Lawnmower men: Meriweather mows irreverent ground

You've tossed dull corporate newsletters straight in the trash, so why read the one from the yard maintenance company? How about dramatic candor of "The Ooops Issue"?

"In May of '96, if you were driving down 250 in the vicinity of McIntire Park and saw a truck pulling a trailer that was ON FIRE, chances are good that was us."

Then there's the customer appreciation issue with photos of Meriweather Mowing Service owners Rod Ballard and Dave Norford kowtowing– literally– to one 20-year customer, yet also calling out by name a deadbeat client who ordered a lot of work right before filing for bankruptcy. "Not cool, Richard. Totally. Not. Cool," admonishes writer/editor Ballard, whom Norford calls "the volcano of creativity that keeps bubbling out."

The newsletter started out as "strictly advertising," says Ballard. "And lawnmowing is kind of boring. You can only say 'let us lime and fertilize' so many times."

The two men had a long history of deadpan before starting Meriweather in 1990, says Ballard. They both attended Albemarle High and became friends at PVCC. Both worked at the original Piedmont Airlines. They used to broadcast Madison High football games.

And they were both playing on the same softball team in 1989 when Norford helped Ballard mow his lawn. "We knocked it out," says Ballard, "and said, we ought to start a lawn service."

The next summer, they had 30 customers.

Given the frequency of their mailbox fliers and advertising, Meriweather has the name recognition to be one of the largest lawn services in the area. But they decline to give specific numbers.

"We're pretty big," says Ballard, 50.

"We mow a lot of grass," allows Norford, 51.

Ballard, a former DJ and sportswriter for the Madison Eagle, cranks out the six annual issues of Clippings, brainstorming with Norford, who is charge of staging the photographs Ballard envisions, like the one of the duo paying homage to Grant Wood's "American Gothic."

"Some of these picture ideas he comes up with– it's hard to make it show up in the photo," complains Norford. "And he always has too much."

"That's my problem with Dave," replies Ballard, "He wants to limit my material."

Ballard's favorite edition is the annual ode to Christmas in which he composes ditties such as "I Saw Mommy Cussing Santa Claus." Norford, however, names the 2005 Rolling Stones issue, which combined song titles with lawn advice: "Can't Get No Satisfaction... If You Don't Cut your Grass Enough" and "It's not Brown Sugar, It's Brown Patch."

Outing nonpaying customers is already risky business, but come on, dubbing an alleged deadbeat named Don "The Con"?

"Only in extreme cases," says Ballard, whose late father ran Advance Mills Supply, a store with a wall of shame in the form of bounced checks.

Has the zaniness ever cost customers? "I'd like to fire you, but I'm afraid you'd take us off the newsletter list," one client once told Ballard. "I said, 'Dammit, I will.'"

Part of Clippings' success, "We're laughing at ourselves," Ballard asserts. "We make fun of everybody and everything."

Dave's wife, Joanne Norford, who does layout, quips a headline suggestion: "Local lawn service makes excellent bathroom reading."