Sunny Sweeney was signed by Scott Borchetta to Big Machine Records around the same time as Taylor Swift and it was his intention to make them both mega-stars. A bona fide Billboard top ten hit followed in 2010 with ‘A Table Away’, but her path was destined to lie in another direction to Swift’s, and after a couple of albums Sweeney returned home to Texas and in 2014 released ‘Provoked’, her debut independent release. It mirrored the tale of other singers like Sarah Darling, who found the confines of the genre and the politics of the major record labels suffocating. ‘Trophy’, Sweeney’s follow up to ‘Provoked’, is an apt name for such a victorious album and whilst the subject matter of the song itself is about a different context, Sweeney deserves an award for producing such an open, raw and honest album. Packed full of emotional sucker punches, wry humour and damn fine melodies, this is about as close to a perfect Country music album as is possible in 2017.
The album opens slowly with ‘Pass the Pain’, a drinking song. Augmented by Texan bar room piano, Sweeney’s southern drawl is perfect as she sings, “I know it ain’t workin’, I’ve been here all day, pass the pain.” From the off she sets her stall out – this isn’t some Barbie doll, manufactured Music Row wannabe, this Sunny Sweeney is a real woman, with real feelings and flaws, just like most of us out here in the real world. That connection and honesty is mirrored in her lyrics across the whole album.
‘Better Bad Idea’ kicks things up a notch. A darker, moodier song destined for radio with its infectious melody and barbed hooks. “Are you in or are you out, with all the sins I’m thinkin’ about unless you got a better bad idea?” Sweeney sings, gone all ’50 Shades of Grey’ horny! Some fine Texan ‘From Dusk Til’ Dawn’ style guitar work and a neat little solo really gives the song its edge in what could be the breakout track on the album.
The Lone Star state features in every nook and cranny on ‘Trophy’. ‘Nothing Wrong With Texas’ is an ode to the state itself which features lovely work on fiddle and steel guitar. It also comes with some big sisterly advice from Sweeney that the grass isn’t always greener and that people should appreciate what they have when they have it, whilst the cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s ‘I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight’ adds harmonica into the mix as Sweeney deals with loss and the loss of love in classic Country style.
Loss is a theme running all the way through ‘Trophy’. Sweeney, 40 years old now and a veteran of the Country scene, has lived enough of a life to have run the gauntlet of that emotion in several different contexts. She deals with the fleeting nature of love and the loss of love in ‘Why People Change’, a semi-autobiographical look at the ending of a marriage wrapped up in Rolling Stones guitar riffs and honky-tonk harmonica whilst on the title track itself she takes a vicious, yet seemingly deserved, swipe at her second husband’s ex-wife. One of the standout tracks on the album, ‘Trophy’ begins all finger clicking, Brandy Clark attitude and breaks out in the chorus with some excellent Texan style echoing guitar work. “He’s got a trophy now, for puttin’ up with you,” she snipes, responding to the ‘other woman’s’ snide remarks and jealous attitude.
Nowhere on the album is loss more explored than in ‘Bottle by the Bed’. Written in the aftermath of a miscarriage, ‘Bottle….’ Is a heartbreakingly powerful song about yearning. It was co-written (as were 3 of the other songs on ‘Trophy’) with Lori McKenna, a song writer known for her deeply personal and insightful lyrics and is one of the finest examples of raw storytelling I have ever heard. “I’d trade every pair of high heeled shoes for a high chair in the living room,” is perhaps one of the most poignant lines from the song. Sweeney only told a few people about the miscarriage and so to ‘go public’ with not only the facts but her feelings since is such a brave thing to do. “I went through all that shit by myself, not by myself, but with my husband.” She told Rolling Stone Magazine. “I went through all of it without telling many people, maybe three people knew.” This is a song that won’t fail to move you and would sweep the board during awards season if it had been recorded by Little Big Town or Miranda Lambert, such is the nature of how Nashville works.
The final track on the album, ‘Unsaid’ also deals with loss, in this case the suicide of a close friend and all the emotions, ranging from anger, to guilt to sadness, that that kind of tragic event provokes. The song opens with the line, “You don’t hear church bells on a Tuesday unless you are driving in a line.” That clever, meaningful yet not obvious lyrical imagery runs all the way through ‘Trophy’. A simple acoustic guitar, Sweeney’s voice and some strings provide enough impact to have you transfixed and transported grave side as she paints a picture, like all the best song writers can, straight into her thoughts and feelings. This is not an easy listen at times but then nothing good comes easy, does it?
Another Lori McKenna co-write, ‘Grow Old With Me’, does provide a moment of light relief and positivity. Not that ‘Trophy’ is a negative experience, far from it, but ‘Grow Old….’ Is a tender, sweet ballad written for her husband who is slightly older than her. “Grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.” She sings in what is another deeply personal, biographical moment that will resonate with couples everywhere.
‘Trophy’ is one of those rare albums that is sequenced perfectly. Every song is placed exactly where it should be, giving a flow to it that is rare to find in this ‘shuffle generation’. There are tears, love and laughter across the whole thing and, just like life itself, you never really know what’s around the corner, which experience or emotion is coming next. It is a staggering work of honesty that deserves to be lauded as being as good, if not better, than anything released on a major label in 2017. Alongside Aaron Watson’s ‘Vaquero’ album, ‘Trophy’ goes to show that you don’t have to live in Nashville or work for one of the big corporations there to make an impact on Country music. You just need to have a voice and a story and Sunny Sweeney has both and it is time, now, that people sat up and listened.
James Daykin (@rockjames)