Category Archives: Songwriter Series

Matraca Berg

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.

The Matraca Berg Catalog

  • “Faking Love,” T.G. Sheppard
  • “Hey Cinderella,” Suzy Bogguss
  • “The Last One to Know,” Reba McEntire
  •  “Strawberry Wine,” Deana Carter
  • “Wild Angels,” Martina McBride
  • “Wrong Side of Memphis,” Trisha Yearwood
  • “XXX’s and OOO’s,” Trisha Yearwood
  • “You Can Feel Bad,” Patty Loveless

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Tom T. Hall

Tom T. Hall, one of the finest storytellers ever in country music, tells tales of great insight and description that have earned him a place among Nashville’s songwriting elite. His sense of clarity and an offbeat style have translated into true respect and admiration in Music City.

Hall, the son of a bricklaying minister, began learning music from an early age.   At age 11, his mother died, and our years later his father was shot in a hunting accident.  In order to support himself and his father, Hall quit school and took a job in a local garment factory. While he was working in the factory, he formed his first band, the Kentucky Travelers.  In 1957, Hall enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany. While in Germany, he performed at local NCO clubs on the Armed Forces Radio Network, where he sang mostly original material. After four years of service, he was discharged in 1961. Once he returned to the States, he enrolled in Roanoke College as a journalism major and also took a job as a DJ at a local radio station.

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Dean Dillon

Although he started his career in front of a microphone, Dean Dillon soon transitioned into one of the finest songwriters in Nashville, notably enhancing the careers of one of its legends and illustrating an uncommon power in melody and verse.

Dean Dillon, born on March 26, 1955, in Lake City, TN, was entranced with country music from an early age. At 15, he appeared in a local Knoxville variety show as a songwriter and performer, and that experience stirred his interest in a career of performing. Soon after arriving in Nashville as a teenager, Dillon accepted a job at the Opryland theme park. In 1976, he landed the role of Hank Williams in the Country Music Show at Opryland. While there, a friend introduced him to songwriter John Schweers, who became Dillon’s mentor. Three weeks later, Barbara Mandrell recorded three of Dillon’s songs. In 1979, Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius had a #1 hit with his “Lying Here in Love with You.”

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Don Schlitz

Few songwriters in Nashville have reached the dizzying heights of Don Schlitz. His mantle full of awards and his prominence on the charts for the better part of three decades has made Schlitz an integral part of country music’s rich heritage of storytelling songs.

Don Schlitz was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. He briefly attended Duke University before moving to Nashville in 1973. After his arrival, Schlitz served as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University, but continued to write songs for five years before his big break.  With “The Gambler”, Schlitz’ career finally moved forward. The classic tale of a man learning how to “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em” enraptured country music audiences upon its release in 1978. The story of a young man and a train-traveling sage earned the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1979 and received the CMA honor for Single of the Year later that year.

The pairing of Don Schlitz with fellow writer Paul Overstreet produced many classic songs of the late 1980s, with the two lyrical masterminds writing “On the Other Hand” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” for Randy Travis, and “When You Say Nothing at All” for Keith Whitley (later a hit for Alison Krauss & Union Station).  At first, the two men were disappointed that then-newcomer Travis would be the recipient of “On the Other Hand”, intending the song to be recorded by a legend like Haggard or Jones, but Travis’ version impressed them greatly.  Travis would soon become a constant source of success in their careers.  Both the CMA and the ACM named “On the Other Hand” as Song of the Year in 1986, and “Forever and Ever, Amen” took the trophy at the CMAs in 1987. Schlitz was granted the award of ASCAP Songwriter of the Year an unprecedented four consecutive years from 1988-1991.

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Bobby Braddock

As one of Nashville’s premier songwriters, Bobby Braddock has spoken the language of many a country music fan, a talent that has surpassed a number of his peers for its sheer depth of creativity and connection to the audience.

Braddock was born in Auburndale, Florida, attending Florida Southern College in Lakeland for two years. The first recording of one of Braddock’s songs occurred in 1961, on D.J. Records, an independent record label that operated out of Auburndale. Braddock played piano in several rock and roll bands locally and around the state, and throughout the southeast, but soon migrated to Music City. After moving to Nashville in 1964, Braddock landed a job at a music store, and eventually he was offered a gig playing piano in Marty Robbins’ tour band. In 1966, Robbins recorded and released Braddock’s song, “While You’re Dancing.” Bobby worked around town as a session player before signing with Tree International (now Sony) as a staff songwriter.

Braddock began recording his own songs in 1967 and had some chart success with his second single, “I Know How to Do It.” That same year the Oak Ridge Boys reached the Top Ten with his “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport” after which he provided the Statler Brothers scored two Top Ten singles with his compositions. Braddock scored his first #1 when Tammy Wynette sang “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” a song he co-wrote with Curly Putman. He continued a steady stream of hits throughout the 1970s, including: “I Believe the South’s Gonna Rise Again,” a major hit for Tanya Tucker, “Come on In” (1976), which was recorded by Sonny James, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Oak Ridge Boys, and “Womanhood,” which reached #3 for Tammy Wynette.

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Dallas Frazier

Dallas Frazier, born in 1939, in Spiro, Oklahoma, is one of the defining songwriters of his or any other generation, penning classic songs that remain popular with core country music artists to this day. His lasting impression on the genre will be one of superb perception and purpose that led to a significant number of career-defining hits.

Raised in Bakersfield, CA, Frazier learned to play a variety of musical instruments as taught by his parents. This early start saw him achieve tremendous success in his teenage years. He served as featured member of Ferlin Husky’s band, cutting his first solo single, “Space Command,” in 1954. In 1957, Frazier scored a hit when the Hollywood Argyles covered his “Alley Oop,” a novelty song that nonetheless set his career into a higher gear.

When Hometown Jamboree, a popular TV show in which Frazier starred, was canceled in the late 1950s, Frazier and his wife lived in a number of western towns and eventually settled down in Portland. But feeling the desire to attempt a songwriting career (and prompted by a conversation with Husky), he moved to Nashville in 1963. His first success was writing Husky’s hit “Timber I’m Falling” in 1964. In the next two years, he became one of the most sought-after writers in town, with cuts such as Connie Smith’s “Ain’t Had No Lovin’,” and George Jones’ “I’m a People.”

In 1967, Frazier released his first record, Tell It Like It Is, but it was a song he had written a few years earlier that would become his signature tune. Elvis Presley, Roger Whittaker and Engelbert Humperdinck all recorded the song “There Goes My Everything”, but it was country singer Jack Greene that galvanized the sad story of separation. At the first CMA Awards in 1967, Frazier won Song of the Year for the pensive ballad, and Jack Greene earned the Single of the Year honors as well.

Frazier’s songs soon became staples for artists such as Jones, Greene and Connie Smith. Artists as diverse as Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard also mined Frazier’s song catalog for unique, traditional music, and Charley Pride reached the top of the charts with his “All I Have to Offer You is Me” in 1969. Frazier’s star continued to rise in the 1970s, as he recorded two solo records, Singing My Songs and My Baby Packed Up My Mind and Left Me. In 1972, Smith released an entire album of his songs called If It Ain’t Love (& Other Great Dallas Frazier Songs). Child stars of the past (Brenda Lee) and the present (Tanya Tucker, with the haunting “What’s Your Mama’s Name, Child?) continued to develop their career with the works from his terrific pen.

Frazier’s songs continued to hit the charts well into the next decade, with the Emmylou Harris version of his “Beneath Still Waters” becoming a chart-topping smash and helping Harris to her only win as CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. Also, Frazier’s “Elvira”, a song that Frazier had previously recorded, was revived by the Oak Ridge Boys and named the CMA Single of the Year in 1981. Gene Watson cut his “Fourteen Carat Mind” that same year.

With the tremendous talent of Frazier and his ability to seize the moment and give reason to a rhyme was a singular gift, his songs were able to translate to a variety of audiences, and he flourished well into the next decade. Neo-traditional artists such as George Strait, Randy Travis, and Patty Loveless found success with his compositions. Loveless’ version of the George Jones hit “If My Heart Had Windows” became her first Top Ten single in 1988, but later that year Frazier retired from songwriting and left Nashville after bouts with alcohol use and the frustrations of being a key player in the music business. But he has recently planned a return to the craft after many years as a minister, and fans surely anticipate the next traditional tune from the eloquent, understated Dallas Frazier.

The Dallas Frazier Catalog:

  • “Ain’t Had No Lovin’”, Connie Smith
  • “All I Have to Offer You Is Me”, Charley Pride
  • “Beneath Still Waters”, Emmylou Harris
  • “Elvira”, Oak Ridge Boys/Kenny Rogers
  • “Fourteen Carat Mind”, Gene Watson
  • “If My Heart Had Windows”, George Jones/Patty Loveless
  • “If This Is Our Last Time”, Brenda Lee
  • “I’m a People”, George Jones
  • “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again”, Charley Pride
  • “Mohair Sam”, Charlie Rich/Peggy Lee/Dallas Frazier
  • “There Goes My Everything”, Jack Greene/Ferlin Husky/Elvis Presley/Englebert Humperdinck
  • “Until My Dreams Come True”, Jack Greene
  • “What’s Your Mama’s Name, Child?”, Tanya Tucker

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Kris Kristofferson

On his tombstone, Kris Kristofferson has requested the first three lines of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” to be engraved: Like a bird on a wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free.

The words speak to the free-spirited nature of the singer-songwriter. As a hillbilly poet, few can match his intelligence, his eloquence and his ability to capture a mood and a moment with each verse. He has created a legend as a songwriter, but also gained fame and acclaim as a singer, actor and musician.

Born in Brownsville, Texas, Kristofferson’s parents were Mary Ann and Lars Henry Kristofferson, a U.S. Air Force major general. During his childhood, his father pushed his Kristofferson toward a military career, and he would join the U.S. Army (and later rise to the status of captain) in the early 1960s. Throughout his younger years, Kristofferson’s family moved frequently, but eventually settled down in California. Kristofferson enrolled in Pomona College in 1954, and graduated in 1958 with a degree in Literature. During his time at Pomona, the future songwriter was originally known as much for his sporting conquests as his academic endeavors. He was nationally noted for his achievements in collegiate rugby, football and track and field.

Kristofferson earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and it was there that he started writing songs, eventually earning a Master’s degree in 1960.  He followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the U.S. Army and eventually receiving an offer to serve as an English literature instructor at West Point. But after sending a few songs to his cousin, Nashville songwriter-publisher Marijohn Wilkin, he was vigilant in his dream to make it as a successful songwriter.  His masterful pen exposed the turbulent, troubled times of the 1960s, connecting with an audience that sought the same comforts of freedom and peace of mind that Kristofferson espoused in his songs.

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Harlan Howard

“I like to give artists a song they have to sing the rest of their lives. Songwriting is both my living and my pleasure, so I’m a happy man.” ~ Harlan Howard

The dean of country music songwriters, Harlan Howard paved the way for all future practitioners of his craft, lending an authenticity and eloquence to the music that will last for the ages. Through five decades of classic songs, Howard put his indelible stamp on the country music industry through sheer genius and, like many fellow artists and songwriters, rose through the ranks with country music as a constant love through a hardscrabble life.

Born and raised in a Michigan farm town, Howard, an orphan, was first drawn to country music by his weekly appointments with the Grand Ole Opry radio shows on Nashville’s WSM radio. This love affair with the music continued when he traveled to Nashville on weekends during his stint as an Army paratrooper in Georgia, and it was that appreciation for the fine art that led him to leave for Los Angeles in 1955 to work in the factories while attempting a career in songwriting. A year after arriving in Los Angeles, Howard met Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond, who were impressed with the young songwriter’s catalog, culled from numerous hours of writing songs in his head while working at the factory. One of the first tunes that Howard wrote eventually became a country classic, “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down”, first recorded by Charlie Walker and a #2 hit in 1958. Another early success came in 1960, with both Guy Mitchell and Ray Price taking his “Heartaches by the Number” to top of the pop and country charts, respectively.

In that same year, Harlan moved to Nashville with his second wife, Jan Howard, and their three children. Soon after, Harlan’s success rate skyrocketed. He enjoyed as many as 15 of his own songs in the country Top 40 simultaneously, a long-standing record. His friendships with young writers such as Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran and Roger Miller further developed his songwriting skills and laid the foundation for the future of country songwriting. They would collaborate in an effort to create the “next big hit” for a number of Opry stars at the time. One superlative song in this stretch was “I Fall to Pieces”, immortalized by Patsy Cline. The likes of Johnny Cash, George Jones and Buck Owens all achieved considerable success on the charts in the 1960s, displaying Howard’s unique ability to write witty love songs (“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, Owens’ 1964 classic) or heartbreaking ballads (Bobby Bare’s breathtaking 1966 song, “Streets of Baltimore”).

Howard’s fortunes took a dip in the 1970s, although he would find sporadic chart success with songs such as Melba Montgomery’s “No Charge”. Throughout the decade and into the 1980s, Howard wrote infrequently, but the mid-to-late 1980s brought greater triumphs for Howard. The Judds’ version of his “Why Not Me” earned the CMA Single of the Year award in 1985, and the Reba McEntire chose his “Somebody Should Leave”, another #1 single in 1985, as the final single from her album My Kind of Country. “Life Turned Her That Way”, a Top Ten record for Ricky Van Shelton, earned Howard his sole nomination for Song of the Year from the CMAs (the song had also received a wonderful treatment from Mel Tillis in the late 1960s).

In 1989, Howard took further control of his career by starting his own publishing firm, Harlan Howard Songs, Inc., with wife Melanie, and leaving his long-term post at Tree Publishing. Howard’s run of hit records continued during the surge of female radio success in the 1990s. “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” helped Pam Tillis’ career gain new traction, becoming her first Top Five single (and a nominee for the CMA Single of the Year) in 1991. Also, the first single for Patty Loveless after career-threatening throat surgery was 1993’s “Blame It On Your Heart”, a #1 smash for two weeks. The tongue-twister, a co-write with Kostas, was named BMI’s most-played song of 1994, and launched Loveless into the top tier of country music superstars.

As a result of his consistency and continuous wealth of classic songs, the Country Music Hall of Fame welcomed him as a member in 1997. Other honors included induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the National Academy of Popular Music Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame. His list of 100+ Top Ten singles is an honor roll of country music and its ability to challenge, change or just plain entertain the listener. For Howard, it was easy to determine the ultimate mettle detector of a country song and its prospects for greatness. He maintained that it must be, simply, “three chords and the truth”.

The Harlan Howard Songbook

  • Above and Beyond the Call of Love/Buck Owens; Rodney Crowell
  • Blame It On Your Heart/Patty Loveless
  • Busted/Johnny Cash; John Conlee
  • Don’t Tell Me What to Do/Pam Tillis
  • Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)/Buck Owens
  • Heartaches by the Number/Ray Price
  • I Fall to Pieces/Patsy Cline; Aaron Neville & Trisha Yearwood
  • I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail/Buck Owens
  • Life Turned Her That Way/Mel Tillis; Ricky Van Shelton
  • No Charge/Melba Montgomery
  • Pick Me Up On Your Way Down/Charlie Walker; Faron Young
  • Somebody Should Leave/Reba McEntire
  • Streets of Baltimore/Bobby Bare
  • Why Not Me/The Judds
  • Your Heart Turned Left and I Went Right/George Jones

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Darrell Scott

Darrell Scott was born on a tobacco farm in 1959 in London, Kentucky, but was raised in East Gary, Indiana where his father worked as a steel worker. When he was eleven, his family moved to Southern California where his musical father, Wayne, started a band comprised of Darrell and his four brothers. His father’s band played in roadhouses and taverns all over the United States, including traveling as far North as Alaska.

After studying Literature and earning a degree in Poetry at Tufts University, Darrell finally moved to Nashville to realize his dream of singing and songwriting in the Music City. For a while, he worked as a skilled session musician and played guitar and banjo on albums for people such as Patty Loveless, Randy Travis, Steve Earle and Guy Clark, among others.

The first of his songs to be recorded was “No Way Out,” which was released by Suzy Bogguss in 1996. Following that cut, many other artists started to record Scott’s songs as well, including The Dixie Chicks who took “Long Time Gone” into the top ten on the charts, which also earned a Grammy nomination in 2003. “Long Time Gone” famously and cleverly reproaches Nashville for its slick productions that often fails to consider art or authenticity: ” Now they sound tired but they don’t sound haggard/They’ve got money but they don’t have cash/They got junior but they don’t have hank/I think, I think, I think/The rest is a long time gone…”

Other artists who have had the good taste to record his songs include Garth Brooks, Guy Clark, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, Sara Evans, Tim McGraw, Travis Tritt, Brad Paisley, Darryl Worley and Kathy Mattea. In an article for the Houston Chronicle, Scott admits: “They were written for me and first appeared on my records before they ever became hits. I’ve tried to write hits, and all I ever end up with are lousy songs that sound like I was sitting around trying to write for the radio. So I stopped doing that. Now I only sit down to write when I have something to say. I’m not the kind of disciplined writer who fills up notebooks or who gets up every day at 9 to write. I wait till something taps me on the shoulder.”

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