Matraca (pronounced “Muh-tray-suh”) Berg ventured to The Phoenix in 1994, “I am what you call an artist in search of herself in public.” A successful songwriter who has co-written hits for Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and others, Berg struggled for several years as a recording artist; the strict confines of country radio kept her in limbo. Nonetheless, she took her pop-blues-country hybrid to pop radio and found an eager audience. “At her best,” proclaimed Stewart Francke in CD Review, “she blends the sensuality of urban blues and soul with the wit and immediacy of rock.” Geoffrey Himes of Country Music called her “typical of the new Nashville woman who refuses to be the passive victim anymore—of either callous lovers or conservative Music Row producers.”
She was born in Nashville in 1963 and raised by her mother, Icee, a nurse who had harbored dreams of a musical career. “My mother was real spunky,” Matraca related to The Tennessean. “She had a hard life, because you know she had me out of wedlock. We had a father [Ron Berg] around for a little while. But for the most part she raised me on her own. She was tough when she had to be. She didn’t pull any punches with me.” Her very musical family included an aunt who sang backup, and a steel-guitarist uncle. “I could not have avoided country music and Nashville if I tried,” she maintained to Phoenix writer Chris Flisher. “It’s in my blood. I knew I wanted to write at a very early age. I was eight or nine when I became obsessed with my aunt’s piano. That’s when I recall first wanting to write songs.”
The voices of a couple of influential women also played a large role in her development. “You have to understand that there weren’t many female role models to draw from in this town back then, as far as singer-songwriters playing guitar,” she told Billboard. “Bobbie Gentry and Dolly Parton. It was pretty limited, and Dolly was the first big impression I ever had as a female songwriter.”
Her mother’s connections in Nashville’s Music Row were sufficient to introduce Matraca to some of the town’s most gifted tunesmiths. “When I was growing up, Nashville had a very Bohemian vibe,” she noted in a publicity profile. The “outlaw” sensibility of less mainstream country music was another important early influence. “It wasn’t the way people expected it to be,” Berg added. “There were those polished, polite country stars. But if you were able to see the inside, you knew that there were all these other things, this whole other world that was about creativity and great songwriting.”
For the Record…
Born February 3, 1963, in Nashville, TN; daughter of Icee (a singer, concert booking agent, and a nurse) and Ron Berg. Married Jeff Hanna (a musician), December 4, 1993.
Songwriter, c. 1979—; performing artist c. late 1980s—; co-wrote songs recorded by T. G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Reba McEn-tire, Suzy Bogguss, Dusty Springfield, and others; signed to RCA Records and recorded debut album Lying to the Moon, 1991; left RCA c. 1995.
Addresses: Management —Mike Crowley Artist Management, 122 Longwood Ave., Austin, TX 78734.
Matraca’s obsession with songwriting bore fruit when she was 18. “Faking Love,” a song she’d co-written with Bobby Braddock, became a number-one hit for T. G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks. She recalled in The Tennessean the bittersweet experience of listening to the song on the car radio with Icee: “We pulled over and Mom looked at me and she said, Tell me what it is like.’ I just wanted to giveitto her so badly.”Unfortunately, Icee Berg was claimed by cancer before two years went by.
Meanwhile Matraca continued to write steadily for other artists—though always in collaboration. “I don’t write by myself,” she insisted to Flisher. “I can, but I am my own worst enemy. I am just too self-critical and a lot of times I just find that I have a lot of loose ends that just need someone else to tie together.” Once the ends were tied, these songs became chart successes for country stars like McEntire, Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and Suzy Bogguss, among others. In a field dominated by men, Berg composed songs for female recording artists that managed to balance a blunt acknowledgement of women’s experiences with a universal emotional reach. Though a gifted vocalist, she trusted her singing voice less than she did her writing voice. “I didn’t sing. I was really shy,” she averred in The Tennessean.“I just didn’t feel like I was any good. Besides, I didn’t want the stigma of being a ’chick singer.’ I wanted to be a songwriter. I wanted respect.”
Eventually, however, Berg’s voice earned some attention of its own. An executive at the Nashville offices of RCA Records who heard her singing on a song demo intended for superstar Wynonna Judd signed her to a recording deal. Berg’s debut, Lying to the Moon, was produced by Nashville vets Wendy Waldman and Josh Leo and released in 1991. It was a little too eccentric for country radio, however, and despite some very favorable reviews was rapidly consigned to obscurity. Even the critics weren’t unanimous, in fact, and some seconded Berg’s contention that she was still finding her voice. Country Music reviewer Himes, for example, felt that the album “spread on the self-pity a little too thick to win much sympathy from an audience.” Alanna Nash of Stereo Review, on the other hand, felt the recording “established Berg as a writer far too talented and insightful to settle for country formula.”
Even so, half the songs on Lying were covered by other artists. The title track, for instance—which Request dubbed a “magnificently twilit ballad”—was recorded by Yearwood. The acclaimed British vocalist Dusty Springfield and country star Pam Tillis also released their own versions of songs from Lying, which, Berg told Bone magazine, had thus “been vindicated.”
Even so, the commercial misfire of her recording debut marked the beginning of a difficult period for the singer-songwriter, during which she recorded another country album that wasn’t released and twice embarked on projects she didn’t complete. These difficulties were counterbalanced by some happier events, however; she married musician Jeff Hanna in 1993, sang backup for superstar singer-songwriter Neil Young, and had a small role in the film Made in Heaven. It soon became clear that Berg was ready to broaden her appeal.
“It’s taken me a couple of years to get used to the idea of being a recording artist and being out there in front of people,” Berg averred in the Chicago Tribune in 1994. “It’s much easier to hide behind a song.” By the time of this admission she had moved from the country division of RCA to pop and recorded another album—this time in Los Angeles. The result, The Speed of Grace, showed her bluesier side and was unfettered by the firm genre rules of country radio. Billboard speculated on the singer’s potentially diverse audience in a review of the Grace single “Guns In My Head,” which was released on a 5-song EP: “Topical without being heavy-handed, [the] single has a maturity and depth that will initially make inroads on AC [Adult Contemporary] stations—though it has an aggressive vibe that will play equally well on album rock airwaves.”
At the same time, Grace allowed Berg to pay tribute to her roots, covering Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” and reworking her own “Lying to the Moon.” Critics largely agreed that her new approach suited her better. Rolling Stone declared that her “singing is even more impressive than her songs. She doesn’t have a big voice, but she makes little things mean a lot through expressive phrasing and exquisite attention to detail.” Rolling Stone critic Don McLeese had some reservations about the “high-toned romantic melodrama” of her songs, but other critics were unabashedly positive. “Berg’s sultry voice seeps through a bluesy, sometimes rocking mix of tunes that exudes a sharper edge and darker mood than anything she’s written before,” noted Miami Herald reviewer Mario Tarradell, who added that the singer-songwriter “has matured nicely.” Alanna Nash wrote in Stereo Review that Grace was “occasionally uneven,” but called it “nonetheless an impressive album that begs repeated plays.”
“I guess it’s more pop and adult contemporary, or whatever they call it,” Berg said of the album in the Boston Globe. It was clear, however, that she had little use for labels and categories; this may have been a factor in her departure from RCA a bit later. And despite the fulfillment of a higher-profile recording career and a happy domestic life, Berg expressed her continuing devotion to sad songs. “Certain writers draw from happiness,” she told Phoenix writer Flisher. “I draw more from the dark side of myself, and I think those songs represent me the best. I seem to be most comfortable there. Besides, I love those old weepy country ballads. I think they are so cool.”
Released on RCA Records
Lying to the Moon, 1991.
The Speed of Grace (includes “Guns in My Head,”Lying to the Moon, and “Jolene”), 1994.
guns in my head…and others (5-song EP), 1994.
Billboard, July 23, 1994; September 3, 1994.
Bone, May 1994.
Boston Globe, June 3, 1994.
CD Review, My 1994.
Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1994.
Country Music, March 1994.
Miami Herald, June 16, 1994.
Phoenix, June 10, 1994.
Request, December 1993.
Rolling Stone, May 19, 1994.
Stereo Review, June 1994.
Tennessean, March 12, 1994.
Additional information was provided by publicity materials from Mike Crowley Artist Management, 1996.
"Berg, Matraca." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/berg-matraca
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