Poets and Prophets: Matraca Berg at Country Music Hall of Fame
Matraca Berg looks like a country singer. She’s slim and pretty. When she speaks, it’s with a strong Kentucky drawl. The boys would gush over her and the girls would all want to be her. But that’s not what Berg is. She’s a songwriter—and a good one at that.
So good, that she was picked to participate in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly Poets and Prophets series which highlights legendary song-crafters. During the program, Berg and interviewer Michael Gray traced her career from an underage shot of tequila courtesy of Harlan Howard to her first Grammy nomination.
Berg came from a musical family—so it’s no wonder that she wrote her first song at age four. Her mother, Icie, was a Nashville hopeful whose dreams never really materialized. Even though Icie didn’t make it big, she did help influence Matraca. Sounds of Dolly Parton, Bobbi Gentry, and others filled the house where Matraca grew up.
“I was inspired by my mother’s love for song and songwriting,” said Berg. Her voice cracked and she took extended pauses when she spoke of her mother. Icie died in 1985 at the age of 40.
Despite her mother’s warning about the hardships of the music business, Berg was determined. She jumped head first into the Nashville scene—where she met Harlan Howard at 18. Berg distinctly remember Howard buying her first ever shot of tequila. (They didn’t end up writing a song together until the 1990’s.)
Berg kept writing and networking. The hard work eventually paid off. She got her first #1 with “Faking Love” by Karen Brooks and T.G. Sheppard in 1983 at age 19. The song was a co-write with the legendary Bobby Braddock, who was just fresh off of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Even with a solid hit under her belt, Nashville still wasn’t exactly knocking down Berg’s door.
“They thought I was sleeping with Bobby!” said Berg with a laugh.
But she proved to be no fluke after Reba McEntire cut “Last One to Know” and took it to #1 in 1987. Berg had made her name known, and not surprisingly, she was offered a record deal in 1989. Her first album, Lying to the Moon, was released and she was booked an opener on Clint Black’s tour with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was there that she met future husband, Jeff Hanna.
Even though she had found love on tour, the performances and publicity were just too much to handle. She personally didn’t think she was recording material—not to mention she had terrible stage fright.
“It feels like I shouldn’t be here,” Berg remembered thinking. “Waylon once said that singer-songwriters are introverts living in an extrovert world.” The extrovert world wasn’t for her. So, finally she went to Pat Higdon, her publisher, and said “Just pitch’em all.” Hits by Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood followed.
She had run into a short creative drought in 1996 when she came to fellow songwriting buddy Greg Harrison with the idea for an autobiographical tune about a summer she spent on her uncle’s farm in Wisconsin. “Strawberry Wine” was born and was named the CMA Song of the Year in 1997.
While the cuts kept coming, it wasn’t until 2005 that Berg got a Grammy nomination with Gretchen Wilson’s “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today.”
Recently, Berg has been on the Wine, Women, & Song tour in the UK with old friends Suzy Bogguss and Gretchen Peters. She also has an album recorded that she plans on releasing before the year’s end.
“I’m really happy with it,” said Berg. “There was no producer to tell me how to sound.”
After the interview, Berg sheepishly but gracefully walked over to a piano and sat down to play “Dreaming Fields”—a beautiful cut from Yearwood’s most recent album. Before playing, she apologized for her lack of practice that week—but she still knocked it out of the park. “Wrong Side of Memphis” on the guitar and harmonica followed—and still not one ounce of over-confidence or ungratefulness was exuded from the stage.
The title of “Poet and Prophet” couldn’t have been more fitting.
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