I’ve been wanting to write about Bobbie Cryner for a long time. Thanks to some kind folks uploading her music on to YouTube, I can finally do so. (For whatever reason, her two fantastic albums – Bobbie Cryner and Girl o f Your Dreams – have yet to see digital release.)
This woman was good. Real good. Possibly the best unheralded singer-songwriter of her time, with a sultry voice formed at the crossroads of Bobbie Gentry and Dottie West. She first surfaced on Sony, releasing her self-titled debut in 1993. It was previewed by the autobiographical “Daddy Laid the Blues on Me.”
It could’ve been the start of a legendary career, but the single stalled at #63. Next up was the haunting “He Feels Guilty”, which went to #68. It has an amazing guitar intro. That video can be viewed here. Her debut album produced a third single, the #72 “You Could Steal Me.” This one’s heartbreakingly gorgeous, but I can’t find an online way of sharing it with you.
The rest of that first album includes a duet with Dwight Yoakam on “I Don’t Care”, the Buck Owens classic. Another stellar cover is “The One I Love the Most”, which could’ve been a George Jones classic back in the early seventies.
But the best material comes from her own pen. Check out “I Think It’s Over Now”, which features the lyric, “You don’t have to say you love me if you think there’s any doubt. But if you have to think it over, well, I think it’s over now.”
Also worth seeking out is the closing track from that album, “This Heart Speaks For Itself,” which has every part of her body fooling others that she’s over the man who let her down.
In one of those glorious second chances that the music business rarely doles out, Cryner resurfaced on MCA three years later, sporting a more cosmopolitan sound and look. On Girl of Your Dreams, Cryner penned all five of the strongest tracks, while also credibly covering Dusty Springfield and Dottie West. The lead single was “I Just Can’t Stand to Be Unhappy”, a kiss-off anthem that was too smart for country radio, stopping at #63:
What followed was an absolute masterpiece, one that still only reached #56 (and only #66 when Lorrie Morgan revived it two years later.) “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better” is shockingly good, managing to tell the story of a selfish and cold woman by having her talk about how inconsiderate her man is. She’s the only one left in the dark at the end, as the listeners all realize who’s really to blame for this broken home:
Her final MCA single was “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”, which chronicled Cryner’s battle with alcoholism. It didn’t chart.
Again, the album had gems beyond what went to radio. “Vision of Loneliness” is amazing, a song that gained new resonance with me when my mother related to it so well during her bereavement:
The title track should’ve been a single, though it’s hard to imagine radio playing it after passing on her earlier work. I’d argue that “The Girl of Your Dreams” isn’t just Cryner’s finest piece of writing, but that it rivals the very best of Matraca Berg, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash. It begs for Trisha Yearwood to cover it:
So what happened after that second album faded into obscurity? How could a songwriting talent like this get lost in the shuffle? Well, it didn’t happen right away. After Morgan covered “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better”, Cryner surfaced as a writer on albums by top-tier female artists.
The most high profile of these three came after Cryner left a demo in Yearwood’s mailbox that simply had the title, “Real Live Woman.” Yearwood later commented that she prayed before listening to it that it would live up to that title. It did, and ended up being Cryner’s biggest hit when Yearwood took it into the top twenty:
Suzy Bogguss took the compelling story song “Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt” to #63 in 1998, titling her album after it as Yearwood did with “Real Live Woman” in 2000.
Finally, Lee Ann Womack included “Stronger Than I Am” on her smash album I Hope You Dance. It finds a woman in awe of her young daughter who seems so much stronger than she is.
After that, I have no idea what happened to this woman. Do you? In an era when country music isn’t made for adults, or even by adults, this woman’s contributions are desperately needed.
For 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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.