard to break into that scene without a degree from an ivy league school or massive peace corps experience.”
What Griffith did discover in D.C. was a community of supportive musicians and a thriving acoustic music scene. She had been playing professionally for several years when she met Mealy.
“It kind of took off and then I met Pete,” said Griffith. “He was playing more and he had been playing longer. We just wanted to play a lot and we had complementary skills so it made sense for us to play together a lot. That’s how we started. We got married a year later. We got married, released a CD, and had 25 gigs a month. It was hard to figure out when to get married because we had so much going on.”
“I’m a guitar geek, I sing OK,” said Mealy. “Laurie is a strong player and she’s a great singer. So you put those things together and it’s a good combination.”
Mealy kept working at Picker’s Supply and Griffith spent time booking every gig she could find. During those early years they played over 200 gigs a year.
“At that time, going from the ’80s into the ’90s, there was a really strong acoustic scene and there was the church basement coffee house scene dotted around the beltway. There were dozens of them,” said Mealy. “These gigs would pay sometimes two or three hundred dollars and you’d get some free brownies and some iced tea. Some of them were fairly lucrative. People were standing in lines to get those gigs.”
Mealy feels that the expectation of singers to focus on creating their own material, the rise of the singer-songwriter, ultimately hurt the acoustic music scene.
“There’s a lot of good music that should be played,” said Mealy. “It’s presumptuous to say I’m only going to play my own stuff, ever. You’re missing a lot to do that. It seemed like the death knell of the coffee house circuit was the singer-songwriter, because it sucked the air out of every other type of style that would otherwise flourished in that acoustic world. There’s a division of labor where you have writers, singers, instrumentalists, composers. The singer-songwriter is one person. Most people don’t have all those skills. I think after a while singer-songwriters were filling up these venues. Things are always cyclical, but I think that was a factor in the demise of that little underground acoustic music industry.”
One thing that distinguishes the music of Mealy and Griffith is their diverse styles and sources of the music they play. They play folk music, often by lesser-known songwriters, celtic music and occasionally jazz.
“Because we have not really limited each other taste-wise, we have a vast repertoire,” said Griffith. “Over the years, it’s hours and hours of music. I think that has helped us not get bored with it.”
“We like to play Irish music, we like to play jazz, we like to play folk music,” said Mealy. “All those things are stylistically disparate … I don’t want to go and play just folk music when I can play a Charlie Parker song every once in a while.”
Six years ago Mealy and Griffith became parents and entered a new phase of their career. Late gigs out of town became less appealing, and part of the money they earned from shows went to pay the babysitter. Griffith got a day job and Mealy retired from Picker’s and became a stay-at-home dad. They continue to play together, albeit at a less hectic pace.
“We have a good marriage, we have a good band,” Griffith said. “Everything’s not perfect, but we’ve been able to have longevity. This band has been together for 23 years and this marriage has been together for 23 years. It’s worked out really well.”
“When I worked in the store all the time,” Mealy said, “people came in putting bands together, good players, the band is rehearsing, got a gig, and then something happens with the bass player or drummer’s wife or girlfriend and then the band implodes. All that work and then the band is smoke—it’s gone. So I realized, the only way to keep a band together is to marry it.”
Stephen Hu is a Fredericksburg writer and musician.