Matraca Berg was newly without a record label and still a decade away from her 2008 Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction the day another Hall-of-Famer gave her some unsolicited career advice.
"When Rising Tide [Records] was no more — when they were closing their doors — they had a little going-away party, and Harlan Howard came over there and kind of held court," says Berg, relating the events that followed Rising Tide's release of her third album, Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. "I was literally sitting at his feet drinking a beer, and he patted me on the head and said, 'Darlin', you're not a country star.' "
And did he — a guy who'd sized up decades' worth of bona fide country stars from a songwriter's perspective — mean those words to be deflating, or encouraging?
"Encouraging," Berg says, without a moment's hesitation. "He said, 'You've always been more like Nanci Griffith or Lyle Lovett. Go make a cool record like that and forget about this country stuff. Write good songs and don't worry about being a country star.'
"I never really was worried about being a country star," she adds for good measure. "... But that was the easiest place for me to be. I didn't know where else to go. I was fortunate enough to have major-label deals. But probably not a good fit."
There was, however, no record label breathing down her neck at any point during the making of her new album, The Dreaming Fields — her first in 14 years. She's released it on Nashville-based independent Dualtone Records.
"What I wanted was to have a hand — more of a hand — in how I sounded," she says. "I wanted more control." And what she got on her 11-song set — 10 tracks of which she produced — was "the sound [she'd] been looking for [her] whole life."
It happens to be the kind of sound Howard told her she should aim for: one that bears a lot more resemblance to Griffith's catalog than it does to the '80s-rock-obsessed production of contemporary country. Call it a polished, modern folk singer-songwriter set.
Early on, Berg was a very young hit-maker. She co-wrote a No. 1 with Bobby Braddock before she was even out of her teens. When she recorded for MCA in the early '90s, other acts frequently cherry-picked songs from her albums — like Trisha Yearwood did with the title track of Berg's debut, Lying to the Moon.
Apart from Berg's albums, the hit songs kept coming, too. Deana Carter's "Strawberry Wine" is the No. 1 she's best known for. And the list goes on: Yearwood's "Wrong Side of Memphis," Suzy Bogguss' "Hey Cinderella," Patty Loveless' "You Can Feel Bad" and so on.
Berg has had her share of male co-writers — Gary Harrison, for one — and a few men of mainstream country have cut her songs. But she's earned her respected songwriting reputation first and foremost by supplying songs of emotional heft to formidable female voices. You get the sense she's not terribly concerned about analyzing how or why she found that niche.
"Well, I happen to be a female," she says wryly. "So it's a lot easier for me get inside that character or write about an experience that I've had and many, many other women have had. I'm very fortunate that I've had listeners and voices to get those [songs] out there."
When it came to The Dreaming Fields, recording songs others had already done was new for Berg. As a singer, she — the songs' co-writer — was now following on the heels of Yearwood's version of "The Dreaming Fields," both Carter's and Kenny Chesney's versions of "You and Tequila," and "Oh Cumberland" as done by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, of which her husband, Jeff Hanna, is a founding member. For her own versions, she went with elegantly stripped-down arrangements. There's at least one song on Fields that Berg had intended for somebody else: "If I Had Wings," a story of domestic violence carried by a lithe, blues-pop melody.
"I wrote it with Jessi Alexander when she was just getting started, still a kid," says Berg. "She had a deal on MCA, I think, at that time and was writing for her record. So we wrote this, and, of course, it wasn't exactly what they were looking for over there." The fact that the battered wife in the story kills her husband in self-defense may have made it a little harder sell. Says Berg, "Not a lot of people are recording murder songs — or as Gillian Welch calls them, 'killin' songs.' " Berg decided she'd do it herself.
Not much more commercial — at least by 2011's standards — but no less worth hearing is the deliciously dark, frank humor of "Your Husband's Cheating on Us," a slinky talking-blues number cut from Bobbie Gentry cloth, based on a Jill McCorkle short story and co-written with Marshall Chapman.
Berg marvels at the success she's had with songwriting: "Trust me, I don't take that for granted for one minute." But she also seems quite happy to be doing things her way — and she's earned the right. "I've tried to write more punchy hit songs, but I just kinda ... I don't want to do that anymore. I'm just at a place where I just want to write what I feel and hope somebody gives a shit."