On the night Merle Haggard died songwriting festival Tin Pan South was in full swing and music city paid tribute to the Country music legend in the only way it knew how, to carry on playing country music. I was at a place called The Country for the most magical songwriters round with Waylon Payne, Brent Cobb and Matraca Berg, they all knew Merle and played not only the hits they had written for other artists but also included a song or two of his in their set and talked about the impact he had on their careers. This was the first time I'd seen hit songwriter Matraca Berg and I'll never forget that night. Around two and a half years later I finally managed to catch up with her over the phone at 2am UK time and I was keen to hear more about one of my favourite writers writing process!
You've had a successful career as a songwriter for some time but you also had success as an artist as well, was that always the plan to be an artist as well as write for other people?
No, I kind of stumbled into the artist thing because I had to sing my songs in order to play them for people and I got a record deal. A few publishers had said would you be interested in a record deal and I was not interested and then RCA offered me one and everyone said I would be crazy to turn down RCA especially at that time they were smoking hot so that’s how that happened.
You grew up in quite a musical family can you tell me about that and how it influenced you as a writer?
Oh gosh, my aunt was a pretty popular backup singer in Nashville in the 60s and 70s and another aunt, her sister, was too. My mum worked in the music industry and wrote songs and a lot of their close friends were songwriters and it just so happens that those songwriters were future hall of famers so I was raised around Hall of fame songwriters, they would play in the kitchen when I was a little girl and I guess it just soaked in.
Wow that’s great! Can you talk me through your writing process, is it different every time and do you have to adapt your approach when working with different collaborators?
Oh absolutely and it’s never the same, I wish it was because sometimes it’s archeological trying to find something and it’s different with each writer, we all have our strengths and our weaknesses and they bring different things to the table and you adapt from there.
Do you have favourite collaborators that you like to work with?
Definitely, one of my favourite co-writers is Gary Harrison, I wrote Strawberry Wine with him and Wild Angels. Lately, Lori McKenna is one of my favourite co-writers and we haven’t written a lot together but we always have a good time when we do.
You mentioned Strawberry Wine there, two of my favourites that you’ve written are Strawberry Wine and You and Tequila, can you tell me a bit about the stories behind those songs?
Strawberry Wine is a true story, I’m the granddaughter of a dairy farmer and every summer I went to my grandparents in Wisconsin and me and my cousins and aunts would run around together, it was a big farmhouse, it was great fun. I had two aunts, an aunt that was a year older than me and an aunt that was a year younger than me so we were the terrible three and we became teenagers and got even more terrible haha! And I met a boy and for three summers I saw him, every year and it’s hard when you’re a teenager, long distance relationships you can’t really buy tickets to fly and I lived in Nashville but he was my first big love. I had the title Strawberry Wine and I thought it was going to be about getting drunk when you’re a teenager but it ended up in another place and I was writing with Gary that day and I brought up the title and I said I don’t really know what’s going on with it, I thought it was about drinking with my aunts and he asked me to tell him the story and he said well if that’s your story, it’s a big deal in someone’s life and it felt so personal to me I didn’t know if anyone would get it haha! You and Tequila... well people seem to like my booze songs, I wrote You and Tequila with Deanna Carter for her record years ago and it was on RCA records and it was never a single and years later I had a dear friend of mine Tim who was in my band, he was one of my favourite singers and I usually ask my songwriting friends to do a Male Vocal so me and Tim went into my basement studio and recorded a guitar and vocal and sent it to Kenny and he loved it and the rest is You and Tequila history.
That’s great to hear those stories behind those songs! What would you say has been the highlight of your songwriting career and do you have a favourite song that you’ve written?
My favourites change, I think it has something to do with where you are in life, I’m also very critical of myself, my publisher has accused me of rewriting songs when they were on the charts haha, I don’t really glory in my work, I’m always thinking I should have changed that bridge! The most wonderful thing in my career was getting inducted into the songwriters hall of fame, that was a mind blower, when I was thinking about my future that was not on my list of things, it was so unattainable so that was a wonderful night.
A couple of silly questions, what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever written a song about?
Haha! Strangest... That’s a real good question! I’ve written a lot of strange songs, the well is deep! The most recent strange song and Kenny Chesney recorded this it’s called Jesus and Elvis and I wrote it with Hayes Carll and Alison Moorer and we were sitting out back drinking beer and just kinda playing and goofing off and not really getting anything and I just said I had this odd idea Jesus and Elvis and I don’t know what it’s about so we sat and talked about it for a long time, what the song could be about and then we got off on this other thing where Hayes was talking about this bar that he went to and about this character in the bar named Lola and something just clicked, is there a Jesus and Elvis painting in there? So it just got more bizarre from there and it turned into this characters son dying in the Vietnam war she’s trying to remember him so there’s a picture of Jesus and Elvis on the wall and there’s Christmas lights everywhere because that’s her sons favourite season. It got pretty out there!
What’s your one piece of advice to aspiring songwriters like myself and many of my readers who want to one day make it as a writer in Nashville?
Go to songwriter nights, go to the best ones you can find, listen to the best people and study, really study! It will get to you by osmosis and you will think to yourself oh my god why did that song do that to me and you will stumble across the answer whilst doing your own work. I think that was the best education for me, I remember when I first started writing I went to this club and this songwriter Tom Schuyler he was called, he wrote that song Sixteenth Avenue and he played that, it wasn’t a hit yet, I heard about five future hits that night and I was blown away and I was a little intimidated and I went home a little blue because I knew I wasn’t that good but I learned something and every time I’ve been to a writers round I’ve learned something. And find a good mentor, it’ll be pretty clear if the persons a good mentor and find your pack, they’ll be with you all the way through and it’ll be pretty cool!
I admire the way you speak out on Twitter, you have strong political beliefs and you stick to them and defend them. I studied the Dixie Chicks controversy as part of my controversy in country music dissertation at uni and looked at the impact that had on their careers. Do you think more artists should be speaking out about their beliefs and influencing their fans to vote, do you think what happened to the Dixie Chicks still scares artists into staying silent?
That’s tricky, it’s unfortunate but Country music is not very diverse politically, it’s heavy on the republican side so Country artists don’t talk about politics and when they do they get spanked. People are getting more brave, Jason Isbell finally said unfollow me, this is what I believe but he’s not mainstream country so I don’t know what would happen. Everyone knows Tim McGraw is a democrat and everybody knows Brad Paisley is and Garth. But I do it just because I’m afraid right now, I was Vocal when George Bush was president but not to this degree because I was upset but I wasn’t this upset! This is something completely different and I just feel like if we stop talking about it, it’s going to seem normal so I just feel I need to point out hey you guys this is really weird, this is not ok. I haven’t made very many enemies I lost 300 twitter followers and gained like 2000! So I guess I’m finding my tribe but it’s too risky not to say anything in my opinion, I could be wrong but that’s how I feel.
What’s next for you and who have you been working with recently?
I don’t know what’s next. I’ve been writing with a lot of dudes because females aren’t being played much right now on the radio, that’s another upsetting thing. I’ve been writing with a lot of guys and I’ve written with a lot of new artists over the last couple of years and I just didn’t click with that whole thing, I just felt like aiming for an artist has never been a gift of mine so it’s usually write a song and see who it fits. So I stopped writing for about a year just to see what turned out and I started writing things that I’d like to record and so I should probably make a record!
Great, I look forward to hopefully hearing that soon then! Have you got any plans to come back to the U.K?
Yeah when I make a record! I got to make a record and then I’ll have a reason coz I miss it!
If you're heading to Nashville look out for if Matraca is doing a writers round, I highly recommend any round that features Matraca and if and when she releases new music we'll be the first to bring you all the details!