For our March spotlight, we’re taking a look at four distinct country songwriters who all, at one point or another, found themselves on the cusp of stardom when they scored major label deals. None would be superstars in their own right, but their songs would be turned into some of the greatest country records of the last thirty years by some of the best female (and sometimes male) voices the genre has to offer.
In celebration of the release of Gretchen Peters Hello Cruel World and Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields we’re taking a look at:
Nanci Griffith’s life hasn’t been without its struggles. Born Nanci Caroline Griffith on July 6, 1953 in Seguin, Texas, she suffered a tragic loss when her boyfriend was killed in a motorcycle accident the night of their senior prom. His loss forever altered her life and became a big inspiration to her songwriting. Griffith has since survived both breast (1996) and Thyroid (1999) cancer.
As an artist, she released her debut album There’s A Light Beyond These Woods in 1978. She would release four albums (none of which charted) before Kathy Mattea brought her fame after her version of Griffith’s “Love At The Five and Dime” peaked at #3 in 1986.
This success led to a deal with MCA Records. Lone Star State Of Mind was released in 1987. The title track would peak at #36 and the album would peak at #23. Tony Brown would also produce the follow-up, Little Love Affairs, released in 1988. It would also chart, although not as successfully. Griffith’s deal with MCA would span just three more albums, two (One Fair Summer Evening and Storms) of which charted quite low.
The 1990s would bring further success. Suzy Bogguss had a #9 peaking hit in 1992 with “Outbound Plane,” a song Griffith co-wrote with Tom Russell. In 1994, Griffith won her first (and only) Grammy award, Best Contemporary Folk Album for Other Voices, Other Rooms; a collection of songs that inspired her.
Griffiths has a new album, her first since 2009’s The Loving Kind. Although not yet released in the United States, Intersection is available in the UK.
Matraca Maria Berg was born February 3, 1964 in Nashville, Tennessee to Icie Berg who had moved from Harlan Country Kentucky to Nashville in hopes of having a singing career. Icie would find only limited success in the industry before changing career paths and becoming a nurse.
Encouraged by Icie, Matraca took up songwriting and caught the ear of Bobby Braddock. A collaboration of theirs, “Faking Love” would become a number one hit for T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks in 1983, and Berg’s first success as a songwriter.
In 1987, she would see Reba McEntire score a #1 hit with “Last One To Know,” a tune she co-wrote with Jane Mariash. By now she was an established songwriter in town having her songs recorded by everyone from Tanya Tucker to Randy Travis to Marie Osmond among others.
By 1990 Berg was being noticed as a singer after signing with RCA Records and releasing her debut Lying To The Moon. “Baby, Walk On,” the album’s first single, would peak at #36 and the follow-up singles wouldn’t fare much better. A second project, Bittersweet Surrender, was rejected by the label for lacking in mainstream sensibilities and was never released.
Berg released her sophomore album The Speed of Grace in 1994 but it didn’t have any singles. She would leave RCA shortly after and release her third album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night in 1997 via Raising Tide Records. It yielded the music video “Back In The Saddle” which featured Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, and Trisha Yearwood among others.
Meanwhile, Berg was seeing her greatest success as a songwriter. Everyone from Patty Loveless to Trisha Yearwood were having big records with her compositions (See a full list here). But it was Deana Carter’s 1997 recording of “Strawberry Wine,” a song she co-wrote with Gary Harrison that would finally earn her the respect of the industry and the CMA Song of the Year award. RCA released Lying To The Moon and Other Stories, a compilation album, in 1999.
In 2008, Berg was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame as the youngest member in the history of the organization. She’s married to Jeff Hanna of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Berg released The Dreaming Fields, her first studio album in 14 years last May.
Last fall she saw even more success as a songwriter when “You and Tequila” a track she co-wrote with Deana Carter in the wake of Harlan Howard’s death in 2002, became a top 5 hit for Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter. It was nominated for Song of the Year at the CMAs and Best Country Song at the Grammys.
“Camille,” a song Berg co-wrote with Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss, appears on Peters’ newly released album Hello Cruel World.
Gretchen Peters was born on Nov 14, 1957 in Bronxville, New York but raised in Boulder, Colorado. She moved to Nashville in the late 1980s where she quickly made a name for herself as a songwriter.
After Martina McBride recorded and released her song “Independence Day” in 1994, Peters scored a record deal and released The Secret Of Life in 1996. The album produced the very low peaking single “When You Are Old.”
Peters also saw great success as a songwriter in the 1990s, penning hits for the likes of Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Faith Hill, and the aforementioned McBride.
Since 2001, Peters has been steadily releasing critically acclaimed albums. Her latest, Hello Cruel World bares raw the feelings of dealing with both the Nashville floods and Gulf Oil Spill as well her son’s confession he’s transgender.
In 2010, she married her longtime collaborator Barry Walsh.
Born Lori Giroux on Dec 22, 1968, Lori McKenna began writing professionally at age 27. Already a mother of three children, McKenna started performing in public, doing open mic nights in the Boston Area. During this time, McKenna released four studio albums and won both ASCAP and Boston Music Awards. These also led to performances at both The Sundance Film and Newport Folk Festivals.
McKenna signed with Harlan Howard Music in 2004 after her album Bittertown caught the attention of Marline Howard. A year later, Faith Hill ended up recording three of McKenna’s songs for her Fireflies album and releasing “Stealing Kisses” as a low-charting single in 2006.
This newfound fame, and an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show led to McKenna scoring a major record deal with Hill’s label Warner Brothers. In 2007, this venture led to Unglamorous. While the album was her first to chart, it wasn’t very successful and McKenna parted ways with the label shortly thereafter.
She’s still a successful songwriter, many of her compositions have been recorded by the likes of Tim McGraw, Jimmy Wayne, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Sara Evans, and Keith Urban to name a few.
Her latest album, 2011’s Lorraine, was released on Signature Sounds, the label from which she got her start all those years ago. It’s named for her mother, who passed away when McKenna was a child.
McKenna lives with her husband and five children in Stoughton, Massachusetts. She released a Christmas single, “Wish List” last December and has “Two Soldiers Coming Home” on the just released soundtrack to the film Act Of Valor.