Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Matraca Berg

July 18, 2009
Matraca Berg often feels as if her career jump-started too fast at a young age and just kept leaping forward at an accelerated pace. She wrote her first #1 country hit at age eighteen, and three decades later, her impressive string of hit songs led to her becoming one the youngest inductees into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. “I feel like a lot of these things have come too soon for me,” she said. “But I’m very grateful.”

Berg addressed her career while achieving another milestone: She became the first female songwriter honored as the subject of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly series Poets and Prophets, which pays tribute to songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. Hosted by museum staffer Michael Gray, and held before an attentive audience in the museum’s intimate Ford Theater, the program included a touching and occasionally hilarious ninety-minute interview with Berg, augmented by live performances, video and audio clips, and scores of personal and professional photos.

The program began with a video clip of Berg and co-writer Gary Harrison accepting the 1997 CMA Award for Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine,” a #1 hit for Deana Carter. “I wrote my first songs with my mother,” Berg said, holding her trophy aloft, “and this is to her memory.” Other popular Berg hits include Suzy Bogguss’s “Hey Cinderella” and “Give Me Some Wheels,” Dixie Chicks’ “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me,” Patty Loveless’s “I’m That Kind of Girl” and “You Can Feel Bad,” Martina McBride’s “Wild Angels” and “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road,” Reba McEntire’s “The Last One to Know,” Gretchen Wilson’s “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today,” and Trisha Yearwood’s “Wrong Side of Memphis,” “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” and “Everybody Knows.”

To start her interview, Berg explained the influence of her mother, Icie Berg, who grew up in a musical family in eastern Kentucky. “Her sisters were all child stars at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance,” the songwriter said in her slow southern drawl. “They grew up playing, which is a famous Kentucky thing—everybody plays, everybody sings.”

Matraca explained that both her name and her mother’s are old mountain names that aren’t traceable to European origins. “I call it ‘exotic hillbilly,’” she said. When Berg’s mother became pregnant with her lone child, she moved to Nashville to live with her sister Sudie, who performed regularly in town. Berg’s mother briefly put her up for adoption but ultimately decided to raise her baby girl herself. “She wanted to be a songwriter and was always fascinated by songwriters,” Berg said of her mother, who also worked for the music publishing division of Four Star Records. “I was just surrounded by songwriters growing up because that’s who they hung out with.”

Her mother married a Vanderbilt nuclear science student Ron Berg when Matraca was two years old and who adopted her. He went on to become a nuclear physicist and a self-taught pianist who taught Matraca how to play. Her mother discouraged her from pursuing songwriting and music at first, but once she realized her daughter was determined to be a songwriter, her mother gave her full support and helped guide her.

“When she finally gave in, when she knew I was going to do it no matter what, she said, ‘Kid, if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it right, and I’m going to coach you,’” Berg said. “She was a tough coach.”

Berg cited Dolly Parton as her earliest influence, especially the song “Jolene.” I used to watch the Porter Wagoner Show and how she played guitar with those long fingernails and just sang so beautiful and looked so beautiful,”  she said. “When I found out she actually wrote that song, it just blew my mind.” She also cited Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” Carole King, and Loretta Lynn as first-tier influences.

As a teenager, Berg hung out at Tree Publishing Company, a leading Music Row music publisher now owned by Sony/ATV Music Publishing. At Tree, Berg met such songwriting giants as Bobby Braddock and Harlan Howard, describing her initial anxiety at co-writing with them at such a young age. Berg described how Howard bought her first shot of tequila, as well as how their first co-writing session intimidated her so much that she didn’t write with him again for ten years. “He would hold court and give us all advice,” she recalled. “I miss him so terribly.”

As for Braddock, Berg enjoyed her first #1 from a co-write with the legendary writer of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and “I Wanna Talk about Me.” The song, “Faking Love,” was recorded by T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks and released in 1982. Braddock was in attendance, sitting in the front row, and when Gray asked Berg about Braddock’s influence on her career and songwriting, she said, “I can’t overstate it.”  Berg described how several young songwriters often “followed Bobby around,” soaking up his wisdom and enjoying his personality. “We just gathered around him and worshipped and had a big bunch of fun,” Berg said. 

Berg recounted the moment, riding in a car with her mother, when they both first heard “Faking Love” on the radio. After an initial moment of giddiness, the two women pulled over to listen to the tune. “I’ll never forget,” Berg said, the emotion showing in her voice. “She looked at me, and it was just, ‘Ahhh.’ It took the breath out of me.”

One night, when several songwriters ended up at Braddock’s house, Berg sat down at the piano to play a segment of a song she’d started. Braddock liked it and suggested they finish it. “We wrote it in about twenty minutes,” she said. “It went really fast. We demoed it, and it was a hit about a month later.”

Despite the song’s success, Berg says, artists and producers didn’t start banging on her door asking for the next hit. “They thought I was sleeping with Bobby,” Berg said to loud laughter, remembering how she had trouble getting Nashville music professionals to take her seriously. For a while, she left town, staying with a boyfriend in southern Louisiana and returning to Nashville “because I missed my mom,” Berg said.

Berg explained the importance of working with an encouraging music publisher when talking about her twenty-year partnership with Music Row executive Pat Higdon. She’s worked with Higdon at several music publishers, always depending on his expertise. “He saw something I didn’t see, for sure, in myself,” Berg said. “I was kind of a little wild-ass then, too, and he calmed me down a bit.”

Higdon persuaded Berg to pursue a recording career, which included a major label run that stretched from Lying to the Moon, her 1990 album for RCA Records, to Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, a 1997 album released on Rising Tide Records. Never comfortable with the spotlight—Berg quoted Waylon Jennings’s line about singer-songwriters being “introverts living in an extroverts world”—she eventually stepped away from recording to concentrate on writing songs.

But Berg did meet her husband, Jeff Hanna of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on a tour opening for Clint Black. The two bonded over a ritual of eating pie before every concert. “That’s so country,” Berg laughed. The two began dating in 1991 and married in 1993. 

Gray also prompted Berg to examine two of her hits in-depth. On “Wild Angels,” a 1995 #1 hit for McBride, Berg explained how she and Harry Stinson wrote a song with that title, but the lyrics didn’t quite make sense. The song was put on hold several times by artists but never cut, so Berg decided to invite frequent co-writer Gary Harrison to revise it. Harrison clarified and focused the song. “After we figured that out, it became Martina’s next production,” Berg said. “It’s one of my favorite cuts I’ve ever had. It kills me.”

On “Strawberry Wine,” the other song Gray asked Berg to explain, she talked of how she started with a title, then formulated a song based on the summers when she would visit her father’s family on a farm in Wisconsin. She told this story to Harrison, the song’s co-writer, and the two created “Strawberry Wine” rather quickly. “We really liked it, but we thought nobody else probably would.” Berg said. Several female country stars passed on the song—Trisha Yearwood later expressed regret at deciding not to record it—before Deana Carter included the award-winning hit on her debut album for Capitol Records.

Berg also discussed writing the theatrical revue, Good Ol’ Girls—the title came from one of Berg’s songs—with fellow songwriter Marshall Chapman and novelists Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith in 1998. The revue premiered at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus and continues to be performed today. She got the idea after a People magazine review said that her storytelling style would work well in musicals, so Berg gathered her collaborators and they put together a stage musical. “After a couple of weeks, it just caught on like you wouldn’t believe,” Berg said.

Berg, who had performed “Strawberry Wine” during the interview, finished the program with two performances, singing “The Dreaming Fields” at the piano and “Wrong Side of Memphis” on acoustic guitar and harmonica. A standing ovation at the end suggested, once again, that Berg has earned every accolade to come her way.

—Michael McCall