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Matraca Berg - success so well-earned

Matraca Berg looked around the rehearsal studio and wished the ground would open up and swallow her. Neil Young, for whom Berg was auditioning on backing vocals, had just said, “Let’s do Helpless”, one of his best known songs.

Berg knew Young’s stuff. At thirteen, she’d taught herself to play guitar by learning Young’s Heart of Gold. In the nervous panic, seven years later, of finding herself working in his inner sanctum, however, she couldn’t think how Helpless went. So she asked the Canadian star to play a few chords so she could re-familiarise herself with it, and Young looked up as if to say, “Who asked this kid in here?”

The way she sang when the song got under way for real must have sounded okay because Berg got the gig and shortly afterwards appeared with Young on Live Aid, standing to his right, shaking like a leaf, as she recalls.

It’s not like Berg was a complete novice in the music business at this point. She’d grown up immersed in music in Nashville – “everybody in our family sings, even if it’s not what they do professionally,” she says – and she’d been used to being around recording studios since an early age. Her mother was a singer and she and Matraca’s aunt sang on sessions, which the young Matraca would sit watching and thinking, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”

Her mother’s circle of friends included songwriters Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock, both of whom Berg went on to write with, the latter with spectacular, sudden success that’s continued over the past thirty years, resulting in her being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“I’d started writing songs as soon as I could play guitar because it seemed easier to write something new than learn someone else’s stuff,” says Berg. “One day Bobby heard me singing one of my own songs and said he wanted to write with me. I was astonished.”

Their first effort, Faking Love, gave Berg her first number one at the age of eighteen when TG Sheppard and Karen Brooks made it one of the most popular country music duets of 1983. Immediately, Berg was asked for more songs by more singers but feeling that what she’d written by herself wasn’t good enough, she ran away to Louisiana with a musician from a band she’d been singing in. The elopement didn’t work out but she returned to Nashville with a stock of song ideas from the experience, and the hits, for other people, kept on coming.

In one year alone, Berg wrote five number one country songs and the list of singers who have covered her songs grew to include Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt, Trisha Yearwood, Deana Carter and the Dixie Chicks. More recently, Emmylou Harris has covered Berg’s Appalachian Rain and sings on her latest album, Love’s Truck Stop, an experience that, for all the millions of sales her songs have generated, still rates, for Berg, as the ultimate validation of her songwriting ability.

As a singer, on the other hand, despite being invited to join Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss on their Wine, Women and Song UK tours and working regularly in the US, Berg sees herself as more of an accidental artist.

“I always sang on my own demos when it came to pitching songs to other singers and I’d sung in bands when I was growing up,” she says. “But I didn’t consider myself a performer until the head of RCA in Nashville heard one of my demos and asked if I’d be interested in recording for the label back around 1990. I was stunned but I took him up on the offer and it turned into quite an experience. I made my first album, Lying to the Moon, and the next thing I knew I was opening for Clint Black, playing to ten thousand people, which is pretty scary.”

Her recording career hasn’t been straightforward. RCA decided she should be assigned to the pop division before dropping her after her second album. The label she recorded her next album, Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, for folded shortly afterwards and there was a fourteen year gap before her next, The Dreaming Fields, appeared in 2011.

“I think I’ve picked up some momentum, having released two albums in consecutive years,” she says. “There was a dry spell with writing, too, because the industry didn’t seem to be promoting women singers for a while. But I thought, I’ll pitch to the guys instead. You can be anyone when you write a song and the ideas can come from anywhere. My songs aren’t about me; I prefer to work with characters and put words in their mouths. It could be something I’ve read or something I’ve overheard. At any gathering of people, I’ll be the one sitting in the corner, people watching.”

From The Herald, October 31, 2012.

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