Sunny Sweeney began her performing career as a student of improv comedy in New York City. Fortunately for country music fans, her fellow classmates encouraged her to first pursue a career in music. After that, Sunny retreated to her Texas hometown, before she made the move to Austin and began playing the local honky tonk circuit. She was soon writing her own songs and landed a spot on an international tour with Dwight Yoakam. In 2007, Big Machine Records signed Sweeney to the label and issued her first album, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. Three singles were released, all of which failed to chart.
Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame was recorded at Cherry Ridge Studio in Floresville, Texas, far from Music Row. It’s no wonder the set failed to generate any radio hits given the album’s overall sound and running themes. That she really honed her chops playing the honky tonks is evident in both the aesthetic and the themes present in the lyrics here as Texas roadhouse country seems to the most common recurring musical theme among a littering of influences of honky-tonk, traditional country, and embracing Nashville renegades.
‘Refresh My Memory’ is a straight-up country, drown-in-your-sorrows number where the narrator is returning to one of her ex-boyfriends because she knows he’ll at least light a spark in her, even if she knows he’s wrong for her. It’s been an awful long time since she felt the spark this guy brings to her, or perhaps since she’s felt any sparks at all, and here she implores him to jog her memory a bit
There are plenty of two-steps and genuine barroom honky-tonk with tracks like ‘East Texas Pines’, a rocking lament to days gone by and your current location. The album’s title track was perhaps its best shot at a mainstream country radio hit, but even it was a long shot. Sunny’s charming drawl, coupled with layers of steel guitar, walking bass lines, and some saucy harmonica playing, keep it firmly rooted in traditional country; radical, you know. ‘If I Could’ moves at breakneck speed – and shows Sunny to be capable as an auctioneer if nothing else – in a knee-slapping good time of a song.
Proving Sweeney to be a singer’s singer – a characteristic that almost always means quality but also means no commercial appeal for some reason – this album has more than its share of insider songs about the music industry, and even more that just plain espouse the virtues and importance of music to the mind and soul. ‘Next Big Nothing’ tells of a singer’s struggles and frustrations with the slow pace of success while ‘Slow Swinging Western Tunes’ sings both the praises and the curses of sweet dance hall numbers – ‘play them in reverse and you get yourself a broken heart’.
Perhaps telling where those ambitions got rooted is Iris Dement’s stunning ‘Mama’s Opry’, a simple and hauntingly beautiful reminiscence of a young lady thinking back to her childhood and the sounds of the Grand Ole Opry. With little more than a mournful fiddle behind her twangy, restrained vocal, she tells of all the wonderful sounds that came from her mama’s radio.
Closing the set is the fitting ’16th Avenue’, a Lacy J. Dalton hit in the early 80s. Thom Schuyler penned this revealing tale of a struggling Music Row resident, and paints a vivid portrait of the kind of grit and determination it takes not only to succeed, but to survive, the ups and downs of the music business. Like Dalton, Sweeney keeps it simple, and just tells the story.
Other highlights include, but are not limited to, ‘Please Be San Antone’, which was written by Emily Robison (of the Dixie Chicks and now the Court Yard Hounds) with radio personality and Americana mainstay Jim Lauderdale, who duets with Sweeney on ‘Lavender Blue’, a memory-driven tale of two former lovers who are wondering if the other is thinking about them tonight, and still wondering what went wrong. Lauderdale’s brusque harmonies compliment the sharp, clear quality of Sweeney’s own vocals wonderfully, and give ‘Blue’ an unfair advantage over the album’s tracks sans Lauderdale. These two are great candidates for a duets album.
This album is truly a throwback to the glory days of honky-tonk music in the 1960s and 70s, and Sunny sounds like she’d have fit right in, only a couple of generations removed from herself. Almost unheard of today, the pedal steel guitar is featured prominently on nearly every track and no there’s no attempt at disguising the twang in Sunny’s voice. Country radio might not have taken note, but it would serve all the ladies currently recording on Music Row to stop and listen to what Sunny Sweeney is doing. She could lead the way if they’d let her. I’d follow.
Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame is widely available from amazon, and everywhere else music is still sold.