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Berg bears fruits of writing

By Jeffrey B. Remz, November 1997

To say the last year has been a career year for Matraca Berg would be an understatement.

The 33-year-old singer-songwriter has enjoyed five number one songs, including megahit "Strawberry Wine."

And while her own recording career has never achieved the same degree of success, Berg is at it once again, hoping the recently released "Sunday Morning to Saturday Night" will turn the trick.

In addition to "Strawberry Wine," which broke Deana Carter big time, Berg also wrote "You Can Feel Bad If It Makes You Feel Better" (Patty Loveless), "Wild Angels" (Martina McBride), "Everybody Knows" (Trisha Yearwood) and "We Danced Anyway" (Carter).

"It just hasn't hit me yet," says Berg from Charlotte, N.C. where she is in the midst of a Borders Books tour supporting her CD. "It's just almost like it's happening to somebody else. It's strange. I still feel like a kid from the outside looking in. My dream when I was a child was to be like a Harlan Howard or a Kris Kristofferson. Those were the people I was raised around. That was the world I was raised in. In Nashville, songwriters were it growing up."

"Now, I'm sitting here with a CMA award," says Berg, who had her first number one at the ripe old age of 18. "I guess I'd thought I'd feel a lot cooler. I guess I don't. I'm waiting for that certain confidence where you regally enter a room and say 'hey.'"

"Strawberry Wine" was an out of left field hit for an unknown Carter. "That was a huge surprise for everybody," says Berg. "I think the only person who wasn't surprised was Deana."

Two weeks before a single was to be released, Carter phoned Berg and told her "Strawberry Wine" would be the first single instead.

"I don't know," Berg says. "It was a waltz. To me, a mature thing, but I think because I wrote it I knew more about it than possibly someone who would be hearing it. I was short selling the song. I had no idea that it who had that broad appeal."

"I talked with (songwriter) Bobby Braddock, and he said he felt the same way. You don't really know."

The success of the other songs was not as surprising. "I thought they'd do well," Berg says. One disappointment was McBride's "Cry on the Shoulder," which didn't chart too highly. "I just felt that song should have done more than it did. I was very disappointed."

On the heels of winning awards, Berg released her third album on Rising Tide this fall. The disc follows in the styles of Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

The release came out four years after "The Speed of Grace," a blues-oriented disc with few country influences that almost ruined her chances of ever making it in Nashville. "It was just kind of a mess all around, and it was too late for me to turn back, and I just got through it the best I could."

"It just kind of screwed me up," Berg says.

Despite the failure of that album, Berg says, "I was wanting to do one. I was ready to do one quite awhile back, but no one was willing to give me a record deal. I was waiting in the wings, hoping for a chance."

"It was a perception problem as far as the labels were concerned in Nashville," she says. "They've always considered me a fringe artist. Then, I made a pop record because (RCA head) Joe Galante moved from Nashville to the New York label. He took my contract up to New York label. In hindsight, I probably should have walked. I didn't think I had any options. After that, I was persona non grata as far as Nashville was concerned."

As for the "fringe" idea, Berg says, "That's just the label that has been stuck on me from the very beginning, but I don't know why. They see me as more of the Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, John Hiatt kind of cool. I've thought of myself as always more mainstream than that. Maybe I'm deluding myself."

Berg took the initiative in going to Rising Tide.

"I pursued them aggressively," Berg says. "When I heard that Ken Levitan and Emory Gordy were going to start a label, it seemed like a good place for me to go."

Berg was keen due to Levitan's past as a manager and Gordon's production of wife Patty Loveless's records.

Berg signed about a year ago and spent four months recording with Gordy. "Emory is the boss. Emory can take as much time as Emory wants. Emory is very persnickety as producer. It's a really strange combination of soulful and anal, but it works."

Berg's favorites are the tender "Back When We Were Beautiful" and "The Resurrection" because they come from "a deeper place. They just mean a lot to me, sentimental value."

The former is told from the perspective of an aging woman. "I had a conversation with my mother in law about aging and her husband, who had died long before I had married Jeff. (Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). Seeing Jeff and me so happy together just made her melancholy. They were apparently a great love story. She sat with me one night and just poured her heart out about how much she loved Jeff's father, and how she missed him and how she felt about getting older. Coincidentally, I had lunch with my grandmother the next week and she said almost the same thing. I felt compelled to write it."

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