It’s one of the unwritten rules of the music business that you have to have looks as well as talent if you’re going to be a success as a performer. It’s a sad reflection of the industry but, talent alone is never going to be enough when the media, and popular expectation, dictates what makes someone look like a star as much as sound like one. Then, every so often, you get someone who has the talent and the looks that make you think, this is exactly what the star machine is looking for – but they slip through the cracks anyway. One such person is Matraca Maria Berg. Matraca was born in Nashville and grew up around the music business in the city. Her mother was a songwriter and session singer, Icie Calloway Berg, and her stepfather was songwriter and session musician Dave Kirby. She has said that she grew up around songwriters, with Harlan Howard and Red Lane, both at the top when it comes to Nashville songwriters, regular visitors to her parents’ house.
Matraca Berg came to the attention of Nashville songwriter Bobby Braddock, who had written songs for the likes of Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker and Nancy Sinatra, among others, and racked up an impressive thirteen number 1 hit singles on the country charts in the course of his career. He mentored Berg and, together, they wrote her first number 1 song, ‘Faking Love’, a duet for Karen Brooks and T.G. Sheppard that topped the chart in 1983. Matraca Berg was just 18 at the time. She’s gone on to write hit songs for many artists and she writes mainly, though not exclusively, from a female perspective; her songs have a wit and intelligence about them and a sense of independence that clearly appeals to strong female artists.
I first became aware of her through the song ‘Hey Cinderella’, a top five country hit for Suzy Bogguss in 1993. It had a great attitude to it and was a song that questioned the “happy ever after” endings of classic fairy stories, with the chorus –
“Hey, hey, Cinderella, what’s the story all about?
I got a funny feeling we missed a page or two somehow.
Oh, oh, Cinderella, maybe you can help us out.
Does the shoe, fit you now?”
It’s a song that always stuck with me and seemed that bit different at the time. It wasn’t a love song and it was questioning the things that women, in particular, are often brought up to believe, especially in American society – find a husband, have a couple of kids and everything will be great; but what happens when it isn’t?! She seems to have always addressed issues that particularly impact on women and written about them in a way that questions the traditional role of women in American society. It’s the sort of writing that we see a lot more of now, especially from americana artists, questioning the status quo, but back in 1993 this was a very different approach and it made Matraca Berg a sought after songwriter for younger female artists at that time.
She has released seven albums of her own over the years, starting with her debut, “Lying to the Moon”, back in 1990, with her most recent release being 2012’s “Love’s Truck Stop”. Her albums have always sold well and always been critically well received but, for some reason I’ve never been able to fathom, the public seems to prefer her songs delivered by other performers. While her own singles have never risen above the mid thirties in the country charts she’s had a string of number ones through other singers, including Reba McIntire, Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter, whose recording of “Strawberry Wine”, which Berg co-wrote with Gary Harrison, won the Country Music Association’s award for “Song of the Year” in 1997. It seems that Berg may have had some issues with stage fright early in her career and that has pushed her more to focus on writing than performing. These days, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue but, back when she was starting out, record companies expected you to tour in support of new releases and they would often book you on the biggest tours possible and sometimes with artists you wouldn’t be compatible with. That sort of practice could be quite daunting to a young act starting out and trying to build their own audience, especially if they felt a little insecure to start with. Whatever the reason, Matraca Berg didn’t settle with audiences early in her career and that clearly impacted on her career as a performer but, as a writer, she went from strength to strength.
In 2004 and 2005, Berg was nominated for induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, making her one of the youngest nominees in history. She was eventually inducted in 2008 and is still one of the youngest inductees to date. In 2018 she received the Poet’s Award from the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Berg is a songwriter who enjoys working with others and many of her songs are co-writes with other prominent Nashville songwriters. This history of collaboration led to her marriage to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder, Jeff Hanna (second marriage for both of them) back in 1993. They originally met when they were both working with Clint Black in the late 80s, but it was the suggestion they try writing together, following both their divorces from original spouses, that eventually led to their relationship. Though they didn’t collaborate on the writing of Hanna’s Grammy Award winning ‘Bless the Broken Road’ he credits her as the inspiration for the song.
Over the course of her career, Matraca Berg has seen more than 50 of her songs recorded by some of the most prominent names in the industry – Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, The (Dixie) Chicks, Patty Loveless, Linda Ronstadt, Dusty Springfield, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney, Mindy McCready, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell…the list goes on and on and on. She was the writer of choice for many female artists in the 90s and early 2000s and her songs are still regularly covered by a wide range of americana artists.
She overcame the stage fright issues some years back but had already decided that her main focus would be writing, and performances remain something she does occasionally, rather than something she pursues. That said, her own albums are worth seeking out because, while many artists have made great recordings of her songs, no one delivers them quite like Matraca herself. Born and raised in Nashville, when it comes to Nashville songwriters, Matraca Berg is the real deal.
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