Matraca Berg is one of Nashville’s most prized singer-songwriters, equally admired for telling a captivating tale and infusing her characters with vivid personalities. Now a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Berg has closed a 14-year gap between her own recording projects. With the recent release of The Dreaming Fields, she’s ready to emphasize the “singer” side of her artistry again.
“I always wanted to make another record,” Berg tells CMT Insider. “I guess the time had to feel right or the collection of songs had to feel right. After my last label, Rising Tide, went under in the middle of my second single, I had to step back and think about what I was doing — if it was what I wanted to do, if I was meant to do it. I took some time off, and after you’re not a kid anymore, you have family to take care of. You have other things that come into your life. I just chose to spend that time doing that until everything calmed down and I had some songs. And here we are.”
At 18, Berg wrote her first No. 1 hit, “Faking Love,” a 1982 duet between T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks. She’s heading toward the top again with “You and Tequila,” an evocative new collaboration between Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter that’s making waves at radio.
Country fans have long heard Berg’s music, mostly through her impressive songwriting credits. Here’s a sampling: Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” the Dixie Chicks’ “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me,” Faith Hill’s “You’re Still Here,” Patty Loveless’ “You Can Feel Bad,” Martina McBride’s “Wild Angels,” Reba McEntire’s “The Last One to Know,” Randy Travis’ “Mining for Coal,” Keith Urban’s “Nobody Drinks Alone” and Trisha Yearwood’s “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl).”
In this interview with CMT Insider producer Terry Bumgarner, Berg talks about her hits, her musical heroes and her gratitude to have a career in music.
CMT: In the liner notes for the CD, you wrote that without the urging of a lot of your friends, you might not have made this record. Is that accurate? Would you have not done it otherwise?
Berg: There’s a possibility, yes. I’m not sure. When I went into the studio to record, they started out as demos because that’s what I do. I’m a songwriter, so I demo songs — certain things that were more personal to me. The musicians approached them totally differently. After we recorded several of them, they were asking for copies. Of course, I’ve been doing shows with various girlfriends — friends, songwriters, co-writers, Gretchen Peters, Marshall Chapman, Kim Carnes — and they really were on a mission. … Gretchen Peters said, “I’m gonna get your skinny butt on the road if it’s the last thing I do.” I felt like it was time. Maybe I needed a nudge.
You’re a very successful songwriter. So why make a record? What makes you say, ’I want people to hear my version of these songs’?
Well, I’ve never made a record with all my hits, like Matraca Does the Hits. There are songs that I write that will probably never be recorded by another artist. Because this is what I do, I felt like I needed to give these songs a chance — to let whoever wants to hear these songs hear them. And I happen to sing them, so I made a record.
I hear more of an Emmylou Harris influence than I expected in your voice, particularly in the high stuff.
Well, Emmylou is the queen of us all. She’s a huge influence. When I was making this record, there were three records that I would listen to: Pieces of the Sky, Emmylou Harris; Harvest, Neil Young and Blue, Joni Mitchell. And some Bobbie Gentry and a little Loretta Lynn. And I think that did mold this record. Those were my influences growing up, and I do feel like they spoke to me while I was making this record.
You can sit in a room and write something like “Strawberry Wine.” Then it becomes a huge hit and everyone sings along in concert. What does that feel like?
That is amazing. You were giving the example of “Strawberry Wine” and how a room full of people would sing along. I just saw Kelly Clarkson and Miranda Lambert online singing it at some after-party with a band. The whole audience had their phones up and sang every word. That is just rare, and I don’t take it for granted. It’s almost miraculous. That’s lightning in a bottle when that happens. It feels great.
That may happen again because Kenny Chesney has released “You and Tequila” as his latest single. You sing it on your album, too. Do you listen to the artist’s version and say, “I wouldn’t have done it that way”? Or do you appreciate it for what it is?
I’m so grateful for any version of my song being recorded. … I don’t think I’ve ever cringed. I’ve been fortunate enough to have great artists record my songs and I’ve been surprised. Kenny surprised me because my version of “You and Tequila” is kind of slow and wistful, and it’s a girl thing. When he sings it, it sounds kind of like an Eagles record. Very cool. And Grace was a wonderful addition. She will be a voice of a generation, no doubt.
You and Deana Carter wrote that together. Where did it come from?
Oh, gosh, we wrote that two days after Harlan Howard’s memorial service. Being the godfather of all us songwriters, he was like an uncle to me. Harlan bought me my first shot of tequila when I was 18. That was the drinking age back then. I just dated myself. … After the memorial, his kids bought me shots of tequila all night. It took two days to get over that. I was writing with Deana two days later, and I told her, “I’m feeling kind of sick still because I don’t do shots of tequila.” And I’m saying, “Me and tequila …” I was having so much fun, and I was like, “Tequila makes me crazy.” She was like, “Well, that sounds like a song.” I can’t remember how “You and Tequila” got into it, but it was very natural feeling and we wrote it quickly.
Who do you think your audience is? Who do you want to hear this album?
That’s a good question. Whoever needs to hear it. Whoever wants to hear it. It seems to be a female-driven record. I co-wrote a bunch of these songs with a lot of women. There’s Deana, there’s Sharon Vaughn, Gretchen Peters, so I suppose it’s probably more geared to the female audience. … I don’t want to have this select group of people [or say] “and no hillbillies!” Please, I come from hillbilly central. We want everybody to hear our records. As many people as possible, so we can keep making records.
Is there a different level of satisfaction between having someone respond to your own version of a song and having one of your songs become a hit for someone else?
Yes. I love having hits. I would totally be lying if I said I didn’t love having hits. I love every artist’s interpretation of the songs that I’ve been blessed that they’ve recorded. That’s really fun. Of course, making a living doing it is incredible. Nobody in their right mind would be a songwriter for a living, so the validation is amazing. I can have a car that runs, and it’s freakin’ awesome.
Then the other part is performing — and performing songs that nobody’s going to hear unless I sing these songs. It is a whole ’nother satisfaction. Songwriting can be very lonely. I do co-write, and I think that’s part of [the reason]. It’s very lonely writing songs. You have nothing in that room but you. We all feel alone. We all wonder if we’re nuts or if we’re neurotic or does anybody else feel this way. … Expressing yourself in a song and having someone recognize that, or saying “Yes, that’s how I feel” or “I felt that way” or “I lost my grandmother and I felt this way” — that’s incredible, really.