May 10, 2008
When women became the dominant creative force in country music during the mid-nineties, it wasn’t just on the strength of their vocal talents, but also because of their excellent choice of material. No single songwriter supplied more of that quality material than Matraca Berg, one of the most prominent and successful female country songwriters in country music history.
Most songwriter stories begin with their journey to Nashville, but Matraca Berg was born in Music City. She grew up thinking that she’d either be a lawyer or a songwriter, and she later quipped that once she dropped out of high school, it was obvious that law wasn’t an option.
Not that it mattered much. Berg was only eighteen when she met up with songwriter legend Bobby Braddock (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”), who was very impressed with her self-written songs and suggested they pair up to write on together. The result was “Faking Love”, which went to No. 1 for T.G. Sheppard & Karen Brooks in 1983.
Not a bad start for a young songwriter. But some lean years followed as she honed her songwriting craft, while also pursuing a career as a recording artist. Things began to pick up in the late eighties, when Reba McEntire turned her “The Last One to Know” into a #1 hit in 1987. After she scored more cuts with Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker and Sweethearts of the Rodeo, RCA offered her a recording contract.
In 1990, her stellar debut album, Lying to the Moon, was released. Four singles made moderate dents on the singles chart, and the album sold enough to reach the forties on the album chart. A second album was recorded but never released, and then RCA tried to push her in the pop market with the 1993 album The Speed of Grace. It failed to make an impact, and she was dropped from the label.
These would have been harrowing times, except for the fact that a bumper crop of female artists were looking for smart, contemporary material. Berg’s debut album was mined by several artists. Trisha Yearwood immortalized the title track, Pam Tillis covered “Calico Plains,” Dusty Springfield tackled “You Are the Storm,” and Berg’s childhood heroine, Linda Ronstadt, recorded “Walk On.”
Patty Loveless had a top five hit in 1990 with Berg’s “I’m That Kind of Girl,” and scored a #1 single six years later with “You Can Feel Bad.” Suzy Bogguss, another rising star in the early nineties, cut “Eat at Joe’s”, which had been recorded for that unreleased second album. Berg and Bogguss became friends and songwriting partners, and they wrote Bogguss’ last big hit together, “Hey Cinderella”, which went top five in 1994.
Trisha Yearwood would become the artist most associated with Berg. She had a big hit in 1992 with “Wrong Side of Memphis,” a No. 1 single with “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” in 1994 and a top five hit with “Everybody Knows” in 1996. Meanwhile, Martina McBride had her first No. 1 single in 1996 with “Wild Angels,” which Berg had imagined would be the title cut of one of her own albums.
Yearwood passed on the song that would become Berg’s signature composition, and it was recorded instead by an aspiring new artist named Deana Carter. In 1996, Carter made Berg’s “Strawberry Wine” her debut single, and the slow waltz about lost innocence was a surprise smash, topping the charts for two weeks. Carter repeated at #1 with the follow-up single, another Berg song called “We Danced Anyway.”
All of these hits renewed interest in Berg as a recording artist, and she signed with Rising Tide Records. In 1997, she released Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. She was invited to perform on that year’s CMA awards telecast, where host Vince Gill introduced her as not just a songwriter, but a poet. She performed the heartbreaking “Back When We Were Beautiful” and received one of her two standing ovations of the evening. The other one came when she and co-writer Gary Harrison won Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine.” She was only the third woman in history to win the award, after K.T. Oslin (1988) and Gretchen Peters (1996.)
In 1998, Berg had a popular video hit with “Back in the Saddle”, thanks to a supporting cast of many of the female stars who’d scored hits with her songs: Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Suzy Bogguss, Patty Loveless and Martina McBride. Meanwhile, newer artists also began to embrace Berg’s work. Sara Evans did well with “Fool, I’m a Woman” and Berg earned some big royalties when the Dixie Chicks had a smash with her “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me.” She even caught the attention of another legend, Loretta Lynn, who recorded “Working Girl” for her Still Country album in 2000. Terri Clark followed Lynn’s lead and included the song on her 2002 comeback album Pain to Kill.
More recently, Keith Urban included “Nobody Drinks Alone” on his Be Here album, Pinmonkey revived her Rising Tide single “That Train Don’t Run,” and Lee Ann Womack cut “You Should’ve Lied.” Berg earned a Grammy nomination for “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today,” which was a hit for Gretchen Wilson.
But it’s with those nineties women that Berg remains most closely associated. Patty Loveless earned a Grammy nomination for her performance of “On Your Way Home.” Pam Tillis included “Crazy By Myself” on her 2007 album RhineStoned. Trisha Yearwood’s new album features Berg’s “Dreaming Fields” as the emotional centerpiece.
In recent years, Berg has been touring both the U.S. and Europe with other female songwriters, and while she shares billing with peers like Gretchen Peters and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, the depth of Berg’s catalog is unmatched by any female songwriter of her generation.
- “Baby, Walk On,” 1990
- “The Things You Left Undone,” 1990
- “Back When We Were Beautiful,” 1997
- “Back in the Saddle,” 1998
- Lying to the Moon (1990)
- Sunday Morning to Saturday Night (1997)
- “Wrong Side of Memphis” (Trisha Yearwood), 1992
- “Hey Cinderella” (Suzy Bogguss), 1993
- “Wild Angels” (Martina McBride), 1995
- “You Can Feel Bad” (Patty Loveless), 1996
- “Strawberry Wine” (Deana Carter), 1996
- CMA Song of the Year: “Strawberry Wine,” 1997