Songwriter of “Strawberry Wine” , “We Danced Anyway” , “Wild Angels” , “Still Holding On” , and “You and Tequila”.
Matraca Berg made the biggest decision of her life while she was still a kid. The 2004 Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame nominee was a high-school student in Music City when she decided she was going to devote her life to writing songs and singing.
“I knew I wasn’t going to college, so I just decided I was going to get going on this as soon as I could,” she recalls. “I just knew I had to get out there and DO it. And I knew that this was the only thing I wanted to do – there was never any question in my mind.”
The fact that only a miniscule number of songwriters actually get to practice their craft successfully didn’t faze her: “I think it was just youthful exuberance and fearlessness,” she says of her decision.
The result of that choice was that Matraca Berg had her first No. 1 record as a songwriter at age 18. That, in turn, has qualified her to become one of the youngest Hall of Fame nominees in history: To be eligible, a writer must have first achieved prominence at least 25 years ago.
That first hit was “Faking Love,” as sung by T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks. In the years since, Berg’s songs have practically become the soundtrack of contemporary Nashville. Reba McEntire’s “The Last One to Know” (1987), Patty Loveless’ “I’m That Kind of Girl” (1991), Trisha Yearwood’s “Wrong Side of Memphis” (1992), Martina McBride’s “Wild Angels“ (1996), the Dixie Chicks’ “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” (2001) and more than 50 other recordings of her songs have made her one of the most recorded composers in Music City.
Matraca Berg’s songs have been sung by Randy Travis, Faith Hill, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Linda Ronstadt, Tanya Tucker, Pam Tillis, Keith Urban, Dusty Springfield, Clint Black, Loretta Lynn and dozens of others. Her cowritten “Strawberry Wine,” as performed by Deana Carter, was named the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year in 1997. Matraca also co-wrote Deana’s #1 song “We Danced Anyway”, and would later go on to co-write “You and Tequila” with Deana, which Kenny Chesney took to #3 and was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 2011 including Best Country Song.
In addition, the songwriter issued three CDs in 1990-97, plus a 1999 compilation, that have brought her wide acclaim as a performer. She and fellow Nashville songwriter Marshall Chapman provided the songs for the 2000 theatrical production Good Ol’ Girls, which continues to be staged by regional repertory companies. As a backup vocalist she has recorded with Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young and many others. She appeared in the 1987 motion picture Made In Heaven and on the soundtrack of 1993’s The Thing Called Love. And in 2004, she added “producer” to her list of accomplishments by guiding the disc debut of Sony newcomer Christy Sutherland.
Call it destiny, or call it heritage. Matraca Berg’s remarkable story has its roots in a highly musical Kentucky clan. Mama Icie Berg migrated from Harlan County to Music City in the 1960s as a singer and songwriter. She became an unwed mother, naming her baby Matraca (pronounced Muh-TRACE-ah), defined as “exotic hillbilly” by Matraca in later years. The little girl grew up surrounded by show business. Aunt Sudie Callaway was a successful Music Row backup singer. “Aunt” Lois Johnson (not an actual relative, but so close she has the designation) became a recording artist and Hank Williams Jr.’s duet partner. Aunts Coleida Callaway and Clara Howard were the backup vocalists on Kentucky’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Uncle Jim Baker is a Nashville steel-guitar player who ran Mel Tillis’ song publishing companies for a time.
But although Icie sang on sessions, was briefly a member of The Harden Trio and had 17 songs published by Four Star, Twila and Chappell, she never truly made her mark on Music Row. When Matraca was in the second grade, her mother married Ron Berg, a Vanderbilt University graduate student. He adopted Matraca. After earning his degree, he got a job in Indianapolis and moved the family there. Ron taught Matraca how to play piano and was a good father to her. But Icie missed the music world desperately and returned to Nashville.
“We became very rootless, and we were really poor. We moved a lot, running from bill collectors and stuff. Mom never got off the ground in the music business. She was too busy trying to survive.”
Several years later, Icie became a nurse and married songwriter Dave Kirby (“Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Memories to Burn,” “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” etc.). She deferred her own music dreams to her gifted daughter. As a teen, Matraca began showing her mother her songs.
“I came to her with a handful of songs that I had written. She said, ‘Well, kid, I was afraid you would come to me one day and say this.’ She was real cool. She listened. When I told her what I was going to do, she helped me. She was very encouraging. She became my coach, and she was a bit of a drill sergeant. She didn’t pull any punches with me. Not at all. And she became my first writing partner.”
When she felt that Matraca was ready, Icie began to take her to Music Row song publishing companies. When young Matraca played her songs for established songwriter Bobby Braddock (“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Golden Ring,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” etc.), he volunteered to cowrite with the newcomer. Their collaboration, “Faking Love,” topped the charts on Feb. 19, 1983. Matraca and her mother were overjoyed.
Two years later, Icie Berg was dead of cancer at age 40.
Matraca grieved. She raised her younger brother and sister. And she drew from her deepening emotional well to craft better and better songs. After McEntire topped the charts with Berg’s “The Last One to Know” and Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker, Ray Price, Marie Osmond, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Michelle Wright and others recorded her songs, RCA Records offered Matraca Berg a recording contract.
Lying to the Moon, her debut CD, appeared in 1990. Its singles “Baby Walk On” and “The Things You Left Undone” cracked the top-40, but subsequent releases fared less well. The label decided not to release her follow-up CD, Bittersweet Surrender.
Ironically, the unissued collection included “Wrong Side of Memphis,” which Trisha Yearwood turned into a 1992 smash. Yearwood has also notably recorded “XXX’s and OOO’s” (1994), “Everybody Knows” (1997) and a half dozen more Berg songs. Suzy Bogguss also became a fan of the songwriter. She made a hit of Berg’s “Hey Cinderella” in 1994 and also recorded “Eat at Joe’s,” “Give Me Some Wheels” and “Diamonds and Tears.”
Berg continued to record, herself. In 1993 she issued The Speed of Grace, again on RCA. Recorded in L.A., the album was another gathering of her sterling compositions, plus a striking version of “Jolene,” written by one of her role models, Dolly Parton. Her personal life had an upswing in that year as well: On Dec. 4, 1993 she married singer-songwriter Jeff Hanna of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Back on Music Row, Patty Loveless became one of the songwriter’s most vocal supporters. She followed up 1991’s “I’m That Kind of Girl” by scoring a major hit with Berg’s cowritten “You Can Feel Bad” in 1996. Loveless has since recorded “You’re So Cool,” “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again” and “On Your Way Home.” Similarly, Martina McBride succeeded 1996’s no. 1 hit “Wild Angels” by recording Berg’s cowritten “Still Holding On” as a 1997 duet with Clint Black. McBride has also recorded the songwriter’s “Anything’s Better Than Feelin’ the Blues” and “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road.”
After “Strawberry Wine” became one of the biggest country hits of 1996, Berg also cowrote Deana Carter’s No. 1 hit follow-up “We Danced Anyway” (1997). She and the singer have since collaborated as songwriters on “Dickson County,” “Goodbye Train” and “You and Tequila.”
By now one of the most respected songwriters of her generation, Matraca Berg earned a second recording contract in 1996. The following year she issued Sunday Morning to Saturday Night on Rising Tide Records. “That Train Don’t Run” and “Back in the Saddle” made the country charts from the CD, and its “Good Ol’ Girl” became the title tune to the well-received theatrical production.
“Fool I’m a Woman” (Sara Evans, 1999), “All I Want Is Everything” (Mindy McCready, 1999), “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me” (Dixie Chicks, 2001), “You’re Still Here” (Faith Hill, 2003), “Working Girl” (Terri Clark, 2003), “Nobody Drinks Alone” (Keith Urban, 2004) and other recordings have kept Matraca Berg’s songwriting consistently prominent since the release of her last album.
“Making records has done more for my career than anything, I think. It raised my profile as a writer like nothing else. It was because of my records that Trisha and Martina and Faith and everyone recorded my songs. But none of my records was exactly like I wanted them to be. There would be a few shining moments here and there. Now I want to make something that is absolutely, without a doubt, me. And I think I do know exactly what I want to sound like.”
Matraca Berg is ready to record again. But in the meantime, her songwriting career continues to blossom. To date, she has collaborated with more than a dozen cowriters. Gems such as “Back When We Were Beautiful” and “Tall Drink of Water” were written solo, but Berg generally prefers the companionship of a fellow songwriter when she works.
“I do love my cowriters. I respect them tremendously. But one main reason that I like to cowrite is that I am so hard on myself that I can’t get anything done when I write alone. I need someone say, ‘That is fine. That is good.’ Otherwise, I just kill myself.
“Lately, I’ve been writing with some of the younger writers. I’ve got some experience, and my publisher wants me to teach them something. They’ll probably teach me something, too. I had the good fortune of having people like Bobby Braddock and Harlan Howard devote their time to me, teaching me and opening their hearts. It was done for me, and now I’m helping to pass it on down. I don’t really feel wise. But I do have some knowledge.”
She now has nearly 400 published songs and has earned a dozen BMI songwriter awards. But Matraca Berg does not consider herself to be ready for the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. At least, not yet.
“When they called and told me I was nominated, I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Are you absolutely sure?’ I was just stunned.
“It was really odd. All I could think of was, ‘Wait a minute! I haven’t done everything I want to do.’”
The awards did not stop there. In 2018 Matraca received the “Poet’s award from the Academy of Country Music Awards (ACM’s).