[22 May 2011]
Matraca Berg has crafted a beautiful ‘70s country rock record that would fit in with the classic works of the period by notables such as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The only thing is, this is 2011. Music aficionados often label certain records as “timeless”, but what does this really mean? A cultural product always suggests much about the time period in which it was created. By putting her songs in a genre from the past, Berg implicitly comments that nothing essential has changed over the past several decades.
Or at least in the past 13 years, the time that has elapsed since the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member released her last record. She’s continued to pen songs for others during this time, including the Dixie Chicks, Patty Lovelace, Gretchen Wilson, and Faith Hill. Chances are you will hear the Kenny Chesney/Grace Potter version of “You and Tequila” on the radio rather than the version Berg sings here. That’s not because Berg does not have a good voice (she has a strong, sweet one), or because she is not physically attractive (she is), but her versions of her own songs are more subtle than the commercial ones by bigger name artists. For example, while the lyrics may claim tequila makes her crazy, the music always remains calm and controlled. Kenny and Grace, hey—those musicians convincingly sing as if they know what drinking too much tequila does to a person. Berg sounds like she understands intellectually what would happen, but she would pass out before causing a ruckus.
That same serenity can be a positive on other songs. On the downright nasty revenge song “Your Husband’s Cheating on Us”, Berg comes off as someone who can cold-bloodedly plot payback. Living in the mind has advantages when it comes to planning the future. Or in the opposite way, when Berg croons the gorgeous “Oh, Cumberland” or the stark title tune, the sentiments seem earned because the narrator has reflected on her family’s farmland heritage and what the future will be: “Now the houses they grow like weeds in a flower bed / This morning the sidewalk fell / It seems the only way for men to live off the land / These days is to buy and sell”. Berg devastates the listener just by reciting the facts in a dulcet tone.
What’s that you say—strong women dealing with cheatin’ men, family farms being turned into suburbs—that’s old news! Country rock musicians have been singing about that kind of stuff for dozens of years. Maybe even having hits singing Berg’s songs, like Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Suzy Bogguss did before Berg stopped recording the first time. Now Berg’s back, she will have to compete with both them and newer country rock artists, and she is doing this by penning and performing music that would not sound out of place in the ‘70s. Times may have changed, but Berg has built her stake firmly in the ground of the past. She sings as if she dreams her fields, the audience will come.