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Nashville Scene An Honest Story

Berg refines her craft on new LP

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 25, 1997:  Matraca Berg practically grew up on Music Row; her mother, the late Icee Berg, was a well-regarded Nashville songwriter and background singer. As a result, Berg has always had an appreciation for the way things are done around here, yet she has always tried to stay true to her own vision. During the '80s and early '90s, she pried open Nashville songwriting formulas, producing scores of strikingly powerful and original songs. In 1990, she released an outstanding album, Lyin' to the Moon. But for all her creative successes, she'd yet to find a way to make her ambitious songs as accessible as she wanted them to be. She was writing wonderful tunes that for the most part were going unheard.

Then, while working on "Wild Angels," a song that would become a hit for Martina McBride, Berg experienced a career-changing epiphany. "I had always tried to figure out what made other people's songs so great and so accessible," she says. "All of a sudden, I just got it--you can do whatever you want as long as you give them something to sing along to. I figured out that, even with songs by people like Bob Dylan, you give people the gravy, but the verses are yours. So I became a little more fearless in the story line but more commercial in the chorus."

In truth, Berg's story lines have always been fearless. The songwriter has shown a willingness to tackle gutsy subjects on her own albums (on songs like "Appalachian Rain," "The Things You Left Undone," and "I Got It Bad") and on songs that have been recorded by others (Patty Loveless' "That Kind of Girl," Suzy Bogguss' "Hey Cinderella," Linda Ronstadt's "Walk On," Pam Tillis' "Calico Plains," Trisha Yearwood's "Wrong Side of Memphis," "XXX's and OOO's," and "Lyin' to the Moon.")

But once "Wild Angels" took flight, Berg's newfound theory seemed to provide the breakthrough she'd been looking for--just in the last couple years, she has become Nashville's hottest songwriter. But what makes this success especially gratifying is the fact that her most popular songs have given a human heart to the soulless piffle crowding country radio. Besides McBride's hit, which suggested that two unpredictable lovers were being guided through love's difficult turns by wild and unseen angels, Berg has contributed "You Can Feel Bad" to Patty Loveless, "Everybody Knows" to Trisha Yearwood, and "Strawberry Wine" and "We Danced Anyway" to Deana Carter. All five songs were No. 1 country hits, with "Strawberry Wine"--about a teen having premarital sex with a handyman she met on her grandparents' farm--going on to win awards and establish Carter as one of country's biggest and brightest new stars.

Each of these monster hits dishes out the gravy with a catchy chorus while the verses make powerful statements about American life. This same approach runs throughout Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, Berg's return attempt to establish herself as a performer. The first single, "That Train Don't Run," is just now being released to country radio, while the 11-song LP is scheduled for release in late September on Rising Tide Records. A consistently potent and surprising collection, the album finds Berg maintaining the substance of her earlier work while refining it into catchier, more compact songs that are no less effective.

Hummable Matraca Berg, making the leap once again from songwriter to artist

If anything, Berg expands on her subject matter while making an effort to remain accessible. "This record stretches more, I think," she says, comparing the album's songs to recent hits by other singers. The collection does exhibit an amazingly wide range of subjects. A couple of songs convert the religious imagery of the South into allegories about faith in relationships ("Sunday Morning to Saturday Night) and in careers ("The Resurrection"), while other songs talk about maintaining spontaneity in life ("Along for the Ride," "Give Me Tonight") without indulging in destructive behavior ("That Train Don't Run") or in difficult relationships ("Here You Come Raining on Me").

The album also features a couple of hilarious romps told from a female point of view. "Back in the Saddle," for instance, plays on the numerous recent country hits in which a rich city girl falls for a simple rural guy. These songs are usually told from the redneck guy's point of view, but Berg instead shows what's in it for the woman. She tells of a well-educated woman who comes out of a two-week stay at a New Age health spa only to fall for a bowlegged rodeo cowboy who sets her up for a spiritual experience she hadn't expected. "I don't know a thing about broncin' bucks, and I can't do-si-do, but I can put you back in the saddle, baby--yeah, stand you up tall," Berg sings slyly as guest backing vocalists Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Suzy Bogguss shout along with rowdy glee. Before long, Berg is crowing about sucking on a longneck and making a belt buckle shine, all with a boozy exuberance rarely heard in modern commercial country music.

Elsewhere, on "Good Ol' Girl," Berg proves that a modern country songwriter can create an archetypally Southern character without stooping to trailer-park stereotypes or cheap redneck jokes. Here, the protagonist is biscuit-slinging waitress with a picture of Elvis on her wall. She piles up her hair because it makes her feel closer to God, she goes to church on Sunday with her Momma because it's the right thing to do, and she has been known to dance with a trucker or two. It's obvious, however, that Berg has great affection for this woman, and it results in a sensitive, touching portrait.

"There's a fine line in those kinds of songs," Berg says of "Good Ol' Girl" and "Back in the Saddle." "You can characterize a human being, or you can look at it from both sides. I mean, I love those gals. I'm related to them, and I hang out with them. There's a little bit of a lot of people I know in there."

If Sunday Morning to Saturday Night features a song for the ages, it's likely to be "Back When We Were Beautiful," a graceful ballad that perfectly matches a gorgeous melody with heart-tugging sentiment. Set to piano and viola, the song tells of a widowed grandmother as she sits with a younger woman and looks at an old photograph of herself and her late husband. "I don't feel very different," the woman of her advanced age, launching into a tough, honest appraisal of what it feels like to be elderly. The song ends with the woman saying that she and her husband, "back when we were beautiful," used to act like they were old for laughs. Sentimental yet heroically real, the song would be perfect for a Hollywood diva to sing on an awards show.

Sunday Morning to Saturday Night suggests that Berg--a woman seemingly at the top of her game--is capable of getting even better at what she already does so well. At the very least, she continues to prove masterful at weaving strong emotions into memorable songs. "Personally, I like a chorus I can sing along to," she says with a throaty laugh. "That's why I love Mary Chapin Carpenter, because she has really hooky choruses. Even Sheryl Crow--gosh, there's a chorus, and I can sing it with her. I can't help it; when I'm driving in my car, I want to hear a damn chorus." True to her own desires, on Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, Berg is giving the world something to sing along to for years to come.

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