ICONIC: MATRACA BERG HONORED WITH PRESTIGIOUS BMI AWARD

Long before Matraca Berg became the first woman to have five No. 1s on the country charts in a single year, let alone win the CMA Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine,” she was a tot having future Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Red Lane sing her nursery rhymes and going to recording sessions with her backup singer mother and aunts. That she’d score her first No. 1 at 18; her second at 22 made sense. Berg wasn’t just raised, but bathed in songs.

Nov. 7, she joins Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn as the only women in country music to have received BMI’s prestigious Icon Award; she also becomes the first female who’s primarily a country songwriter to receive this honor shared by Carole King, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks, Brian Wilson, James Brown, Kris Kristofferson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Ferry and more.

Considered the voice of real women, her 1997 Sunday Morning To Saturday Night was on the all-genre Top 10 Records of the Year lists at TIME, PEOPLE, Rolling Stone, Playboy, USA Today and the Chicago Tribune, as well as Entertainment Weekly’s Top 3 Country Albums.

Just as impressive her songs for Trisha Yearwood (“XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” “Wrong Side of Memphis”), Patty Loveless (“I’m That Kind of Girl,” “You Can Feel Bad”), Deana Carter (“Strawberry Wine,” “We Danced Anyway”), and Martina McBride (“Wild Angels”) are all multiple Millionaire No. 1s. She also helped Reba (“The Last One To Know”), Gretchen Wilson (“I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today”), The Chicks (“If I Fall You're Going Down with Me”) and Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter (“You and Tequila”) earn Grammy nominations.

How do you feel about this award?

When Clay Bradley called me, I tried to talk him out of it. Then I looked at the recipients, almost had an anxiety attack, because look at what they’d written. Clay very patiently said to me, “Yes, but your songs are known ... and have made a mark on people’s lives.”

Dude.

We didn’t have much money growing up. As a small child, Mom and my aunts were singing sessions and on demos. They’d plop me down on one of those Naugahyde couches, and the low end would put me to sleep. Their voices and the steel guitars would get all tangled up, and I just loved it. Mom’s best friends were Red Lane and Sonny Throckmorton. Red used to sing me nursery rhymes. When my parents split up, my mom moved a lot, sometimes running from bill collectors. Her heart was with the music, but she had to feed us. That fueled my ambition.

How so?

Watching my mother struggle, it gave me a window to a reality that’s a lot of people’s reality. The hard work, the falling short. It takes a certain amount of discipline and freedom to do this. If I wanted to be a songwriter, I’d have to have a lot of focus and limitless freedom. No boyfriend was going to keep me in one place, no circumstance was going to tie me down.

First No. 1 at 18 …

Terrifying! I didn’t have anything in my catalogue, so people assumed I was Bobby Braddock‘s little girlfriend. Tree signed me for a year for no money.

What happened?

I left town for a while. Joined a band, traipsed all over Louisiana. It was running away.

You came back.

I decided not to write with famous songwriters for a while. It was self-defense. My second No. 1, I wrote with my roommate who didn’t have anything going on either. I wrote it on piano—because she had a piano—while she was cooking dinner. “The Last One To Know” earned a Grammy nomination. I was doing a song-by-song deal with Merit Music—$100 a song. I was writing lots of songs, and that one was pretty much forgotten. I’d forgotten it. Some new people had come in—and pitched it.

Your strength is writing about women in tough, liberated or reflective places.

Things don’t work out for people with vaginas a lot, and what they do to overcome it is way more interesting to me. The resourcefulness and strength. A lot of the women related to me, even a song like “Good Ole Girls” is a combination of different women in my family, a collection of scrappy Kentucky women and my friends.

It’s not flash-card country.

You have to have an interest in humanity if you’re a writer who’s telling real truth. Those people are the most interesting. Maybe that’s why people remember the songs. “Strawberry Wine,” especially.

Everybody had a piece of their own story in it. At first, I didn’t understand what was going on. A four-minute country waltz about losing your virginity? But a lot of 16-year-old girls were showing up because they were going through it; men remembered that one girl. It was crazy, but it was also beautiful.

It’s kind of amazing.

All the artists were my friends. We started out making records at the same time. We were a sisterhood.

I remember Faith Hill being at a guitar pull at Radney Foster’s house, and someone asked her to sing. She said, “Well, I know a song, but I don’t play.” Then she looked at me, said, “Would you play ‘Lying To The Moon,’ the title cut to my first album?”

Radio had that we’re already playing a girl mentality, but by God, we got it done. Me as a writer, but so many women were getting through—and making interesting records, too. Icon.

Honestly, I really want it for Pat Higdon, who’s fought so hard for my songs. He’d been telling people for years my songs would have an impact once they were out there. As a publisher, he just believed—and this is the result of him getting me heard.

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