The release of The Dreaming Fields is certainly cause for celebration. Not of the wild party variety, but the type of celebration that one feels on the inside, knowing that something good has just happened, something to savor.
This celebration comes courtesy of Matraca Berg, who has finally released her first album of new material in 14 years.
After listening to it and reflecting the journey that it took for her to get here, The Dreaming Fields may, in many ways, be her first true album, one that could and should signify a long recording career ahead. If so, it would be sweet justice for her fans that won't have to wait so long for her next and for Matraca herself who has at long last has found a direct path to her own artistry.
Matraca Berg is a Nashville lifer ("one of the few people who was born and raised here") whose mother, Icie Berg, moved from Harlan County, Kentucky to Nashville in the early 60s to try to make it in country music. While she did not find long term success, Icie encouraged her daughter to sing and write as Matraca recalls from her youth, "I grew up around Hall of Fame songwriters.... It felt like they were my family, and those hallways and all that laughter and picking was my home."
Before she was 20, she had written her first #1 hit with the legendary Bobby Braddock, "Fakin' Love" by TG Sheppard and Karen Brooks which led to her spending the next few years writing several more hit songs for others before getting her own record deal with RCA. Lying To The Moon was released in 1990 generating four singles with two of them hitting the country top 40. Still in her 20s, a long term career for Berg seemed certain as Alanna Nash's Entertainment Weekly A+ review of that album showed:
Wrapped in an exotic hillbilly first name (pronounced Muh-TRAY-suh) that signals she's a woman to be noticed, Matraca Berg saunters down the pike on her debut album, Lying to the Moon, looking like the belle of the newcomer's ball. Unquestionably the first true country femme fatale of the '90s, 26-year-old Berg easily strides the divide between songwriter and full-fledged performer, imbuing her material with surefooted intelligence and mesmerizing sensuality. Her songs' protagonists struggle with strength of character and self-sufficiency, trying to maintain their integrity in the face of heartbreak and despair.
The words in that review from decades ago capture the excitement of what should have been a long and storied recording career. Sadly, all of the well-deserved promise of Lying To The Moon went unrealized as Berg's career as a recording artist was on its way to being derailed. It was perhaps too much, too soon for young Matraca as she recently looked back on that period:
My first audience was 10,000 people opening for Clint Black – and that creates a pressure. You get into this thing of thinking it’s about being a blazing vocalist, and I put a lot of pressure on myself. But it was never who I was or what I wanted to be… and that only made my stage fright worse, which got in the way of everything else.
This loss of confidence as a performer and recording artist deepened as RCA rejected her next album, Bittersweet Surrender, soon after releasing its first single. The label began to tinker, deciding she wasn't country enough, opting instead to re-make her as a pop artist in the vein of Bonnie Raitt who was all over the radio at the time. By the time RCA released The Speed Of Grace, a fine, blues-rock, but almost distinctively non-country album, in 1994, the momentum from her first album was long gone causing Grace to sputter at radio and retail and leaving Berg's recording career high and dry by the time she was hitting 30.
While her recording career hit the skids thanks to her label's feeble tampering, her songwriting for others stayed consistently strong. Her distinctive writing voice provided career-making songs throughout the 90s for many of Nashville's best known female artists such as Trisha Yearwood, Deana Carter, Martina McBride and Patty Loveless. Berg's builds her songwriting upon "being from the South, working class deep Southern roots" allowing her to write from a women's point of view in a way that few have.
Her songs provide an unmatched perspective to which women can relate and from which men should gain insight. From "Xxx's and Ooo's" and "Everybody Knows" (both sung by Yearwood) to "Wild Angels" by McBride to "I'm That Kind of Girl" and "You Can Feel Bad" (both by Loveless) to "Strawberry Wine" by Carter, these songs stand together to create a unified female portrait. From this perspective, Berg has been making seamless albums for years through all of these country radio hits even despite her own sporadic recording career. Her singular sense of humor, insight, sass, heartbreak, love, and tears flow through her songs. Berg explains her sense of universal sisterhood:
There are really very few women that I don’t see a part of myself in, no matter what they do, what their station of life. We all as women share things; you tend to know each other, have recognition on a cellular level, which defies words. You don’t even have to talk about it, you just know… and that’s the glue that holds us together.
The power of Berg's songs could not be denied. The massive success of "Strawberry Wine", which was named CMA's Song of the Year in 1997, gave Berg another shot at recording as she released Sunday Morning To Saturday Night later that year. That album, which also marked her return to country music sounds, was duly lauded by nearly every critic. However, country radio barely gave it a sniff followed by her label soon folding.
After that, Matraca Berg, the performer and recording artist, would begin a career hibernation that would last would last for more than a decade. The success at songwriting for others continued (Gretchen Wilson's version of her song "I Don't Feel Like Loving You Today" earned a Grammy nomination in 2007), but Matraca's own performing voice had sadly gone silent.
In light of her difficult journey, one can understand the decade plus it took to finally release The Dreaming Fields, but much also happened during that time of self imposed silence allowing Matraca Berg, as recording artist and performer, to fully emerge. Her time out of the spotlight became an extended period of realization and discovery as she recently explained:
I never thought that greatness, that classic country would get washed away in the mainstream…. I never thought I’d land in the margins and wouldn’t understand what was going on.... I dropped out after my label folded, [and] I went home and I wrote, which is what I was born to do. The more I wrote, the more my voice emerged, songs I could sing as a songwriter/artist. The songs I was most drawn to were not obvious for mainstream radio. But I felt deeply they deserved attention, some air. They should live somewhere other than the basement of my publishing company…
The simple and direct answer to this long period of reflection was to make an album, a once valued art form that has sadly become an afterthought way of launching a new tour or a new line of concert t-shirt. Berg would not follow that path as she explained, “I wanted there to be cohesion,... a piece of work where you’re going through a part of people’s lives.... understand[ing] what was going on, how these women felt…"
The Dreaming Fields achieves her goals to a remarkable degree. Loosely built around the theme of loss, her album tells the stories of women nearing middle age where Berg now finds herself. No longer writing from the younger woman's perspective that largely informed her run of country hits for others, she writes and sings from the experience only years of living can provide.
The subject matter of the songs is difficult, but incredibly rewarding. Berg gathered the songs for The Dreaming Fields to fit the album as a whole so the songs come from different eras with a few having been previously recorded by others. Put together as a piece for this album, the meaning of each song deepens as they become part of a larger tapestry.
"If I Had Wings" leads off the record with a hypnotic tale of an abused wife on the run after killing her husband. The song takes you into her mind as she reflects on the limits of her life's choices as a young girl ("tobacco Fields, textile mills or be some roughneck's wife") and the deep pain emotional pain from her abuse, how her husband pretending like his abuse of her didn't happen "hurts worse than the bruises" and how the worst part of it all is the "dark and jagged" emptiness that is killing her soul.
The loss chronicled in "If I Had Wings" has numerous aspects - a girl losing her youthful dreams due to too few choices, a woman losing her soul to abuse, and a man losing his life to his wife who has had enough. The loss extends on "You and Tequila", a classic country song about the loss of control to the aching "Racing The Angels", one of the most poignant songs ever written about missing a loved one who has died.
"Silver and Glass" tells the story of a small town girl turned aging woman who has begun to lose the thing she built her life around - her beauty. This is a song Stevie Nicks might have written in her heyday. Drawing from Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door", Berg's song "Clouds" follows, revealing a relationship nearing its end with the woman asking, perhaps begging, that the clouds in her man's eyes turn to rain so that it can all be over quickly.
The next two songs, the title track and "Oh Cumberland", stand as perhaps the album's finest moment because taken together they deal with loss but also with a sense of understanding that loss will always be part of life as Berg explains:
[L]ike a lot of people, I’m at a place in my life where life is a big deal – and there’s a lot of family stuff going on. A lot of grief, aging people, and the sorts of things you can’t escape because that is life. Between being young and having it all in front of you and where it is once you grow up a little bit… That’s what life is really made of, and hopefully this record, too.
The title song tells the story of her grandfather's farm in Wisconsin as it is no longer working and is, instead, surrounded by creeping housing developments growing like "like weeds in a flower bed." The same farm from "Strawberry Wine" where she had "her first taste of love" as a young girl has now been left to rust:
Oh, the sun rolls down, big as a miracle
And fades from the midwest sky
And the corn and the trees wave in the breeze
As if to say goodbye
Oh, my grandfather stood right here as a younger man
In nineteen and forty three
And he grew with the sweat and his tears, the rain and the years
He grew life from the soil and seed
For anyone who has experienced this kind of loss, not just of life, but of a way of life never to return, this song cuts deep. Berg, herself, seems choked up at times trying to sing some of the words.
On "Oh Cumberland" the pain of the previous song flows slowly like the "lazy" river running through Nashville this song honors. The loss here almost cathartic since the singer is living in California away from her Nashville home while still knowing that Nashville and its river remain her home. The pain of missing home can always be soothed by knowing that home still awaits your return.
The album continues with the sultry funk of "Your Husband's Cheating On Us" which spins a tale where the other woman and the wife have both been left behind for someone newer and younger. "Fall Again", written with Arkansan actress Mary Steenburgen, shows a marriage grown sadly cold after years of emotional neglect. "South Of Heaven" tells of war's costs through the eyes of a soldier's mother who has lost her child. By the album's end completed by the lilting sounds of "A Cold, Rainy Morning In London In June", these varied stories of loss have painted a rich landscape of emotion complete with nuance and understanding.
That Matraca Berg has assembled an amazing set of songs isn't a surprise, but her singing and production of The Dreaming Fields demonstrates why this is a new beginning for her. She successful reveals and achieves the effect of so many deep influences from Emmylou Harris to Bobbie Gentry. As a producer, she pushes her Nashville establishment session pros with the same spirit her songs recorded by others pushed country radio. Not since Lyle Lovett has an artist who has gotten more out of Nashville's top players.
At the core, it is all Matraca - her songs, her voice, her piano, her guitar. This voice that spoke softly, but with great promise, over twenty years ago on Lying To The Moon has been fully realized on The Dreaming Fields. Decades in the making, Matraca Berg, the artist, has found a voice that combines every aspect of her brilliant craft from songwriting to perspective to performance.
Like Willis Alan Ramsey who recorded a single, but definitive southern singer-songwriter record decades ago, Matraca Berg could decide she is done again with recording after this one album. One can only expect that this would similarly serve to further mythologize the greatness of The Dreaming Fields, as the years ahead should cement its place amongst this era's greatest recordings.
But with each repeated listening, it seems clear that Matraca Berg has figured it all out. As ingenue becomes knowing woman, The Dreaming Fields feels like a wonderful beginning to an life affirming odyssey of music lying ahead.
- Jim Markel
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