march 2011

Matraca Berg: ‘After my experiences in the '90s, I really wasn't sure I ever wanted to make another record. I saw myself getting pulled in a direction I didn't want to be in--the mainstream country world. I just never felt like I was a part of that, at least not as a recording artist.’ (Photo: Glen Rose)

An Artist In Plain Sight

Long a reliable hit songwriter for top-tier country artists, Matraca Berg, at 47, has reignited her solo career with an acclaimed new album, The Dreaming Fields. Once content to remain out of the spotlight, she’s experiencing new satisfaction in once again giving voice to her own songs, outside the mainstream boundaries.

By Billy Altman

Just about anyone who's ever heard Matraca Berg perform her own songs can tell you that it's always been one of the major mysteries of modern country music that her name should be so little known by listeners. Not that they don't know her work. As a songwriter, the Nashville-born and -bred Berg began registering hits while still a teenager (1983's TG Sheppard/Karen Brooks #1 duet "Faking Love"), and over the last three decades she's been regularly represented on the charts by everyone from Patty Loveless ("I'm That Kind of Girl"), Trisha Yearwood ("Wrong Side of Memphis") and Deana Carter ("Strawberry Wine"), to the Dixie Chicks ("If I Fall You're Going Down"), Gretchen Wilson ("I Don't Feel Like Loving you Today") and, most recently, Kenny Chesney ("You and Tequila"). Prolific? Her BMI publishing credits total an eye-popping 447 entries--and still very much counting.

Matraca Berg, ‘Lying To the Moon’--the video for the title track of her debut album (1990)

Still, for all the success that Berg has had as a composer, her career in front of the spotlight has been, at best, a checkered one. Signed by RCA, her 1990 debut Lying To The Moon revealed her to be not only a fine singer in her own right, but also a musician with an ear towards wider vistas than Nashville and country radio were comfortable with at the time. Eventually, she shifted over to the label's pop division but, befuddled by her mix of blues, folk, rock and country--what they'd now gladly market as Americana--executives there were unable to do much for her, either. Toss in insecurity about her emotionally rich but not overpowering voice, as well as some issues with stage fright, and Berg began to question her precise place on the left side of the singer-songwriter title. As she herself confessed to an interviewer in 1994: “I am what you'd call an artist in search of herself in public."

matraca-bergIn 1997, after a surge in which the country charts were literally strewn with such Berg-penned Top Ten hits as Martina McBride's "Wild Angels and Blue Horses," Loveless' "You Can Feel Bad," Yearwood's "Everybody Knows" and Carter's "We Danced Anyway," Berg signed with Ken Levitan's forward-thinking Rising Tide Records. The result was Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, which garnered great critical acclaim and was named to numerous year-end Best Of lists, and it seemed that Berg was poised to now find herself in public. Unfortunately, just as the album was gaining momentum in early 1998, corporate music industry maneuverings resulted in Rising Tide shutting its doors. When her now orphaned recording couldn't find a new home, Berg decided to drop out of the star-chasing race she'd never been altogether comfortable in participating in to begin with, and to re-focus her creative energies back to her first and best love, songwriting.

That was nearly fourteen years ago, and yet, due to a fortuitous confluence of circumstances and events, Matraca Berg the recording artist has re-emerged, at age 47, with The Dreaming Fields, a brand new collection of songs which, besides being among the best she's ever written (and, given her body of work, that's pretty remarkable) presents her in striking new light as a singer and performer. Chalk it up to maturity, or self-knowledge--most likely, both--but there's now a palpable sense of heightened purpose in Berg's voice. She's harnessed as never before the emotional depths conveyed in her words and melodies, and in so doing she compels a listener to pay attention to the real life stories she's telling. There's an abused wife trying to break free in "If I Had Wings"; a lonely woman trying to rekindle the flames of desire in "Fall Again;" a small town beauty seduced and then destroyed by Hollywood in "Sliver and Glass"; a granddaughter lamenting her cherished family farm lost to greed in "The Dreaming Field"; and mothers grieving for children lost to war in "South of Heaven."

These are, of course, precisely the kinds of tales that country music used to pride itself in telling. And as Matraca Berg explains it as we sit and talk on a late spring afternoon in lower Manhattan, where she's come (accompanied by her husband, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Jeff Hanna), to perform a low-key solo acoustic charity event, she didn't start out recording these songs thinking they'd become part of a new album released under her name.

"After my experiences in the '90s, I really wasn't sure I ever wanted to make another record," she says. "I saw myself getting pulled in a direction I didn't want to be in--the mainstream country world. I just never felt like I was a part of that, at least not as a recording artist. My plan was just to cool my jets and write songs for a couple of years and watch my garden grow, but then it turned into a period of intense living and personal responsibilities, and before you know it a lot of time had gone by. I went into the studio to record a demo for 'If I Had Wings,' and I hadn't used this combination of musicians before. I'd worked with most of them at different times, but not all together, and it was just pure magic. So that was the first little glimmer of thinking that maybe I could make another record. After that, every time I had a song I thought was a little bit special, I'd make sure (drummer) Greg Morrow, (bassist) Glenn Worf and (guitarist) Richard Bennett were there to play on it, and every time they'd nail it. They kept putting it in my head that this could turn into a whole album, and after a while I started to think about it seriously."

On the critical and commercial success of The Dreaming Fields: ‘I've never had anything like this happen to me as an artist, and for it to happen, at this age, well, it's just been crazy.’

While Berg and these core musicians were working on tracks, Berg's friend Gretchen Peters recruited her and Suzy Bogguss to take part in a fancifully dubbed “Wine, Women and Song” guitar-pull tour of the U.K. "After the shows we'd be at the autograph table and Gretchen and Suzy would be signing their CDs, and I'd just sit there. Everyone started hammering me 'cause I didn't have anything. It did help give me more confidence; I thought, 'Well, shoot, I'm kind of on the way to making one, so why not try and get the thing finished.' I kept chipping away and eventually we had enough for a proper album."

Once word got out about the collection, several companies expressed interest, but after it was heard by her friend Kristy Robinson's husband Scott Robinson, owner of Nashville independent Dualtone label, the choice was an easy one, says Berg. "I could sense these other labels looking at me and thinking, 'How are we going to sell this middle-aged girl?' Scott just went crazy for the music, and wanted to help in any way he could." The fact that the album came out exactly as she wanted it, and is getting the reaction it is, both critically and commercially--the week of its release, it hit #2 on Amazon's download list--has been especially gratifying for the Berg. "I've never had anything like this happen to me as an artist, and for it to happen, at this age, well, it's just been crazy."

Almost as crazy as growing up in Nashville dreaming of being a songwriter, and then not only having an initial hit at age 18, but one co-authored with legendary "He Stopped Loving Her Today" tunesmith Bobby Braddock, whom Berg met through her session-singing mother. "A lot of times my mom would take me to hang out at Tree Publishing," she recalls. "They'd have these afternoon parties passing the guitar around and though I was already writing a bit, I'd just sit there, too shy to do anything. One day one of my friends was there and embarrassed me into playing a song, and afterwards Bobby came up to and said, 'That's one of the most interesting songs I've heard in a long time; I want to write something with you.' I thought, 'Sure, whatever,' but a few weeks later I was at his house with some people and I wandered into the den and sat down at the piano and started goofing around, and he walked in and said, 'What's that?' I said, 'I don't know; a little play on words,' and he sat down and about 20 minutes later we had 'Faking Love' all written. And then a few weeks later it got recorded and was a big hit! It was just amazing." Berg says the affirmation of a writer of Braddock's stature meant as much as the hit. ("He's still one of my dearest friends--and he's going into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year!" she says excitedly.)

From the ‘Wine, Women and Song’ tour with Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss, Matraca Berg performs ‘South of Heaven,’ from her then-in-progress album, The Dreaming Fields

As Berg's career as a writer began to take shape, her viewpoint as a female country composer also began to sharpen--a viewpoint that reflected the influence of several notable touchstones. "From as early as I can remember, I was drawn to strong women writers like Dolly Parton, Bobbie Gentry and Loretta Lynn," she says. "Their songs. Their stories. Their strength. 'Jolene,' which I got to record, and Gentry's 'Ode to Billie Joe'; those songs really made huge impressions on me growing up." Berg's eye for detail, and her insights into the lives of women in the changing America in the last decades of the 20th century and into the new millennium, were pivotal in helping change the image of country's female performers and, in turn, the genre's overall image of itself--at least for a while. "I love Steve Earle's comment about that whole [late '80s/'90s] period in country music," she notes, laughing. "He called it 'The Great Credibility Scare.'"

Of course, having been in and around Music Row for virtually her entire life, Berg knows the ebbs and flows of country music are always part of the overall society and culture that it springs from. "I think sometimes Nashville gets it so right, and other time wrong," she sighs. "When I was young, Nashville seemed to me like Paris in the 1920s. There were all these polite, straightforward acts, and then there were people like Kris [Kristoffersen], Willie [Nelson], Dylan, Neil Young, and they were around town, too. I knew there was just different thing going on. Maybe I was romanticizing it a little, but to me there was just great stuff coming out of the city then. And that could well happen again. Trends always come and go."

Matraca Berg, live with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, performs ‘Oh Cumberland,’ from The Dreaming Fields

And what does Matraca Berg think of the current scene she finds around her? "I think, a little like that time I just mentioned, there are two parallel universes," she says. "You have your Carrie Underwoods and Toby Keiths and whoever, and then you have Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller and Jack White and the Kings of Leon and the Black Keys. It's actually getting very interesting and very cool and I'm kind of excited about it. Cross-pollination with mainstream probably won't happen real soon, but I'm encouraged by the fact that it's not just about the Top Ten; it's about real music. I mean, we do have the greatest writers in the world in Nashville. And so many of them are taken for granted. We have writers who have huge hits but will also write songs that break your heart and blow your mind, but they never get recorded. And there are tremendously talented writers who barely make a living. I think to myself, given everything that's here, 'Why them? Why me?' I confess, there are times I have a lot of guilt."

All that talent, all that success--and yet, at the center of all of it, an overriding respect for her craft, a graciousness towards her peers, and humility about herself. Then again, what would you expect? From the very start, Matraca Berg's always been that kind of girl.

Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024