Songwriter Spotlight: Matraca Berg

Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member tells the stories behind unexpected hits including "Strawberry Wine" and "You and Tequila"

Matraca Berg Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

At just 18, an age when most of her peers were adjusting to life after high school and contemplating college, Matraca Berg was adjusting to life as the co-writer of a Number One country song. The Nashville native penned the 1983 chart-topping T.G. Sheppard—Karen Brooks duet, "Faking Love," with her mentor, Bobby Braddock ("He Stopped Loving Her Today," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E") as a teen, and the hits snowballed from there. The path to success for the Nashville native was seemingly as effortless as her songwriting process.

"When I was 15, songs just started coming into my head almost fully formed," she recalls to Rolling Stone Country. "I would just be constantly writing, every single day. My dad had a couple of cassette players, so I would do that fake overdubbing from one cassette player to the other."

In addition to releasing a series of critically acclaimed albums, including the outstanding Sunday Morning to Saturday Night in 1997, the singer-songwriter followed the success of that first hit with Number One songs for Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Kenny Chesney and Deana Carter, among numerous other big names in country music.

Berg's career destiny was carved into her family tree. Her mother, Kentucky native Icie Berg moved to Nashville to follow her singer-songwriter dreams. She married fellow tunesmith Dave Kirby, the writer of the Charley Pride classic, "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone," but ultimately left the music business and became a nurse. Still, Matraca — the oldest of Berg and Kirby's three children — was essentially raised on Music Row, surrounded by singers, writers and musicians, including three aunts who were successful backup singers and a steel guitar-playing uncle. When her mother died in 1985, at age 40, Berg was left to care for her siblings, merging her hectic home life with her blossoming career.

At the time Berg was starting out, her co-writing sessions were often with members of the opposite sex, allowing for a "yin and yang" she found to be extremely productive. But the main reason she found herself collaborating with male writers was simply the dearth of fellow female tunesmiths at the time.

"There was Kye Fleming, Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy, Sharon Vaughn… not very many," she remembers. "Of course, everybody assumed I was a girl singer. But I was a songwriter; I wanted to hang with the boys."

Berg is thankful that Music Row times have changed. She now has an influx of female co-writers she calls her "sisters."

"I just went to Massachusetts and wrote with Lori McKenna," she reports. "We wrote two songs in one day. The stuff that we were talking about that you just don't talk about with your male writing buddies makes for very interesting songs. But chemistry is very important whether you're male or female. Some people just don't click."

Although she's found great chemistry with her many collaborators, one of the things she's been unable to do, Berg confesses, is capitalize on the burgeoning "bro country" movement. Consequently, she's experiencing a bit of a dry spell lately, although artists including Ashley Monroe and Train are among those who've recently dipped into Berg's songwriting well for various recording projects.

"I've had some great cuts this year," she explains. "If I could [write a 'bro country' song], I would because this is what I do for a living. Wade Kirby, my stepbrother, writes a lot of those.… I said, 'Could you just show me how it's done?' It was a futile exercise. He said, 'You don't do this kind of stuff, don't even worry about it.' I said, 'Hey, I've got bills to pay.' Tracy Gershon [vice-president of A&R for Nashville's Rounder Records] and I joked around and came up with the term 'bra country.' That's the next movement."

Berg, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, tells the stories behind five of her biggest "bra country" hits:

Deana Carter, "Strawberry Wine" (Berg, Gary Harrison)
I had the title, because we drank that Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill crap 'til we were sick when we were teenagers. We just painted a picture that told the story. Right after I wrote it, my publisher, Pat Higdon had this little barbecue thing where he'd invite publishers and artists to come hear our new songs. Deana was the only artist that showed up! [Laughs] When the time came for her to go into the studio, every girl had passed on it.

It's a five-minute waltz about... ya know. [Laughs] Deana was a brand-new artist and she wanted it as her first single. That shocked me. She was a friend of mine, so I was trying to talk her out of it because I wanted her to do well.

Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, "You and Tequila" (Berg, Deana Carter)
Deana and I were scheduled to write for her next record on RCA. Two days before, we had the Harlan Howard memorial service and there was this montage of artists and songwriters in the video presentation talking about what he meant to us. I was crying for most of the interview, so I thought they'd cut that out because I don't cry real pretty. I said, "He bought me my first shot of tequila." We all went to Tootsie's afterwards and his kids kept sending me shots of tequila. I didn't want to be rude, so I had a two-day tequila hangover.

I don't know how the title came out, but I think Deana blurted it out. We have a mutual friend who lives out in California on Mulholland Drive. When I'd go out there and visit, we would all hang out and have a girl party. She was going through some pretty bad heartbreak about that time, too. So it was a mishmash of what was going on with us at the time. [When Kenny Chesney cut it], it got nominated for every award. One poignant moment when all that was happening was we were at the CMAs or the Grammys, I'm sitting with Deana and she starts crying. I mean, really crying. I said, "Are you OK?" She said, "Nobody's ever sung a song of mine." I was floored. She had her mother with her. We knew we had lost [the award] already, but I stopped being a sore loser because she was having this really sweet moment.

Trisha Yearwood, "Wrong Side of Memphis" (Berg, Harrison)
We were in the kitchen in our little publishing company, Patrick Joseph Music. We had five or six writers there, and we used to hang out in the kitchen and shoot the shit. We were talking about where we were from. Everybody knows I'm from [Nashville]. Gary said, "I'm from the wrong side of Memphis." I looked at him and pointed at him and said, "Mine!" [Laughs] We literally wrote that in about 20 minutes. I lived in Louisiana for about a year, and I was in band and had a boyfriend. I just burned up that road because I missed my mom so much. I was still pretty young when I lived down there. I had a lot of experience on [Interstate] 40. Gary had, too. It was just a really easy song to write. It was one of those gifts; it wrote itself.

Martina McBride, "Wild Angels" (Berg, Harrison, Harry Stinson)
I started this with Harry Stinson. It was originally "Wild Angels on Blue Horses." I don't know what I was smoking that day! The demo was fantastic — it was almost exactly what you hear in Martina's record, only they amped it up because they have more money than I do. Everybody kept putting it on hold and they kept asking me, "What does the song mean?" So I thought, OK, it's time to bring in the closer. I called Gary because rewrites are really difficult for me. Gary came in and saw what needed to be done and it was just like, boom. He truly is a badass. It was about everything that my husband [Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member] Jeff Hanna and I had gone through before we found each other. I was still freshly married, navigating marriage, stepchildren, crazy families and really crazy schedules, because we were both on the road at that point. We were just passing each other in the air. It felt like such a miracle to me that I would find love like that in my thirties. It took a while.

Dixie Chicks, "If I Fall, You're Going Down With Me" (Berg, Annie Roboff)
Annie is a groove-meister. That was a fast one, too. We just wanted to write a really fun song. There's really nothing to it. It's just a fun song like [the Patty Loveless hit,] "I'm That Kind of Girl." I wasn't in that Dixie Chicks' camp of writers, so I was very surprised and very appreciative. I couldn't believe the sales. I've never been on a record that big. It was one of their last hits too, which made me sad. That's just wrong.