Matraca Berg and Jeff Hanna share the stage during a Songwriter Session at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, recorded October 20, 2020. The two perform live and discuss their best-known compositions, including Berg’s “Strawberry Wine” and Hanna’s “Bless the Broken Road.”
Berg, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, grew up in Nashville. Her mother, Icee Berg, worked as a session vocalist, and Matraca remembers being surrounded by great songwriters as a child, often at a recording studio. In conversation with the Museum’s Peter Cooper, Berg notes that she found it “daunting” to follow the same path, yet she found acclaim by writing songs with a woman’s perspective.
“When I first started experiencing some real consistent success was [when] there weren’t enough songs from a female’s point of view. And so I locked into that and made sure it was very clear this is a song a woman wants to hear,” she says.
Best known as a founding member of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Hanna won a 2005 Grammy for Best Country Song as a co-writer on “Bless the Broken Road,” popularized by Rascal Flatts. Introducing the ballad about how life’s rough patches can lead you to a better place, Hanna observes, “You have to get through stuff sometimes to get to where you’re meant to be.”
Berg explains that her mother came from Kentucky to Nashville in order to give up Matraca for adoption, but then changed her mind and settled in Nashville. Although she’s now considered one of Nashville’s most revered songwriters, Berg says she prefers to feel like “more of a band member,” which is why she enjoys touring with friends like Suzy Bogguss and Gretchen Peters.
Hanna recalls that he first heard “Mr. Bojangles” on a Los Angeles radio station, sung by its writer, Jerry Jeff Walker. The popularity of the Dirt Band’s version, released as a pop single in 1971, gave them enough career momentum to come to Nashville to record the 1972 landmark album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with legendary guests including Mother Maybelle Carter and Earl Scruggs.
Berg and Hanna are accompanied by Jeff’s son, Jaime Hanna, a guitarist and vocalist who is also in the current lineup of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The set list includes: “You and Tequila” (popularized by Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter), “Bless the Broken Road,” “Oh Cumberland” (recorded by Berg and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), “Mr. Bojangles,” and “Strawberry Wine” (recorded by Deana Carter). The latter composition, which Berg wrote with Gary Harrison, received CMA Awards for Single of the Year and Song of the Year in 1997.
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