Known for writing such classic 90s country as “Strawberry Wine,” “You Can Feel Bad,” and “Wrong Side of Memphis,” Matraca Berg is one of the most prolific songwriters of the last twenty years. And the artists who’ve recorded her music (Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Patty Loveless) have gone on to redefine the essence of what it means to be a country singer.
Also a recording artist, Berg has released five studio albums and just returned with her sixth, The Dreaming Fields, her first album in 14 years. Inspired by the sparse 70s singer/songwriter fare she grew up with, Fields mixes impeccable songwriting with pitch-perfect vocals to create one of the best country releases of 2011.
The attention to detail rivals anything being released on major labels, and the quiet production help to elevate this album above your standard indie-country release. What could’ve been lifeless and boring is instantly brought to life by Berg’s confidence in what she’s singing. Instead of merely going through the motions, she puts her heart and soul into each of the 11 songs. Berg grabs you with her emotional delivery and never lets go.
Without even listening to the album, fans should already be familiar with at least two of the album’s songs. Trisha Yearwood brought the title track to new heights on her Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love album and “You and Tequila” is was a monster hit for Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter. And the 9513 reviewed the album’s first single, “Oh Cumberland” in advance of the album.
I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of hearing Berg’s version of “Fields.” After Yearwood tackles a song, it’s hard to imagine anyone else matching, let alone exceeding, her power and delivery. But, of course, Berg proves she’s more than up to the task. The way she wraps her voice around the tale of a family losing their farm will bring even an emotional ice cube to tears. You know she feels what she’s singing.
And on that note, when listening to the album I could actually hear Yearwood singing some of these songs. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for Yearwood to have put “Silver and Glass” on her Hearts and Armor album. The story of a girl trying to find her place in the world is one of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record.
Another standout track, “Clouds,” makes such a simple statement – “I only like clouds when it’s raining/they do no good just hanging around” – yet conveys so much with so little. It only emphasizes the the importance of a strong hook. When a song is properly executed lyrically, it becomes a poetic declaration. Plus, the lush production and use of harmonica in the intro, break-up the sameness of the preceding tracks and offer a refreshing change of pace in the listening experience.
The uniformity of the production is really the only area worthy of negative criticism. The album rolls along so gently, at times it can feel sleep-inducing. Berg does have up-tempo songs she could’ve recorded, including her excellent “They Call It Falling For A Reason” which Yearwood made a low-charting single in 2008, but to include such a song would’ve tinkered with the pace of the album just enough to throw off the vibe she was after.
Berg mirrored the album after Emmylou Harris’s solo debut Pieces of the Sky, Neil Young’s Harvest and Joni Mitchell’s iconic Blue – three albums from her childhood. She lives up to Harris’s legacy the most; Fields is more than worthy of her influence. Berg sings with the clarity Harris had on her 70s classics, and has a similar knack for choosing songs aren’t the typical country fare that’ll be dated in the decades to come.
It’s just a shame that country radio has all but passed on intelligent music like this – to hear Berg on the radio would be a refreshing change of pace from the muscular country getting crammed down our throats. We do have Chesney to thank for getting “You and Tequila” on the airwaves and, possibly, calling slight attention to this fine recording. You know if Chesney recorded it, it’ll more than likely burn up the charts and becomes a major success.
But it doesn’t matter if country radio passes on the album or not, the music has reached the public and will live on as long as Berg continues to shape her legacy. And as cliché as it sounds, with a voice this stunning, and music this brilliant, let’s hope she doesn’t wait another 14 years to record a follow-up.