Matraca Berg may not be an immediately recognizable name, yet her songs are heard by millions every day.
Reba, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride have all used Berg's calling card to score big hits on the country music charts. The most memorable country song of the 1990s, "Strawberry Wine," can also be accredited to Berg.
Achieving her first No. 1 as a songwriter at the age of 18, Matraca Berg's material has been highly sought-after in the country music industry for more than 25 years. Welcomed into the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame in 2008, she is one of the youngest inductees in the Hall's history.
As a recording artist, Matraca Berg released four critically-acclaimed albums in the 1990s. Fourteen years have passed since her last album, 1997's "Sunday Morning to Saturday Night." May 2011 signals Berg's return to the recording arena, with the Dualtone release of "The Dreaming Fields."
Frustration over Nashville's washing out of classic country songs, which she says are "real simple and unadorned and perfect," moved Berg out of a stagnant period of her career. Seeing that Music Row had turned into an artist factory governed by star quality and appearance rather than artistic quality and ability, Berg sought to record a minimally produced album steeped in sincerity. It would emphasize life stories with which listeners could relate.
"The Dreaming Fields" hearkens back to a time when artists weren't so polarized and singer-songwriters produced songs written so well that they drew an array of listeners. Berg revisited the albums of her youth while preparing "The Dreaming Fields." Neil Young's "Harvest," Joni Mitchell's "Blue," and Emmylou Harris's "Pieces of the Sky" served as inspiration.
While many of Berg's songs have country undertones, particularly the steel guitar-laden "Clouds" and the gospel-tinged "If I Had Wings," "The Dreaming Fields" is not strictly country. "Fall Again" is genre-bending; the title track and "A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June" are not indicative of country at all, with their gorgeous piano and string arrangements.
Berg's emotion-evoking voice and songwriting are so robust that she has the ability to reach even those with an aversion to country music. Berg's introspective topics are especially approachable by women. "Silver and Glass" is a warning against vanity. "If I Had Wings" describes escaping domestic abuse. Berg does not shy from difficult topics, as particularly shown in "South of Heaven," which addresses a mother's loss of a child serving during war.
Of course, love is a topic, but so is infidelity, as heard in the sly "Your Husband's Cheating On Us." This bluesy song also serves as a welcome departure from most of the ballad-driven material of "The Dreaming Fields." Also a clever song, "You and Tequila" is already proving to be hit material, as Kenny Chesney's cover is currently making its way up the country charts.
Loss and redemption are at the core of "The Dreaming Fields." On the soaring title track, Berg reminisces about her grandparents' Wisconsin dairy farm, where now "the houses, they grow like weeds in a flower bed." One can easily sense Berg's personal investment in the nostalgic song.
Trading remorse for pride, "Oh Cumberland" is also about homesickness. More uplifting, it details the faithfulness to Tennessee's Cumberland River despite being far from home.
There is a realness about Matraca Berg that is lacked by today's Nashville songwriters and performers. Her songs are not reliant on hooks alone. Most importantly, her words are penned thoughtfully. Berg's lyrics are far from contrived like most of the drivel heard on country radio.
Nashville's big names would do well to pick up a copy of "The Dreaming Fields" for a lesson in self-respect and tact. Besides, they may find a hit to record along the way.
Matraca Berg is online at http://www.matracaberg.com.