The Stables is, somewhat unexpectedly considering its location on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, becoming rather a useful place to see slightly obscure Country and Americana artists.
It might seem a bit of an odd thing for me to imply that an artist with a thirty year career, three Grammy nominations and a place in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame is ‘obscure’ – I’ll admit that. But like her Wine, Women and Song contemporary Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg is undoubtedly better known for her song writing than her singing. She has also been somewhat elusive to UK audiences, and as she jokes that the most recent of her Grammy nominations for You and Tequila enabled this solo tour, I start to wonder why she hasn’t simply stuck to what has brought her the most acclaim.
However, as she moves through a seven album strong catalogue of her own recordings, it becomes clear why she’s also still performing. She may not be pitch perfect – at times she is noticeably far from it, with nerves seeming to play a part – but she does deliver her own material with a level of comprehension and understanding you simply can’t get second hand. And, with the addition on stage of David Henry and Jason Goforth, plus guest appearances from her husband Jeff Hanna, a few wobbly vocals do little to spoil the atmosphere or keep the audience from being anything other than respectfully hushed.
From her 1997 CMA Song of the Year Strawberry Wine, which elicits cheers from the crowd, to more recent tracks including those from her 2012 album Love’s Truck Stop, she relates and explains context and relevance in a way that only a writer can. Magdalene, for this reason, becomes a personal highlight of the night, along with the clever and mischievous Your Husband’s Cheating On Us. Hanna also grants us a solo performance of Mr Bojangles, providing some welcome variation, and towards the end of the set she breaks with a cover of Neil Young’s Old Man, telling us “sometimes I get sick of singing my own songs”. She seems to be the only one.
Of course, with heavyweight country performers including Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood and, most recently, Kenny Chesney achieving so much success with her songs, it’s easy to quantify her reputation as a stellar and prolific songwriter. It’s less easy to explain what makes her own performances worth going out for. She’s not an outstanding singer. Nor does she command the stage with any particular brilliance. She does, however, have an exceptional ability to connect with an audience and share their experience – and that is why I’d see Matraca Berg in a small theatre over Reba McEntire warbling out a hit version of one of her songs in a large capacity stadium any day of the week.
Photos © Jo Cox and must not be reproduced without prior consent