Pop: Single-minded success all over the country

She's had five number ones in a year. Country queen Matraca Berg talks to Jasper Rees about success and big hair.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last month's Country Music Awards paraded the usual crew of gifted singers who could no more write their own songs than storm the rap charts. If in some sadly hypothetical fantasy the songwriters went on strike, the huge industrial engine that is Nashville would grind into silence. But Music Row knows which side its bread is buttered, and unstintingly applauds its worker bees. Hence the Single of the Year, which went to Deana Carter's "Strawberry Wine", was as much a pat on the back to its authors as its gamine performer. The song was written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg (pr. Matraysa). It was, extraordinarily, Berg's fifth number one in the country charts within the space of a year.

Berg has been over here this week to promote a new album called Sunday Morning To Saturday Night. On Sunday night she saw Bob Dylan at Wembley; on Monday morning, when we met, she was about to perform on the same bill as his ex-girlfriend Joan Baez. "That'll be neat. I'll say, `So what was Dylan like in the sack?'" Baez probably has a practised answer for that one. Berg is learning to field questions about "Strawberry Wine". "That's what everybody wants to talk about". There's no concealing how irksome she finds this. "Obviously my notoriety is much more broad than it was before. I think it's tremendous to be honoured by your peers and all that. Besides that, if I don't keep working it's not going to change a thing. It's gonna be a pretty thing to put on my mantle." (Crystal, for your information, and "bullet-shaped".)

"Strawberry Wine" puts a sweetly articulate spin on the classic pop-song scenario in which timid ingenue steps on bottom rung of amorous ladder. It had actually done the rounds in Nashville for a while before Carter picked up on it. "Virtually every label in town had heard it. Pam Tillis had it on hold for a long time." The song patently required something other than the booming alto found on most female vocalists, and Carter's fragile little-girl-lost voice "was more suited to the song than anybody, including my own". Would Berg have wanted to cut the song herself? "Had I had a record deal, it would have been a good thing. But I didn't."

Berg's recording career is far briefer than her writing career. She wrote her first hit when she was 18 - she is "33 and a third" now - and was so thrown by the interest it spawned that she left town and didn't come back for a year and a half. But she didn't record her debut album until 1991. It was meant to the first in an eight-album deal with BCA, but "I terminated it," she says. "I couldn't seem to get anybody going in the same direction. I was batted back and forth from the country label to the pop label. It just felt wrong to me. But by the time we got in the studio for the second album I just surrendered. After that I was transferred to the LA roster and the whole thing started again and I just said, `I'm sorry I can't work like this'."

The opening song on the ridiculous second album is called "Slow Poison", which may or may not have been intended as her sick note to the big-label culture that put her into silly frocks and worked hard to hide the cool beauty of her Cherokee cheekbones. You can see why there was a clash of cultures. It's difficult to be ironic in the town that gave the world big hair. (See also Lovett, Lyle.) I ask her how she would describe her own long straight black-brown cut. "Songwriter's hair," she says, with a hint of mock dismay.

The irony of her failure, until now, to record in Nashville is that she is one of the few performers in the industry to have grown up there (Deana Carter, daughter of the prolific 1960s session guitarist Fred Carter, is another). She described her background as "half physicist, half hillbilly". Her mother, now dead, and aunts were backing singers from East Kentucky, and she remembers sitting in on sessions, "enthralled since I was a toddler", including one by Pam Tillis's crooning father Mel.

She wrote her first song in the back of the car at the age of five. "It was something about rockin' around town. My father was driving me to the university where he worked and he had some computer paper which back then was this big cardboard stuff and he wrote the song down. For a physicist he was very musical. It never occurred to me that I would do anything else. I would spend four hours at the piano when I was eight years old, not learning other songs but trying to make up my own, to the point of exasperation."

After breaking with BCA, she could comfortably have settled for being one of the most dependable sources of girl songs in Nashville - as well as for Carter, she is a writer of choice for, among others, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. Though she tried to curry interest in her singing on the back of her writing credits, "everybody turned me down, with all the songs that were hits last year. I had pretty much given up at that point."

Then last year Ken Levitan, who had managed Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Los Lobos and John Hiatt, set up a label called Rising Tide. "That's a songwriter's dream. He knows the animal, and it is a different creature altogether. We don't do the moving and shaking as easily. We just seem to take things a lot more personally. That's how I am. I'm not real good at going to a ton of radio stations and being treated like a piece of meat with a microphone."

The album is produced by Emery Gordy Jr, who has worked with everyone from Emmylou to Elvis, and Randy Scruggs, son of the great bluegrass picker Earl Scruggs. "They just understood what would have to be done to make things sane for me". Favours were called in from a lot of singers who have had hits with Berg's songs, so the list of backing vocalists has a Hall of Fame sheen to it. Her husband Jeff Hanna, guitarist with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and her aunts also appear. The result is easily her best album yet, a collection of songs about divorce, driving and death, some of which she showcased at a small industry event in Berkeley Square on Wednesday. She says she dreads going musically naked and relying on her own guitar playing, but up there on-stage she makes a joke of the band's absence. During the ironically raunchy "Back in the Saddle" she announces that "there should be a fiddle solo here", and comically mangles it.

The voice, meanwhile, is smoky and wry, but not embarrassed to emote, so it's a surprise to learn she dislikes the sound of her larynx so much that "I had other girls sing my demos for a long time, until my publisher made me. That's always been a problem with me. I haven't gotten totally past it yet". Then she adds, "But anybody that loves the sound of their own voice is probably an asshole. I like expressive voices, like Deana's. It's become sort of a sport singing the `star search' voice. The Mariah Careys." She wails operatically by way of illustration. "I'm not really into watching sports."

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