Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters: Matraca Berg

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June 21, 2009

matraca-bergFor a good stretch in the nineties, women were the dominant creative force in country music. Songwriter Matraca Berg was an indispensable component of that dominance, penning many of the biggest hits and best-loved tracks by signature acts like Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and Martina McBride.

It’s no surprise that this list of Favorite Songs written by Matraca Berg is almost completely composed of female artists. So distinguished is Berg’s catalog that worthy cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Gretchen Wilson just missed the list.  Even Berg herself is only present with one performance, despite releasing several outstanding recordings in her own right.

But the beauty of these lists is that these are my own favorite songs, so I don’t have to force anything on to the list just to make it more well-rounded. Add your own favorites in the comments, and read Matraca’s  100 Greatest Women profile to learn more about this stunning songwriter.

#25
“Wild Angels” – Martina McBride
Wild Angels, 1995

This was meant to be the title cut of an album that Berg never released. Instead, the cut went to Martina McBride. It was McBride’s first #1 single, and listening to it today, it sounds remarkably rough around the edges for an artist who’d eventually become an AC radio staple.

#24
“Fool, I’m a Woman” – Sara Evans
No Place That Far, 1998

Berg’s writing can be effortlessly snarky, as evidenced by this breezy Sara Evans track that was a minor hit in 1999. “Did I say that I’d never leave you behind?” she queries. “Well, just keep treating me unkind. ‘Cause fool, I’m a woman, and I’m bound to change my mind.”

#23
“When a Love Song Sings the Blues” – Trisha Yearwood
Real Live Woman, 2000

Trisha  Yearwood is Berg’s finest vessel, the only voice elegant enough to equal Berg’s words. This melancholy closer to Yearwood’s excellent Real Live Woman set finds the protagonist seeking solace in a dusty old piano, playing “Faded Love” and “Born to Lose” so she doesn’t have to cry alone.

#22
“Give Me Some Wheels” – Suzy Bogguss
Give Me Some Wheels, 1996

A tense struggle between being herself and living up to an idealized creation formed by her lover leads to choosing the car keys over sticking around. “I’ll never be the angel you see in your dreams. Give me some wheels if I can’t have wings.”

#21
“The Last One to Know” – Reba McEntire
The Last One to Know, 1987

Berg’s talents came to full fruition in the nineties, but there are a handful of treasures in her catalog from the previous decade. McEntire’s dignified performance is tasteful and understated, as she asks herself, “I believed you really loved me. Why can’t I believe you said goodbye?”

#20
“Demolition Angel” – Pam Tillis
The Collection, 2006

A variety of CD and MP3 albums have been compiled from the live DVD released by Pam Tillis in 2005. She debuted several new songs in that concert, including “Demolition Angel”, a stellar Berg song that has yet to be included on a studio album. She’s asking God to send down a “demolition angel” to tear down the walls she’s built around her heart, which she describes as a “monument to pride.”

#19
“Everybody Knows” – Trisha Yearwood
Pure Country, 1992

I once saw Yearwood remark durin a concert that she had to record this song because it included the words “jerk” and “chocolate.”  She’s growing frustrated with everyone in her life that has a different opinion on how to get over her heartache.  She’s be happy to be left alone with “some chocolate and a magazine.”

#18
“You Should’ve Lied” – Lee Ann Womack
Something Worth Leaving Behind, 2002

A deliciously bitter rejection of a cheater’s apologetic confession. “You overestimated me,” Womack seethes, “thinking I would understand. Believing that your honesty would make me see a bigger man. Was that all part of your plan?”

#17
“You Are the Storm” – Dusty Springfield
A Very Fine Love, 1995

Springfield covered this evocative track from Berg’s debut album, a weary goodbye to a man plagued by his own inner demons. “I tried to love you, I tried to keep you from harm,” she rues, “but I can’t give you shelter when you are the storm.”

#16
“You’re Still Here”Faith Hill
Cry, 2002

This shamefully overlooked gem from Hill’s Cry collection is painfully poignant. A woman sings to her husband who has passed on, but is still everywhere that she goes. My personal favorite moment is when she sings, “I heard you in a stranger’s laugh, and I hung around to hear him laugh again. Just once again.”

#15
“Cry on the Shoulder of the Road” – Martina McBride
Wild Angels, 1995

Levon Helm provides the killer harmony track as McBride finally leaves a troubled relationship behind, content to find her comfort out on the interstate. “I’d rather break down on the highway with no one to share my load, and cry on the shoulder of the road.” I’ve always thought that the lyrics of Lee Ann Womack’s “A Little Past Little Rock” were heavily influenced by this song.

#14
“For a While” – Trisha Yearwood
Inside Out, 2001

Another Berg song cut by Yearwood that uses the word “jerk”, though I suspect it was the undercurrent of self-deprecation that truly appealed to the songstress when she cut this song. Watching an old Road Runner cartoon, she notices the “poor old coyote. Someone had a worse day than me for a change.”

#13
“Mining for Coal” – Randy Travis
No Holdin’ Back, 1989

This deep and moving performance by Randy Travis makes me wish more male artists would cut Berg’s songs. He’s so surprised to have found a true love while he was just looking for someone to ease his loneliness. “It’s like finding a diamond when you’re mining for coal.”

#12
“Come Back When it Rainin’” – Trisha Yearwood
Real Live Woman, 2000

Here, Yearwood is refusing to indulge her rainy day lover, who only seems to come around when he’s feeling down. “I’m just someone to call when you need a place to fall,” she notes, showing him the door.

#11
“You Can Feel Bad” – Patty Loveless
The Trouble With the Truth, 1996

Loveless turns the tables on the man who thinks he’s letting her down easy. “Your head is hanging and you look real sad. Maybe you should have called?”  Her heart may be broken but her dignity – and biting wit – remain intact.

#10
“Strawberry Wine” – Deana Carter
Did I Shave My Legs For This?, 1996

Berg’s signature song of lost innocence is a perfect match for Carter’s sandpaper vocals. For those of us who “still remember when thirty was old”, this remains a beautiful commentary on the passage of time.

#9
“Calico Plains” – Pam Tillis
Sweetheart’s Dance, 1994

The earliest entry in Berg’s trilogy of songs inspired by her grandfather’s farm. I don’t know if this one is as autobiographical as “Strawberry Wine” and “The Dreaming Fields”, but it’s certainly as beautiful. “Calico Plains” tells the story of an older sister sharing her dreams with her younger sister.  Little sis ends up making that dream her own when the elder Abilena finds herself with child and must marry and stay at home.

#8
“Nobody Drinks Alone” – Keith Urban
Be Here, 2004

A cautionary tale sung to a man who thinks he is at home by himsef, drowning his sorrows and painful memories with a bottle of wine. “Don’t you know nobody drinks alone?” Urban warns. “Every demon, every ghost from your past, and every memory you’ve held back follows you home.”

#7
“Wrong Side of Memphis” – Trisha Yearwood
Hearts in Armor, 1992

If there’s a better song out there about chasing the dream of country music stardom, I haven’t heard it. As the opening track of Yearwood’s landmark sophomore set, it announced her arrival as one of country music’s greatest album artists.

#6
“On Your Way Home” – Patty Loveless
On Your Way Home, 2003

Loveless earned a Grammy nomination for this confrontation of a cheating spouse who isn’t quite as forthcoming as his spurned lover needs him to be. “The truth is gonna set you free,” she sings, wearily promising, “If you keep on lying to me, I might stay right here just to spite you.”

#5
“Diamonds and Tears” – Suzy Bogguss
Something Up My Sleeve, 1993

Berg’s finest philosophical moment, a reflection on how the journey of life is its own destination.  Even lost love is a form of “higher education”:  “I have said and heard the word ‘goodbye’, felt the blade and turned the knife sideways. But I crossed bridges while they burned, to keep from losing what I’ve learned along the way.”

#4
“The Dreaming Fields” – Trisha Yearwood
Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love, 2007

A return to the wheat fields of her youth upon the death of her grandfather contains a sprinkle of social commentary, but is mostly a heart-wrenching exploration of grief over “the end of a world I love.”

#3
“My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again” – Patty Loveless
Strong Heart, 2000

The end of a first love brings not only the death of that romance, but also of the innocence that dies along with it.  “It’s too bad, it’s so sad when your innocence is gone. It’s wasted on the ones that do you wrong.”  Thus is the end result of a love “too blind with trust to know the Judas kiss.”

#2
“Back When We Were Beautiful” – Matraca Berg
Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, 1997

Berg received a standing ovation when she performed this stunning song on the 1997 CMA Awards, the same night that she won Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine.” It recounts a conversation between grandmother and granddaughter, with the former confessing to the latter that “I hate it when they say I’m aging gracefully. I fight it every day. I guess they never see.”

The song is not available digitally and the album is out of print, but you can listen to it here.

#1
“Lying to the Moon” – Trisha Yearwood
The Song Remembers When, 1993

Berg refused to perform this song for years after Yearwood’s version was released, feeling that she couldn’t do it justice after Yearwood’s flawless rendition. Berg’s poetic style could be too precious in lesser hands, but Yearwood’s ability to be sincere without being schmaltzy makes her the perfect singer for “Lying to the Moon,” a song so breathtakingly beautiful that it’s easy to forget it’s essentially about getting stood up.

“I told the starry sky to wait for you. I told the wind to sigh to like lovers do.  I even told the night that you were true, and that you would be here soon, and now I’m lying to the moon.”  It’s one of Berg’s finest songs, combined with one of Yearwood’s finest vocal performances, a high-water mark for two of the genre’s greatest talents.

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  1. [...] Country Universe’s Kevin J. Coyne listed his favorite versions of songs written by Matraca Ber… [...]

  2. Chris D.No Gravatar says:

    I love Matraca Berg, she’s one of the few songwriters I actually know and care about and will seek out their songs because they’re so great.

    “On Your Way Home” and “Dreaming Fields” are two of my all time favorite songs, for sure.

  3. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Chris D’s favorite songs are my favorite Berg songs.

  4. MichaelNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Kevin, I’m curious, what are some of the songs that just missed the list? I’d like to know what other favorites she’s had a hand in writing. Were all of these self penned? Is that why “Hey Cinderella” wasn’t included? Thanks for the informative list!

  5. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Ooh! I love “Hey Cinderella.”

  6. Chris D.No Gravatar says:

    Ones that I think just missed it:

    “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” by he Dixie Chicks
    “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today” by Gretchen Wilson
    “They Call It Falling For A Reason” by Trisha Yearwood
    “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” by Trisha Yearwood
    “I’m Still Alive” by Trisha Yearwood
    “Under The Rainbow” by Trisha Yearwood
    “Black Water Bayou” by Tanya Tucker

    I Think almost all of these would have made my personal list.

    I’m glad you agree with me Leeann!

  7. grumpyoldmanNo Gravatar says:

    No one breaks your heart like Patty Loveless.

  8. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    Chris D. listed just about all of my near-misses, though I also came close to including Patty Loveless again with “You’re So Cool.”

  9. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Ha. It’s totally out of Bill’s typical taste, but he surprised me by “kind of liking” liking “You’re So Cool.”

  10. Matt. BNo Gravatar says:

    I have a nifty Matraca Berg Songwriters series 2 disc set. The first disc features songs she wrote and were recorded by other artists.

    The songs on the CD are:
    Last One To Know – Reba
    I’m That Kind Of Girl – Patty Loveless
    Wrong Side Of Memphis – Trisha Yearwood
    xxx’s and ooo’s – Trisha Yearwood
    Hey Cinderalla – Suzy Bogguss
    Wild Angels – Martina
    You Can Feel Bad – Patty Loveless
    Strawberry Wine – Deana Carter
    We Danced Anyway – Deana
    Everybody Knows – Trisha Yearwood
    If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me – Dixie Chicks
    On Your Way Home – Patty Loveless
    Nobody Drinks Alone – Keith Urban
    I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today – Gretchen Wilson.

    It’s hard to argue with that list.

  11. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    I’m not all that wild about Berg’s songs. There is no doubt that she is a very talented songwriter, although I wouldn’t put her up there with Harlan Howard, Dallas Frazier, Cindy Walker or Felice & Boudleaux Bryant

    I guess my favorites would include

    Wrong Side Of Memphis – Trisha Yearwood
    Hey Cinderalla – Suzy Bogguss
    XXX’s and OOO’s – Trisha Yearwood

  12. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    Like several others here, I’d go for “The Dreaming Fields” and “On Your Way Home” as my top two for Berg, and I’d put “Strawberry Wine” next. I’ll never forget having to explain to a college friend– now with an MFA and teaching poetry– that “I was thirstin’ for knowledge/And he had a car” isn’t a non-sequitur, especially not with the way Carter phrased that line.

    I’ll also go to bat for Berg’s “Back in the Saddle” as a terrific single; it’s probably my favorite of her witty, uptempo songs. And “That Train Don’t Run” is a great song, too, and it’s a toss-up as to whether I prefer Berg’s original cut or Pinmonkey’s cover version.

  13. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    “That Train Don’t Run” is my favorite that missed the list. I’ve never heard Berg’s original version, but I do love the Pinmonkey one. What a catchy little bugger.

    Great list!

  14. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    No surprise, I really like all Patty’s Matraca Berg songs, even “You’re So Cool” is very cool, I gotta admit!

    But I think my absolute favorites are Patty singing lead, and Trisha on harmony vocals on “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”, beautiful song and a vocal tour-de-force from Patty and Trisha. And “On Your Way Home” and “That Kind of Girl” tied for a close second.

    I also really like Trisha’s “Wrong Side of Memphis”…

    What an incredible talent in Matraca Berg. The best of Modern Country for sure, wouldn’t be the same without her!

  15. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    And “Grumpyoldman”….you got that right about Patty being the Queen of the heartbreakers! ;)

  16. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Oh yes, I also love “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again.”

  17. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    And I think Bill and I are on the same page about “You’re So Cool” ! ;)

  18. ChadNo Gravatar says:

    I can’t even make a real comment on this posting as I want to take my time to devour it. Like Chris said, Matraca is one of those songwriters that I follow and specifically seek out tracks from on others’ CDs. Its one of the few reasons I miss buying actual CDs as much; the songwriter information never seems to be complete.

    I hope to have more to say as I spend more time and process the great info more…

  19. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    There’s also Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Matraca’s “Walk On” from her 1995 album FEELS LIKE HOME. Reportedly, Matraca asked everyone in a room to keep still while she heard Linda’s take on that song. She considered it a huge honor to have one of her big childhood favorites cover it.

  20. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    I always wondered who that was singing harmony on ‘Cry On The Shoulder’. Since I never have the liner notes out when I am wondering, I never found out.

    Great list too. I don’t know all these songs, so I am checking into the tunes that are new to me. Thanks for the recommendations!

  21. Craig R.No Gravatar says:

    My favorite is “Back When We Were Beautiful” I have a cd copy and it is on my IPOD. I think she has a greatest hits cd and it may- I don’t know – be on that cd. But I love that song. I play it all the time. The way she sang it that night on CMA still breaks my heart. Too bad Taylor Swift, John Rich, etc. can’t write with the same grace and style. I also love “Back in Saddle”.

  22. SamBNo Gravatar says:

    I love nearly all of these songs. Does anyone know which of these 25 Matraca has recorded herself?

  23. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    @ Sam B:

    She recorded “You Are the Storm”, “Calico Plains” and “Lying to the Moon” on her debut album, Lying to the Moon.

    She recorded “Lying to the Moon” again on her second (released)album, The Speed of Grace.

    Her version of “Diamonds and Tears” can be found on the soundtrack to The Thing Called Love.

  24. hootenannieNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for a great tribute to my favorite writer. 15, 11, and 6 are my faves – and “If I Were An Angel” is probably my favorite song of hers, ever.

    I am a humongous Country Universe fan. :)

  25. JayJayNo Gravatar says:

    Amazing list. I’d put Berg right up there with Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams as the best americana songwriters working today…although Matraca’s songs have certainly had more crossover success.

    I would have probably ranked “Strawberry Wine” as number one..if only because that song is as beautiful today as it was when it first came out…and it has a really timeless quality about it. I was in high school when it came out..and now that I’m staring down thirty the song has a whole new side to it for me.

    “Back When We Were Beautiful” is so touching it’s almost painful to listen to. The song is like reading a novel..it doesn’t have a hook, it doesn’t build to a cresendo…but it’s completely enthralling. No matter how many times I hear that song, I get goosebumps. Really that entire album is amazing…if you run across a used copy, it’s defimately worth the couple bucks it costs.

  26. Cory DeSteinNo Gravatar says:

    Ah my favorite writer! I slowly scrolled down the list, and from the top 15 down, there wasnt a song on there that didnt deserve #1. But I think I knew from 25 which would be #1 and I completly agree. All of my favorite songs from the 90s are on there. “You Can Feel Bad” is one of my favorite Patty Loveless tunes. And “Dreaming Fields” is one of the top songs of the decade in my opinion.
    Of course my guilty pleasure is “XXXs and OOOs” by Trisha Yearwood! But I can understand why it didnt make the list!
    Kevin, I am so glad someone else mentioned “When A Love Song Sings the Blues” it is my favorite Trisha song!

  27. Bob LoscheNo Gravatar says:

    Just found your site today as I was looking for any comments on “The Dreaming Fields” – beautiful song. I think a Matraca Berg song that has been overlooked here is “Eat At Joe’s” which I first heard at a Suzy Bogguss concert in 1992. Suzy is still my favorite singer followed closely by Trisha and Lisa Brokop.

  28. klarkNo Gravatar says:

    I love dreaming fields
    wow.. i am becoming a trisha yearwood fan

  29. Cory DeSteinNo Gravatar says:

    klark….welcome to the Yearwood fold!

  30. OllieNo Gravatar says:

    I also REALLY love “Oh, Cumberland,” the duet Matraca Berg wrote and sang with Emmylou Harris that appears on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III.

  31. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    Love “You Can Feel Bad.” It expresses a universal truth about life in a way that is witty and humorous. Patty sings it beautifully. Also love “Wrong Side of Memphis” and “The Last One to Know.”

  32. MikeNo Gravatar says:

    Kevin, would you include You and Tequila if you were to make this list present day?

  33. GatorNo Gravatar says:

    That is a very good question Mike! Also, what about the tracks from her stunning The Dreaming Fields album if I remember correctly he is a big fan of “Racing the Angels” and “South of Heaven”. Personally, I would love to her commentary on the swampy, clever “Your Husband’s Cheating On Us”. So Kevin? What about the rest of you?

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