Country Musician Writes Her Way to Top

Matraca Berg credits songwriting for career boost

For almost a decade and a half, songwriter Matraca Berg has watched some of Nashville's best-known stars turn multiplatinum and produce No. 1 hits - with her lyrics.

But tomorrow night at the 31st Country Music Association Awards, Berg will be the one singing her lyrics in front of a nationally televised audience. (The CMA awards will air at 8 p.m. eastern time on CBS.) Still best known for her songwriting, Berg is no stranger to the stage. Early in her career she was singing backup for Neil Young and in later years opened for country-music giant Clint Black.

Berg the songwriter has been nominated by the CMA for best song of the year for "Strawberry Wine," a song about lost innocence recorded by Deana Carter.

Berg the singer releases her third CD today, "Sunday Morning to Saturday Night" (her first release on the Rising Tide label). The country musician says the years of writing have given her music a simplicity and honesty.

"I try to hone it down to make it simpler, using more understandable language with each year. It's more comfortable singing when your songs get simpler," she says.

"Back When We Were Beautiful," a song of generations and passage on the new CD, is an example of that straightforward style and what she describes as a love song for her family. She'll sing it tomorrow night.

"It's a tribute to the people I love. When I sing it I feel really good," she says. Same with "Resurrection," the last song on the CD.

"It's a love song for various people in my life, relatives and people close to me. It's a song about people's dreams, that you understand they have those dreams and you want them to come true for them."

"Along for the Ride" leads off the new CD. It's a fast-moving tune about carefree bliss and enjoying life on the fly. "I love how it cooks along," she says of the song written for her husband, Jeff Hanna, of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Once you've heard the chorus, it's hard to stop singing or keep your feet from tapping: "We're just along for the ride/ for the thrill of the flight/ let your heart be your guide ... we're along for the ride."

Berg's music has helped catapult the careers of other women in country music and energize those of established singers. She co-wrote Trisha Yearwood's "Everybody Knows" and the Martina McBride release "Wild Angels." In all, she has had five songs hit No. 1 in the past year. Berg has also written songs for Reba McEntire ("The Last One to Know") and for Suzy Bogguss ("Hey Cinderella").

"Strawberry" and "We Danced Anyway" gave artist Deana Carter a huge boost on her album, "Did I Shave My Legs for This?" - enough for it to go triple platinum this year.

While Berg is making a strong mark on country music, she doesn't necessarily focus on how a song will fall on the ears of either sex.

But in the age of the Lilith Fair and women in other genres of popular music experiencing a boost in their popularity and status, she is claiming new ground as a female country artist.

The thirtysomething Berg has been surrounded by country music since she was in diapers. Instead of making the pilgrimage to Nashville as a songwriting wannabe, she was born and raised in the country-music mecca, leaving only once for a short period when she "followed a boy," as she puts it, to Louisiana.

Her mother, the late Icee Berg, was a familiar session singer around Nashville.

Her aunts were well-known child stars in Tennessee, singing on the Renfro Valley Jubilee radio show in the 1960s. They've now been enlisted by Berg to sing backup from time to time and give her a sense of family on the road.

"It's so wonderful to see them standing by me, singing on the stage," she says warmly. "They have kept me safe through the years; we are very close."

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