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The Write Stuff

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WITH ITS COMBINATION OF pricey antiques, elegant kilims and sleek boutique ambience, Matraca Berg’s three-bedroom, 1925 Nashville home is as much a work of art as one of her chart-topping tunes. “I’m the country-and-western Martha Stewart,” jokes Berg, 33. “I’m changing my house colors every three months.”

Lately, though, the constantly touring singer-songwriter hasn’t had time for much domestic creativity. During the past 18 months she has cowritten five No. 1 hits, including “Strawberry Wine,” the loss-of-virginity waltz sung by Deana Carter that the Country Music Association recently named Song of the Year. Critics have also been drooling over her new album, Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, and its showcase song, “Back When We Were Beautiful,” a moving tribute to elderly women that was inspired by Berg’s grandmother and mother-in-law. Berg is “very, very clever and quick with words,” says Patty Loveless, who has hit the country charts with two Berg tunes. “She makes a statement about the way a lot of women feel today.”

Until recently, Berg was a hit-writing composer but unheralded as a singer. Invited to the CMA awards, she found herself in the spotlight singing “Back When We Were Beautiful” to a rapt audience that included George Strait, LeAnn Rimes and Sting. “I felt like the oddball,” Berg says. “The others were famous and they had hits. The dialogue running through my head was things like, ‘I wonder what Sting’s thinking.’ ” Husband Jeff Hanna, 50, a founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, remembers other worries as well: “She was sitting there looking beautiful, leaning over to me with a big smile on her face and saying things like, ‘Is there Pepto-Bismol backstage?’ ”

Back in 1994, Berg seemed as likely to land a CMA gig as did Courtney Love. After her first two RCA albums flopped, she spent nearly two years looking for another record company. “I would cry every night because the rejections would come through the fax,” says Berg. “I thought I wasn’t going to get another chance. I felt like I’d blown part of my dream.”

Berg had begun dreaming early. The oldest of three children, she grew up in Nashville with her mother, Icee, an occasional session singer and songwriter, and father, Ron, a physicist. Three of her aunts, known as the Callaways, are singers who have performed with such country stars as Tex Ritter. By age 9, Berg herself was composing tunes on her aunt Sudie Callaway’s piano. “She would sit at that piano for three hours at a time,” recalls Callaway. “Sometimes her mother would holler down, ‘That’s enough, Matraca [pronounced Muh-TRAY-suh], get off that thing.’ But I understood.”

By 15, Berg had begun to set her own poetry to music, and before her 18th birthday she quit school to write full-time (earning her G.E.D. four months later). Within months she met songwriter Bobby (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”) Braddock, and together they wrote “Faking Love,” a No. 1 hit in 1983 for T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks.

But just as her career took off, so did Berg, ending up in Louisiana with a keyboardist. “I don’t know what I was doing there. I thought I was in love,” she says. Shortly after Berg returned to Nashville, the affair crumbled, and her mother died of lymphoma. “I walked around for a year in a haze,” says Berg. “I just felt so disconnected.”

Berg finally rebounded by busying herself with songwriting. More hits (including Reba McEntire’s “The Last to Know”) and a failed marriage followed, and in 1990 she released her debut album, which she now jokingly calls an ode to her ex-husband, country musician Chuck Cannon, whom she married in 1987 and divorced two years later. “I was an angry young woman,” she says. “All those were songs about how hacked-off I was.”

Now signed to the upstart Rising Tide label, Berg seems to be more at peace with Hanna. Six years ago the acquaintances found themselves on the same Clint Black tour, and “over the course of a couple of months, the relationship turned into a romantic thing,” says Hanna. “Then we ended up, like, kaboom! We’ve been together ever since.” Married since 1993, the pair still work together (they cowrote a song on Berg’s new album), and there’s no sign of future odes to exes. “There’s that awe still,” says Berg. “It is a good life. A very good life.”