WHERE GRAMMYS COME FROM: “You & Tequila” + Friends Who Drive By in the Night
the essence of where Grammys come from
It started with a bottle of French red. Well, actually a phone call from a car from a girl on her way home from dinner; she was not quite ready to be done, not quite sure she wanted to hang where she was.
So Matraca Berg pulled into my driveway, where she knew a bottle of Chateau Malmaison might be found. Not just found, but uncorked and poured into glasses. The deep purple/red splashing against the bottom and washing up on the sides.
There was a young writer there, one who was talking about theories of connecting, what moves people, how truth comes together with melody. And then there she was, a Hall of Fame inductee, a CMA Song of the Year winner, a girl whose ache was as palpable as the cigarette smoke and the grapes, I had my computer out. We were playing song demo roulette. I smiled. “I know what we’ll play him…,” I smirked, scrolling down to “You & Tequila.”
”You & Tequila” is a song unlike so many. Raw, bruised, scraped in tricky places. With its recognition, “One is one too many, one more is never enough…,” it’s a minor key revelation about the scourges of addiction and desire.
The kid just shook his head. It’s that kinda song. Laconic, almost worn out from the wanting, gutted by the surrender. Surviving that which will kill you is no small feat, especially when it’s death by a poison pleasure.
“We should send it to Kenny,” I said, pulling my knees up under me.
”Do you have Krekel’s version?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but I have your’s: all parched earth and want,” I returned.
Matraca Berg made a face. I didn’t care. I was on a mission.
A quick note, a few lines. Hit “Send.” Poof! It was gone.
She laughed. Instant there. Or where Kenny Chesney might be.
Then we returned to talking about whatever there was, laughing about this, telling stories about that. Spinning yarns for a young writer close to the fire, but still not in the circle.
Songs are made of tales and tears and loss and moments that might be. It’s how you string the way it looks, how it sounds, the taste and touch of it together.
Matraca Berg and I have a covered a lot of miles, many of them overlapping. Finally, she got tired. Figured she’d gone. The young songwriter had already left.
Kenny Chesney doesn’t always go for the deep stuff, but when he does, it’s serious. For all the beach blanket, drunk last night nonsense, he has a poet’s heart – just nobody bothers to notice that part. Not really.
Well, except me. He knows it. When I send songs, he’ll listen to them. I don’t send a lot of songs. He tends to like what he hears, even when he doesn’t cut them.
“You & Tequila” turned into an ongoing conversation. His label head liked it. Kenny’d lived it more than a time or two, might even know a woman who fit that bill. He never says much about that stuff, just sings from an aching place.
Pretty soon, “You & Tequila” was on the cut sheet. He was going to do it. For his next record. A record that would also include a title track of “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” written by Guy Clark, Like I said, when he gets serious, he goes deep.
Kenny knew he had something. He wanted to make it more. Every one of his albums has a pensive song, one that burns like salt in a cut, the sun in your eyes, rope against skin. “Anything But Mine” was the girl who was gone, but always there. “Better As A Memory” served as an elegy for the man who knew he could never stay. “A Lot of Things Different” was a spoken/sung reckoning with the mistakes that shouldn’t have happened. For “You & Tequila,” he wanted something more.
He was going to get the Eagles. The song evoked Southern California’s desperation beneath the peaceful easy feeling. But, gosh, who hadn’t sung with them?
No, Kenny Chesney wanted something unexpected, something plangent, something that would haunt you long after the song had faded from the dial.
“Why not Grace Potter?” I suggested. Though a shrieking jam-rocker, her voice carried emotion, especially sorrow, like it was precious cargo.
“Grace…,” he echoed.
“Something different, something with tension.”
I’d first seen Grace Potter in 2005 at Hot Tin Roof in Edgartown, Massachusetts. She and her band the Nocturnals had decided to shuck the folk/jazz songwriter stuff in the name of something much higher proof. Her mother wasn’t quite frightened, but she wasn’t sold.
“Your daughter can pull it off,” I reassured. “That is just a girl who can play hard playing hard – and it’s awesome.”
Grace Potter – beyond being a slamming B-3 organist who was pretty mean on the downstroke with her Flying V guitar – was nothing if not raw sex personified. Channeling a hybrid of Jessica Rabbit and Tina Turner, she could take a 13 year old boy through puberty in the space of a 75 minute set, a feat I watched later that winter with my friend’s son.
The band put out This Is Somewhere, a collection of ragged ballads about love that was over and hard rockers about the state of the nation, carnal merging and the like. It was relentless when it needed to be, tender when that was required.
I gave Kenny Chesney a copy. I never asked what he thought.
Sometimes music should just be allowed to live inside people. Kenny deserved that privilege more than most.
Still, I’d see Grace here and there, out on the road. One night, opening for the Black Crowes at a House of Blues. No mess, no nonsense, 45 minutes of pure rock AND roll, a little soul, a lot of philosophical acceptance of what wasn’t and just a skosh of recrimination.
The Nocturnals were touring in a Sprinter, staying at a rat-hole that used to be the legendary Swingos, rock & roll hotel. She had a dog. She had a boyfriend they didn’t talk about. She laughed a lot. She believed in what she and the band were doing.
Same thing at War Memorial in Nashville, Tennessee. They opened for Government Mule, held their own… Then snuck down to the Ryman to peak in on the opening act.
Kenny Chesney was out playing stadiums, setting records and racking up hits. He was as big as any act out there, and he did it at reasonable prices – remembering when he was a kid and how much work it took to afford that ticket.
When the call had to be made, he said, “Can you get Grace?”
She was en route back from an international tour. Her manager said he’d try. Made sure she got the song while she was still in the airport. Rumor has it she listened on the commuter bus between terminals.
Thirty hours later, she was in Nashville, Tennessee in a studio with a superstar she’d never met… to sing a song written by two heartsick local girls – Berg, who was raised here and never really left, except for one ill-advised pop album made in California, and Deana Carter, who’d struck platinum with Berg’s “Strawberry Wine” and was now living the California dream and missing her roots more than she let on.
Matraca and Deana wrote it for what was supposed to be her comeback album. Even with a Kenny Chesney tour, things fizzled. The album came, went and was forgotten, including “You & Tequila.”
Matraca Berg had her heart broken by a major label who shut down just as her Sunday Morning To Saturday Night was finding its way. There was an all-star video for a romping single called “Back in the Saddle,” that featured Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless and Suzy Bogguss, and Top 10 Albums of the Year in any genre lists in TIME, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, People, The Chicago Tribune…
And then her label folded, and then no one picked up her album. Never mind that she’d made her network tv debut on “The CMA Awards,” the same night she won Song of the Year. She sang the heartbreaking “Back When We Were Beautiful” with a grand piano and a string quartet. It was over…
Matraca knew about being haunted, about not being able to kick certain things. She figured “You & Tequila” was forgotten, so she could cut it, too. She knew that pain, knew those low hanging ghosts of what can’t be.
Then Kenny cut it. But who knew? Even with Grace Potter, she figured he’s a high energy guy bent on filling stadiums, not pondering the depths of the haunting. But. Hey, it sounded good… real good… and songwriters learn to put on brave faces when they hear what people do to their songs.
Funny thing, though, it was heavenly. For a song about being torn open by a want so bad it almost drowns you, there was something ethereal about the way Potter’s voice floated up, almost weightless, and twisted around the melody.
The track was lean enough to breathe. Chesney’s voice, two-by-four plain but solid, had the sound of a man who knew what the throbbing pound of bad decisions taste like. He was stoic, but buckling, resolved, but not 100 %.
Songs, especially versions of great ones, are snowflakes. Each is unto itself, reflected in the interpretation of the artist doing it.
After a song about football, a surging song of sexual obsession, a travel-friendly ditty, someone decided to put out “You & Tequila.” It was – as the song itself declares – “putting up a real good fight.”
Too laconic to go into #1, after a few weeks in the 2nd spot, the song netted three CMA nominations – Video, Vocal Event and Song. It won the first. While not obvious or aggressive, its greatness rose to the surface.
Its greatness carried beyond Nashville and the country music industry, too.
“You & Tequila” saw Chesney and Potter nominated for a Grammy for Best Performance by a Duo or Group (in the new streamlined categories) and Song. What happens now is hard to say… although Potter joins Chesney for his summer stadium tour with Tim McGraw.
Matraca Berg has been busy promoting her record – and doing benefits with the writers Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, rocker Marshall Chapman. She doesn’t come around much for bottles of red or demo roulette.
We still laugh there in margins, remember when we were younger. She’ll walk a red carpet if you make her. And somewhere, the next magical cover will rise from an unlikely place, because Matraca Berg writes songs that aren’t machine by committee to maximize potential for what works, iconics to drop and hooks to lift.
She works from the heart, plays what she feels, rolls up her sleeves and bleeds for the people she captures in her songs. Whether it’s a tired beautician, truck stop waitress, aging beauty or homesick girl who can’t get home, Matraca crawls inside and shows us all just what they feel.