You may not know Matraca Berg by name, but you know her songs. She grew up in Nashville, the child of parents connected to the world of country music. She started writing songs in her teens and scored a #1 hit at eighteen. She has written hit songs for Reba McEntire (The Last One to Know), Patty Loveless (I'm That Kind of Girl), Trisha Yearwood (Wrong Side of Memphis) and most recently, Kenny Chesney (You and Tequila). She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008. And, she won the Country Music Association's Song of the Year Award in 1997 for Strawberry Wine, recorded by Deana Carter.
The Dreaming Fields is Berg's first studio album in fourteen years. In this recording, and in all of her music for that matter, she has a distinct take on issues that are important to the lives of women. The songs speak to universal themes of loss, memory and moving on. Her lyrics are thoughtful and literate. And this is what makes her stand out in the world of Nashville songwriters. She also has a lovely alto that draws the listener in to her finely crafted tunes. It is a mystery why she has been so successful as a songwriter, but not as well known as a singer.
The recording opens with a stunning tune about the plight of a battered woman, If I Had Wings. It tells the story of woman who has endured years of abuse:
If I had wings I would fly Over the river and into the night And if I had wheels I would roll Ten years of dreams tethered to my soul
This could easily be Berg's first hit as a singer in many years. It also features some really fine Nashville players, with a particular nod to Richard Bennett on electric guitar.
Kenny Chesney recently had a hit on country radio with You and Tequila. I like Berg's take on the song a bit better. There's a little more remorse and reflection in her interpretation. And there is certainly a lot of truth in the comparison between liquor and love. Both can be addicting.
Racing the Angels is a song that defines the theme of this recording. It tackles the loss of a loved one, and the ensuing memories. Berg co-wrote this with frequent collaborators and friends, Suzy Bogguss and Getchen Peters. Both contribute backing vocals. Berg's voice soars on this one. I think every listener will be smitten with her by the end of the track.
The centerpiece of this recording is the title track, The Dreaming Fields. It tells the story of the heartbreaking loss of Berg's grandparents' Wisconsin farm. It evokes childhood memories—of things that actually were that will never be again. The bucolic description of fields, bales of hay and the plenty of the harvest are simply beautiful. And in their place are now the suburban "houses [that] grow like weeds in a flower bed." There is sadness here, but there is a richness of memories. You will remember this song, too. It has all the earmarks of a classic in any genre. And…Trisha Yearwood was wise enough to record it, too. It's a work of art.
And if you thought that Berg did not have a sense of humor (albeit a dark one), she has a cheating man's mistress and wife putting their heads together to outsmart him when he's gone on to a younger version of them in Your Husband's Cheating on Us.
South of Heaven finds a mother sending her son off to war. There's a real sense of dread and potential loss here. It features a heavenly chorus lead by Suzy Bogguss and Gretchen Peters once again, with a wonderful guitar solo by Richard Bennett. Dan Dugmore is excellent on pedal steel with John Gardner on drums.
Matraca Berg explores all of the forms that loss takes on this CD, yet her work is not depressing or dark. The timbre of her voice and the light that seems to emanate from each of the songs give them weight and depth, but they are never lost in the darkness. The Dreaming Fields is a bravura performance from Berg and a perfect re-entry for her as a performing artist. You don't need to be a country fan to appreciate her music—she crosses from country into pop and back again. And…the recording is ballad driven. Put on some Matraca Berg and dream.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2011, Peterborough Folk Music Society and Roberta B. Schwartz.
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