Matraca Berg: Dreaming in Fields, Falling & Chasing The Angels

            I shouldn’t be writing this. It’s not right.

            You see, I first met Matraca Berg -- as Delbert McClinton wrote – in a warehouse in West L.A. She was, at 26, a wildly accomplished songwriter with several #1s, including her first written at 18 with no less than the legendary Bobby Braddock. She was on the verge of her debut record, and they’d called me to write the bio., to capture the story, the music and weave it into some kind of narrative essence.

            She was tall, thin, pretty. Giant eyes, brown hair tumbling down around a heart-shaped face – and when she looked, you knew she knew. Everything. She understood. It made her a powerful voice for young women self-reliant beyond their years, banging into real life and realizing the bruises that come with learning the hard way. Romantic in spire of knowing, willing to keep wading into the rivers of real life, she held a light on so many of the unseen: the late middle-aged beautician of “Alice in the Looking Glass,” the lost girlhood of “Appalachian Rain,” as well as the liquid desire of “I Got It Bad.”

            That was 20 years and several labels ago. A lot has happened. Life has deepened – to the good and the bad. Triumphs for certain – the first woman to write 5 #1s in a year, becoming a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame – as the tragedies deepend, too. Not that she talks about them, but they permeate many of the songs she writes.

          And I know. Of course I do… I’ve been there for all of it.

          See. Matraca Berg said to me in that parking lot that day all those years ago, as I was ruing moving to Nashville, knowing how cliquish it is and how not like the typical girl I am, “I’ll be your friend.” She meant it.

            I arrived July 3, my good silverware heavy in my carry-on bag – about the only possession I had of any real value – and the exhaustion all over me. Confronted with a sea of bad Christmas tree perms on the rush of women coming at me in the airport, I broke down crying in the arms of the man from Tennessee Car & Van Rental.

            July 4th, I was at her Aunt Sudie’s house for chicken and too much family. An only child, I wasn’t used to the tangle of loud talk, big laughter and people pecking at each other, It didn’t matter, they took to me like they take to everyone.

            Since then, we’ve been through everything. Bad lovers, a husband who I’d written about since I was 19, illness, broken engagements, career success, bolstering each other and taking up against those who would detract when the friend wasn’t there.

            Matraca scored 5 #1s in a single year, won the CMA’s Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine” and made her network tv debut on the “CMA Awards” with the aching ballad of recognizing the harshest part of old age  “Back When We Were Beautiful” that same night from the album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night. By the end of the year, that album wou;d be on TIME, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, People, The Tennessean and The Chicago Tribune’s Top 10 Albums of the Year in ANY genre – and her label would be out of business.

            The best of times, the worst of times.

            An almost recluse, she’d had enough chasing the fame. She went home. Sunk into the complicated dynamics of extended family. Wrote more songs. Didn’t look back. Her ego didn’t need it; her soul couldn’t take the bruising.

            But, damn, she was still so good. Still a paper cut on your heart kind of wincing compositional proposition. As the best writing is, or should be. And so she remained. Even as she stayed out of view, hidden and thinking about what the Nashville she was raised in – one where the creatives only came out after dark, studiously avoiding the suits, Kristofferson had just risen from the janitorial ranks and Red Lane, Sonny Throckmorton, even  Mel Tillis who were regulars around her mother’s house – meant.

            See, Matraca Berg wasn’t raised like other kids. She was being dragged to recording sessions up and down Music Row by a single mom who knew her daughter had “game.” She was drafted for Neil Young’s snaggle-tooth hippie country Old Ways tour – along with Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Anthony Crawford , back-up singing with Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson at Live Aid. She knows the difference, and she knows what’s gone.

            Which is why there’s The Dreeaming Fields, an elegy for too many ways of life. The title track is about her grandfather’s dairy farm – the scene of the virginity losing summerscape “Strawberry Wine” -- being parceled off for pre-fab houses, the family farm no longer a part of the America we live in, while “Racing The Angels” is a living person’s pining for one who has passed, palpable and passionate in the heartbreak and sustaining ardor and “Clouds” is the reality of knowing what’s coming, the tears and good-byes, yet willing the end even with the inevitable pain that’s comes with it.

            Matraca Berg has never been afraid of the pain. She recognizes the common currency among women is just thatL courage to move through it, to maintain dignity in the roughest places and the strength to withstand anything. On The Dreaming Fields opener, “If I Had Wings,” the long-suffering battered protagonist hits her limit: “Everyone knew one day it’d be him or me…” as she confesses, “My mother said call the preacher, I just said ‘Call the law…’,”

            These are hard scrabble women. They – like Berg – know no other way.

            It is not an easy life, but it is their’s, and they live it fully. On “You & Tequila,” the song’s heroine honors the hold that one certain someone has over her – “You & tequila make me crazy, run like poison through my veins/ One is one too many, one more is never enough…” – and buckles to the craving, knowing how bad the morning after’s gonna feel.

            Mortality, humanity, kindess, sadness. It is all part of the sum total. On “South of Heaven,” a mother whose son has been sent home covered by a flag sees no point in losing children to battles she can’t understand, for principles that have nothing to do with how she lives or holds her ground. “Father, You have given Your only son,” she sings as the voice of the woman whose truth is all recrimination and seering love for her child, “but you are not the only one…”

            To take a point and skewer it through the listener’s thorax is no small feat. To do it with an essentialism of how we all live is an art. Matraca Berg is a humanist, an everywoman, a seeker and the keeper of people’s secrets. That she keeps them is one thing, that she also recycles them into compelling glimpses of life – the quavering places, moments of doubts,  total surrender – is why she is, inspite of her hiding, so important.

            Not that it’s always dire. “Fall Again” is the fault=line of desire and desolation. You hear how brittle the love has become, and how much she needs to set it ablaze – not to burn it to the ground, but to rekindle what was there. The urgency is one of not losing something so vital, and it comes through in torrents of unquenchable desire.

            Indeed, even the piquant “Your Husband’s Cheating On Us” – a sketch of the other woman’s visit to the long-suffering wife – is a portrait of turnabout in the realm of betrayal. The irony of the hunter getting quartered by the game is a delicious send-up of the wronged being abetted by the betrayer.

            Who we betray, how we do it, indeed, how often the betrayer is ourselves… She understands. Indeed, the woman whose first album in 14 years takes its seeds from Joni Mitchell’s Blue, from Neil Young’s Harvest, from Emmylou Harris’ Pieces of the Sky recognizes how often in doing the seemingly right thing, we so sell ourselves short.

            The Dreeaming Fields contains “Oh, Cumberland,” a song that was originally recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Emmylou Harris for their Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol 3 – and it is a love song to a place one has left, but can never leave. In a place where the dream is theoretically to be had, there is that nagging sense of loss of self, a genuine feeling of ache for where one comes from, for places that make one feel whole and settled.

            It is not about the reality we’re sold – glossy Hollywood living, which mostly only makes one tired, but the roots of where we come from, rivers that barely move and places we can stop and just be. Exhaustion permeates the chase, comfort anchors where we’re from.

            Where we’re from is the whole point, Who we are at our core is everything.

            In a world hurling itself down the stairs of something so two-dimensional, so devoid of deeper meaning, but ooh the shiny high gloss coating of faux emotion and almost reality, we can forget who we are at our broken places – until the dazzle wears off and we’re even more empty than when we started, another cure-all failing us.

            It’s at those times that an album like The Dreaming Fields matters. It gently, humbly, honorably tells us the truth… wincing for us when it stings and encouraging us softly when we need the help to go on. Sometimes it is in the knowing that we can begin to heal, to climb, to seek.

            To me, those have always been the records that mattered. Why I return to Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates or Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, Julie Miller’s “Broken Things” or Alex Bevan’s Springboard again and again… in the lost hours… looking for equanimity and balance in the flood.

            To have someone who knows, who sees and who tells us it’s okay, and it’s up to us to change the dynamic, but also suggesting that we can: that’s everything. For Matraca Berg, who reached back into a dusty paradigm of resonant steel, guitars that waver, pianos that ripple and sustain and vocals that echo like they’re coming down a holler, it is everything, too.

            She knows the difference, and like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl, she has taken this album and held 11 matches aloft, hoping the flame will contain everything she loves about one of Nashville’s most fertile periods musically – so people will see, will know, will breathe and embrace something that matters so much to her.

            In the end, what she loves is what makes us strongest in our banged up places. All you have to do is listen. That’s how powerful these spare songs are. But don’t listen to me… I’m the girl she befriended straight off the plane, and surely I couldn’t be objective, even with all the years of writing for places like The Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone, Trouser Press and CREEM, Musician and Tower Pulse, indeed so many great music magazines too long gone, but absolutely measures of the things in music that makes us more as people.

            Making us more is what music is supposed to do. Listening to this record, I remember that. I wonder about the futility of greatness cutting through the dissonance, and I don’t care. It’s why I’m writing about something I shouldn’t for people who might not be able to embrace passion for small rules that make them feel safe – but miss the hardest tilt of the best stuff of what music is, how songs can hit you and the reasons records like this truly matter.