Matraca Berg’s first success in country music came in 1983 when she was 19 years old and co-wrote “Faking Love” with Bobby Braddock, which became a #1 for T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks. Her next big success came four years later when Reba McEntire scored a #1 hit with “The Last One to Know”, which Berg had co-written with Jane Mariash. Matraca became a recording artist when she landed a deal with RCA in 1990. Lying to the Moon, her first project for the label, was produced by Josh Leo and Wendy Waldman, and consisted of ten top-notch songs, all of which Matraca had a hand in writing.
It isn’t clear to me why the album didn’t enjoy more commercial success. While not quite in the same league as Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood, Matraca was an above-average vocalist and was reasonably attractive — and therefore, marketable. The material, which was first-rate and designed to appeal to mainstream listeners, was certainly not at fault. Nevertheless, Lying to the Moon was only moderately successful. “Baby, Walk On”, the first single, is not the strongest or most original song on the disc, but it was an uptempo number that was well within the constraints of what country radio was playing at the time. The follow-up, “The Things You Left Undone”, which I like much better, is another uptempo number about an independent-minded woman who is picking up the pieces and getting on with her life after the end of a relationship. At the time, I really thought this one would be a huge hit, but like its predecessor, it peaked at #36. The two songs, which were co-written with frequent collaborator Ronnie Samoset, are Berg’s highest charting singles as a recording artist. The jazzy “I Got It Bad”, which finds her waiting for the phone to ring and obsessing over a new love interest only reached #43, and the excellent “I Must Have Been Crazy”, which which she’s fighting off madness — without much success — after another bad break-up, died at #55.
My favorite track and perhaps the best known is the beautiful title track, which features a haunting cello solo. Berg re-recorded the song for her second album, The Speed of Grace, a pop effort that was released in 1994. In between those two versions, Trisha Yearwood covered it for her The Song Remembers When album, which was released in 1993. The original version resurfaced on a compilation album in 1999. RCA released it as a single and had a video produced, but by that time Berg’s career momentum had been lost and the record failed to chart.
A handful of the other tracks showcase Matraca’s considerable talent as a songwriter and a storyteller. “Calico Plains”, written with Mike Noble, tells the story of two young girls growing up in the midwest. Abilena has big dreams and is planning to leave her hometown to pursue them, while her friend, who acts as the song’s narrator makes her promise to write. Then Abilena falls pregnant and is forced to marry the baby’s father. Several years and a few children later, it is the narrator who is leaving to pursue bigger and better things and promising to write to Abilena. “Appalachian Rain”, which features harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris, tells of a young unwed mother who is forced to leave her Appalachian home to spare her family’s honor, and “Alice in the Looking Glass” tells the story of a lonely middle-aged hairdresser who was once a homecoming queen, who puts on a brave face for her customers.
My least favorite track is the album closer “Dancin’ on the Wire”, which Berg co-wrote with producers Leo and Waldman. The lyrics are on the shallow side and this is the one instance on the entire album where the production is a bit heavy-handed.
It’s a shame that this album didn’t fare better at radio and retail, though Matraca’s subsequent career decisions suggest that even if it had, her commercial success would not have been long-lived. RCA refused to release her next album because they felt it didn’t have enough mainstream appeal, and her next effort The Speed of Grace, was released by the label’s pop division, and Matraca’s subsequent albums appeared infrequently on smaller, now-defunct labels. Lying to the Moon is out of print in CD form but used copies can be found very cheaply. It is not to be confused with the 1999 compilation album Lying to the Moon & Other Stories, which contains eight of the orginal album’s ten tracks. It too can be purchased very inexpensively used and might be a slightly better value.
Nice review. I love the title track. “Calico Plains” was covered by Pam Tillis on Sweetheart’s Dance. I’ll have to go back and give it another listen because, for some reason, I always got the impression the two girls in the song were sisters.
I think they are supposed to be sisters, based on this line: “..and like those hand-me-down dresses she gave me, I made her dreams mine.” The “hand-me-down dresses” bit seems to imply that the narrator is Abilena’s younger sister.
You could be right; I never thought of it that way. And I’d forgotten that Pam Tillis had covered the song.