Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields (CD Review)

Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields (CD Review)
1. If I Had Wings 2. You and Tequila 3. Racing the Angels 4. Silver and Glass 5. Clouds
6. The Dreaming Fields 7. Oh Cumberland 8. Your Husband’s Cheating on Us 9. Fall Again
10. South of Heaven 11. A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June
Label – Dualtone Music
UPC – 803020153127
Release Date – May 17, 2011
Time – 47:39
A song writing master class
As a songwriter Matraca Berg was at the cornerstone of the 90’s women in country music movement penning career songs for some of country music’s superstars. She is arguably the finest female writer in Music City and was recognised in 2008 when she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
THE DREAMING FIELDS marks her first solo recording in 14 years, unless you count a limited pre-release edition of SOUTH OF HEAVEN which was made available during Matraca’s UK tour with Wine, Women & Song (WW&S) in 2009. The last official album is now something of a lost in ozone gem, SUNDAY MORNING TO SATURDAY NIGHT, from 1997.
Her last label Rising Tide folded in March 1998 at the time of her second single and she took a step back to be with her family and continue to write and demo songs. She had always wanted to release another album when the time was right. It may well though have been prompted by encouragement and a friendly nudge from long-time friend Gretchen Peters and member of the WW&S trio who told her: “I’m gonna get your skinny butt on the road if it’s the last thing I do.” The trouble was Matraca needed some money spinning merchandise for the gigs.
Berg co-writes on 10 of the tracks and self pens the other. The soulful shuffle ‘If I Had Wings’ written with country siren and accomplished singer/songwriter Jessi Alexander hides some dark and hidden truths. As a rednecks wife she longs for escape from an abusive relationship and wishes she could untie her dreams and head for Memphis. It’s the words that hurt more than the bruises and the emptiness she feels inside is killing her. And it painfully ends in typical country style: We all knew sooner or later/ It was gonna be me or him.
It’s another Tequila sunset as dust kicks up in the canyon wind on Mullholland Drive, as a woman is drawn to and struggles to maintain the LA highlife in the atmospheric ‘You and Tequila’. On this slow paced track the drink is likened to a crazy poison love. Berg co-wrote this with Deana Carter. Together in 1997 ‘Strawberry Wine’ became a #1 hit, their signature tune and most successful single winning Song of the Year at the CMA Awards. Kenny Chesney has just released ‘You And Tequila’ as his fourth single from his HEMINGWAY’S WHISKEY album and features folk-rock Grace Potter as the guest vocalist. It’s heading up the charts and currently holds a #15 spot. The origins of the song came after Harlan Howard’s memorial service in March 2002 whom Matraca refers to as the “godfather of songwriters” and “was the standard we held our careers up to, frequently with disappointment”. She remembered as an 18-year old Harlan buying her a first shot of tequila.
The heartbreaking ‘Racing The Angels’ has spiritual overtones co-written in a cabin retreat with WW&S pals Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss who also add some delicious harmonies. It’s just the grace and gravity that keeps the desperate woman away from her departed husband. As a weeping steel and Hammond B3 purr on the mix Berg’s voice breaks on the line: What I’d give to see your face. Her voice radiates emotion and is as outstanding as the words that flow from the pen she writes with.
The self penned and upbeat ‘Silver and Glass’ depicts a young teenage Texan beauty who falls prey to the Hollywood lifestyle. Dreams are shattered as the silver queen goddess succumbs to the drug scene. Berg was inspired to write it after the death of former Texan Playboy Playmate of the Year model Anna Nicole Smith who died, aged 39, in a Hollywood hotel room in 2007 as a result of combined drug intoxication.
The sad ‘Clouds’ written with Gary Nicholson has a decidedly Neil Young ‘Harvest’ feel, an album she listened to whilst in the process of recording. The raindrops from the darkened sky will be like the tears that will surely fall before a relationship forlornly ends.
The melancholic but exceptional ‘The Dreaming Fields’ is in complete contrast to the ‘Strawberry Wine’ days whose writer Gary Harrison she again collaborates with. Bergs voice trembles as she observes the demise of a farm where once her grandfather stood and grew life in the Midwest soil. With its mournful string arrangement tears fall as she recalls each special memory where once wheat swayed and children played carefree. Now houses have sprung up like weeds but thoughts of her late grandmother singing will be her harvest now. Trisha Yearwood has a rendition of the track on her HEAVEN, HEARTACHE, and AND THE POWER OF LOVE album. She is someone who recorded many of Bergs compositions most notably XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl), ‘Everybody Knows’, ‘Lying to the Moon’ and the brilliant the ‘Wrong Side of Memphis’. In this instance the songwriters own take is wonderfully honest and every line sung is fused with anguish.
Oh Cumberland’ (see video) is given a fresh treatment and was previously covered by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band when it showed up on the 2002 Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III album. Their lead singer and Bergs husband Jeff Hanna again joins on lead and harmony. Berg who was born in Nashville writes of the devotion of the river that flows through Music City: My Heart’s resting on your banks in Tennessee – but then loneliness can get lost its wide expanse.
The swampy ‘Your Husband’s Cheating on Us’ is based on a short story from the book “Final Vinyl Days and Other Stories by American novelist Jill McCorkle and is therefore given a writing credit on this track. Matraca and co-writer Marshall Chapman were so amused by it they decided to compose this song. Berg plays the role of a bitter mistress confronting her lover’s wife who she first confides in and then dangerously plots the demise of the man who’s now fallen into the arms of another younger woman. They give the cyanide and hit man a miss and go for the Polaroid’s instead!
There’s something of a Bobby Gentry and Loretta Lynn sprinkled in this music cocktail which features Dan Dugmore (lap steel), Mike Brignardello (upright bass), Reese Wynans (Hammond B3) with Jonathan Yudkin providing the string arrangement.
A woman wallows in the loneliness and wishes she could open a new chapter in her book to relight a fire and fall madly in love again, as a cello moans (Odessa Jorgenson) on the bittersweet ‘Fall Again’, written with Mary Steenburgen.
On the antiwar but masterful ballad ‘South of Heaven’ were standing at a funeral and observing the mourners, a 21 gun salute and the cathedral bells chime in an astonishing non-preachy and beautiful heartfelt tribute to the soldiers that have fallen in the War On Terror era. We hear trademark guitar licks by co-producer Doug Lancio with the WW&S gals again adding harmony as soft drum beats (John Gardner) – “Hear the weeping, Hear them kneel, South of heaven, North of hell
With Bergs opening piano chords and the ambience created by David Henry (cello) and Chris Charmichael (viola), ‘A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June’ will have you reaching for the ol’ Kleenex from the box. A song, that reminds me of the Matraca ‘Back When You Were Beautiful’ days. She is not just a songwriter but a true poet. Here as droplets fall from the roses in the Kensington flowerbeds thoughts turn from the loss of Princess Di to the homesickness the Nashville songstress feels for the city of dreams.
We have missed hearing the crystalline vocal and the way she depicts the human experience like few others can – Matraca Berg marks her return with another songwriting master class.

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