TROPHY MAKES ME FEEL LIKE SUNNY SWEENEY TONIGHT
Female country artists seem to be a dying breed. They’re either icons of the past or borderline pop stars. The ones with voices that drip sarcasm, vinegar, and heartache, singing about the scars of real life, are few and far between. I know when Sunny Sweeney drops a new record, it’s about to get real. Born in Texas, she seems to carry that independent fire in her DNA, not afraid to stand her ground and tell the truth. She doesn’t pander to an audience or cater to industry trends. Life dictates the content of her music and the tone of her voice as she sings it. Sometimes the result is scar-laden lyrics wrapped around the whine of a bow on strings, a little pedal steel and harmonica for emphasis. If someone needs a tongue lashing, she might just turn it into the title track. I didn’t realize how much country radio has made me a perfunctory listener. It’s mostly a formula my ears have come to expect. Trophy awakened my senses like a strong shot of whiskey after a long period of sobriety. Bartender, pass me the pain. I feel like Sunny Sweeney tonight.
Take one look at the song titles on this album and you’ll know what to expect. Sunny’s no pop radio princess and these songs don’t rely on a catchy hook. From the opening tune, “Pass the Pain,” she takes a seat at the bar and makes it clear, she’s not taking any shit from a bartender. “I don’t care what you think, just pass the pain.” It’s a setting we usually find male artists singing about, rarely females. One line into the song, “Bartender, don’t shake your head at me….,” and I was sitting there with her, smack-dab in the middle of a country song. Sunny doesn’t need three chords to get to the truth. If country music could be defined by a single song and a singular voice, you’d have both in this one.
“Better Bad Idea” is the most playful song on the album, in a devil’s advocate, Bonnie and Clyde kinda way. “Let’s wash our dirty minds, in a bottle of white wine, and do some things that we can’t take back. Cross every single line, get higher than a kite. Baby, what do you say to that?” Sirens declare less danger than she’s got in mind. “You always play it safe. No need to be afraid. I won’t bite unless you want me to.” Musically, this song is the most diverse on the record. It’s got a little rock edge to it, but never strays completely from its country frame. There’s a section that almost sounds like it could be in a James Bond movie. (1:49-2:08) It captures the very sound of intrigue. This one leaves me reaching for the red lipstick in hot pursuit of a better bad idea.
“Nothing Wrong with Texas” is a love song. It’s musically sweet and lyrically poetic, an ode to going home again and remembering the reasons you find comfort there. Texas prides itself on its own brand of country music, and Sunny captures that sound beautifully with this. The songwriting seems the result of a lesson learned, which carries into the next song on the album, “Pills.” This one takes me back to the sound of the late 60s, Woodstock, and the drug culture that existed at that time. It brings to mind another rebellious Texas singer, Janis Joplin, who would succumb to the power of pills at the age of 27. There’s a nostalgic feel to this song, a little rock, a little blues, yet still held together in the framework of a country song by Sunny’s incredible storytelling. Listen closely at 1:41 to the 2:20 mark. “Pills” would not have been out of place on the stage at Woodstock, and Janis would have been side stage, cheering her Texas sister on. This is brilliant, and intoxicating to listen to.
“Bottle by My Bed” is a deeply personal song, and if you judge it by the title, you’re way off base. As a woman who’s been where Sunny is in this song, nothing cuts deeper than the subject she sings about. I cry every time I listen to it, and marvel at the strength it took for her to write this and put it on the album. Instrumentally, it feels as light as a lullaby, because the power is in the lyrics. “I’d trade every pair of high heel shoes, for a high chair in the dining room. Don’t even know you yet, but I know I love you.” What’s been missing in country music is the guts to write songs like this, and even more so, the balls to put such songs on the radio. Your move Nashville.
When Sunny starts a song with laughter, you know she’s about to let loose. “Why People Change” is country rock with a flirty harmonica that reminds us to laugh at what we can’t explain. You can’t help but wanna dance to this one. That harmonica carries into the next song, but with a decidedly different tone. “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is a song about the reasons we listen to a country song and the circumstances for listening to something else. “When I’m real high I play rock ‘n roll. Country when I’m losing control. I don’t play Chuck Berry as much as I’d like. I feel like Hank Williams tonight.” The tempo feels like a waltz with a little swing to it. Forego the ball gown and break out the cowboy boots. If you weren’t in a Hank Williams mood before, you will be after listening to this one. It captures the very essence of a classic country song.
“Grow Old With Me” is a tender love song about a subject the music industry rarely acknowledges. Everything is marketed for a young audience. Ballads speak of young love and songs about love are mostly about sex. Aging love isn’t considered sexy, thereby unappealing. Sunny makes the topic sound sweet with these lyrics. “Love don’t give a damn about time. Look at the lines around our eyes. Just stand here side by side, hang on to me for the rest of the ride. Let’s live it out together. We’ll be young forever.” Sunny’s voice is perfect on this – mature and resolute with a touch of honey. Only in country music could this song find a home.
The title track, “Trophy,” is a tongue-in-cheek smackdown of a husband’s ex that sounds worthy of being on an episode of Desperate Housewives. I doubt Sunny Sweeney has ever been accused of not speaking her mind, and when someone takes a shot at her, with words or otherwise, she’s gonna fire back. Being referred to as a “trophy wife” isn’t an endearing sentiment, so call this one a rebuttal. “Just thinkin’ out loud but in the long run, don’t a trophy mean you think he won?” It’s gunslinger sassy in tempo and vocal delivery, like she’s just challenged that ex to a game of Russian roulette. “Yeah he’s got a trophy now, for puttin’ up with you.” POW!
And from sayin’ it all to words left “Unsaid,” Sunny ends the record with a song about regret. The weight she’s carrying from those unspoken words is reflected in the dynamics of the accompaniment. The music nearly becomes part of the lyrics in that it emphasizes the tender and heart-wrenching emotions Sunny sings about. “Half my heart’s up there in heaven. I hope you hear these words somehow. There’s so much left unsaid. Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone. Wish I could get it off my chest. Should’ve let go of my pride when I still had some time. Dammit it hurts. These words I left unsaid.” It’s a dramatic end to an emotionally heavy album.
Where other genres get loud and angry to make a musical point, country music gets lyrical. The men find regret at the bottom of a bottle and reflect on it through the strings of a guitar. The women get tough. Sunny Sweeney doesn’t hide the fact that she’s been through some real shit, some of it self-made. She writes about it and makes no apologies when it turns into a record. Her previous album was titled Provoked. Enough said. Her songwriting is textbook classic country with a healthy dose of female sass. Blame it on the red lipstick and her Texas roots. When she delivers an album, it’s gonna sting. Trophy is everything Nashville claims to be looking for – that old school sound, great songwriting, and relatability that goes beyond the regional. There’s not an ounce of contrived content on this record. It’s real, raw, and relevant, and likely to knock the wind out of you. If the purpose of music is to make you feel something, Sunny hits the mark in spades. Stop looking for the holy grail Nashville. This Trophy deserves one.
LISTEN TO TROPHY ON SPOTIFY: https://open.spotify.com/album/2Kz9ZpZpEZRvdBhdxcR45v
PURCHASE THE ALBUM THROUGH ITUNES: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/trophy/id1189243361
VISIT SUNNY’S WEBSITE: http://www.sunnysweeney.com/
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