My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Sunny Sweeney

Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘Workin’ Overtime’

After some time finding his feet, Adam’s first Australian gold selling album was 2001’s Workin’ Overtime. It also won him a Golden Guitar award for Best Album. It thoroughly deserved both, as this is an excellent album.

He wrote or cowrote the lion’s share of the tracks himself for the first time. The title track, ‘Workin’ Overtime (On A Good Time)’ was co-written with fellow Australian Rod McCormack and American country artist David Lee Murphey. This starts out slow and then ramps it up as Adam quits his job in favour of party time.

McCormack and Jerry Salley teamed up with Adam for ‘The Shake Of A Hand’, a sweet song set to a pretty lilting melody with a wistful nostalgia for a more innocent past. The same team produced the charmingly retro western swing ‘Two Steppin’ Fool’, in which Adam offers himself as a replacement for a cheater.

Adam and Rod McCormack were joined by Sonny Tillis to write ‘What It Used To Be’, a lovely sad ballad about the aftermath of a failed relationship. Matt King co-wrote the mid-paced ‘I’ll Drink To That’, a swaggering response to a wife’s ultimatum to stop drinking to excess in which the booze looks like winning:

Hangovers hurt me in the morning
But living with a crazy woman
Sure to give a man a heart attack
So I’ll drink to that
I’ll raise my glass and
Here’s to all the good times that you said we never had
This beer ain’t half as bitter as
This trouble you’ve been causing
With these threats that you’ll be walking
If I touch another drop
I’ll drink to that

Rick Price cowrote two songs with Adam and Rod, both love songs. ‘One Of A Kind’ is a sweet ballad, earnestly delivered by Adam, while ‘Little Bitty Thing Called’ is slighter lyrically but a fun little ditty.

A few covers or outside songs were thrown in. ‘The House That Jack Built’ is a rapid paced Billy Yates/Jerry Salley story song about a young married couple whose ideal picket fence life is broken up when a richer man comes along, with a fiddle dominated arrangement. Steel guitar leads into the superlative ballad ‘One And One And One’, also recorded by Gene Watson. Adam does it full justice as he portrays a man who retires hurt but dignified when he finds his lover two timing him:

The first time I laid eyes on you it was love for me
It never crossed my mind what all I couldn’t see
Now suddenly there’s more than me you’re livin’ for
I go to you and find a stranger at your door

1 + 1 + 1 is one too many
I can’t understand your reasons why
1 + 1 + 1 is one too many
So let me be the one to say goodbye

You say God blessed you with two good men
And you can’t choose
‘Cause in different ways we both mean the world to you
And you’re wonderin’ now if somehow
I could live with that
But God above wouldn’t call this love so I want out

‘She’s Gone, Gone, Gone’ is a Harlan Howard song first recorded by the legendary Lefty Frizzell and then a top 10 country hit for Glen Campbell. It is upbeat musically, belying a sad lyric, and highly enjoyable with a delightful acoustic arrangement. There is a tasteful cover of the Guy Clark classic ‘Boats To Build’.

‘Beauty’s In The Eye (Of The Beerholder)’ is a comic drinking song which is good fun.

The album closes with a very fine version of Chris Wall’s modern classic ‘I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight’, most recently recorded by Sunny Sweeney.

Adam is in great voice on this record, and the material is all high quality. I recommend this wholeheartedly.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Jim Lauderdale – ‘This Changes Everything’

It was back to traditional country for Jim’s 2016 release This Changes Everything, recorded in Texas with a strongly Texas flavour to the music. Steel guitarist Tommy Detamore produced, and a number of Texas mainstays formed the backing band. Most of the record was produced in a single all-day session.

The opening track, written with Texan singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, is a very nice conversational, steel laden song about falling in love. It would be ideal for George Strait (who did record this record’s ‘We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This’). Robison also co-wrote the gentle ‘There Is A Horizon’. A singer-songwriter of a more recent vintage, Hayes Carll, is the co-writer on ‘Drive’, a rather laid back sounding song about being on the road written very much in Carll’s voice.

Sunny Sweeney adds her distinctive harmony on the engaging ‘All The Rage In Paris’, about being a superstar local act – in Paris, Texas, and environs. ‘You Turn Me Around’, written with Terry McBride, is a charming Western Swing number. Buddy Cannon and Kendell Marvel joined Jim to write ‘Nobody’s Fault’, a laidback song about falling in and out of love.

‘Lost In The Shuffle’, written with Odie Blackmon, is the most delightful of several traditional country shuffles with glorious fiddle from Bobby Flores. ‘It All Started And Ended With you’, written with Frank Dycus, has a mournful feel, helped by the gorgeous steel and Jim’s plaintive wail. Dycus also co-wrote the romantic love song ‘I’ll Still Be Around’ and the sober cheating song ‘The Weakness Of Two Hearts’.

This is an excellent album which has become one of my favorites of Jim’s work.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jason Boland and the Stragglers – ‘Hard Times Are Relative’

Jason Boland and the Stragglers are usually reliable purveyors of country music infused with a little Red Dirt attitude.

The opening ‘I Don’t Deserve You’ is a pretty good midpaced love song. Sunny Sweeney’s harmony vocal adds charm.

The lovely title track is a sweet story song about a pair of orphaned siblings looking out for one another in the 1930s. This is the best song on the album.

Also great is the solid honky tonker ‘Right Where I Began’, with a protagonist taking refuge in country music and a one night stand for temporary relief from his heartbreak:

Ol’ George sings a leaving song where the cowboy rides away
Hey, Ronnie’s got me figured out
She’s back on my mind to stay
And old Jones said “He stopped lovin’ her”
I hope that ain’t today
So I’ll sit back down on the stool and let the jukebox play

I got Jack Daniels by the handle
My best Bud’s in the can
Some Wild-ass Turkey sittin’ next to me
Talkin’ ’bout the plan
But I’ll find a wife for the night and I’ll be her lovin’ man
Then tomorrow morning I’ll take her home and I’ll be right where I began

My next favorite is nostalgic waltz ‘Do You Remember When’, which reflects on “progress”:

Folks might still waltz around dusty dancefloors
But three quarter time’s never played anymore
And shameless promotions may get the place full
So drunk girls can ride a mechanical bull

Everyone talks about good old dancehalls
Then make for the tourist traps and shopping malls
Oh, how I wish this was all a bad dream
We’d wake up and Bob Wills would still be the King

Who would’ve thought it could happen so fast –
The reckless abandonment of all our past?
In one generation forget who we are?
So let’s talk politics and religion in bars

‘Predestined’ is a nice philosophical song with a soothing melody and somewhat unclear lyrics, and ‘Going Going Gone’ is also pretty good.

‘Searching For You’ has a jazzy feel with slightly haphazard doo-wop style backing vocals which is quite catchy but not entirely to my taste. ‘Grandfather’s Theme’ is rather more progressive jazz, and sounds a bit weird to be honest. The musicianship is impressive, but it feels self indulgent. ‘Dee Dee OD’d’ is a rocker which is apparently about the punk band the Ramones. ‘Tattoo Of A Bruise’ is not very interesting and is also quite rock influenced. The set closes with a cover of Van Morrisons folk-rock ‘Bulbs’.

Overall, there is about half of an excellent album, and half one I’m not especially interested in.

Grade: B

Razor X’s Top Albums of 2017

Another year has come and gone, and once again we lament the deplorable state of mainstream country music, while pointing out a few glimmers of hope that will never be heard on the radio. Among this year’s highlights are:

10. Dailey & Vincent – ‘Patriots and Poets’

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent had quite a year, which included being inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in March, followed by the release of one of the best bluegrass albums of the year. This generous sample of bluegrass and spiritual tunes is the perfect showcase for the duo’s trademark harmonies.

9. Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

Not to be outdone, Darrin’s big sister Rhonda also turned in a stellar collection, teaming up this time with her former label mate Daryle Singletary. Although heavily reliant on cover material, there are some new songs here as well. This is a real treat for those who are starved for some real country music.

8. Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

The legendary Charley Pride returned after a six-year recording hiatus, with one of the strongest offerings of his post-major label career. Sirius XM subscribers who listen to Willie’s Roadhouse will no doubt be familiar with “You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine”, which was my favorite song on the album. Like the Vincent/Singletary album, this one has its share of remakes but there’s not a weak one to be found.

7. Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

Reba McEntire is my favorite female singer, but I’ve been disappointed with her offerings over the last decade more times than I care to remember. This double album which is divided evenly between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs shows that when commercial considerations are cast aside, Reba is still in a class all by herself. I’m cautiously optimistic that this album is a sign that she’s finally stopped chasing chart success and ready to release some worthwhile material again.

6. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

While it’s regrettable that Sunny Sweeney never enjoyed the mainstream success she deserved, getting out of her major label deal was the best thing that ever happened to her from a creative standpoint. While Concrete was a bit too eclectic for my liking, Trophy gets it just right and is her best offering since Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. “Bottle By My Bed”, which she co-wrote with Lori McKenna, would be a monster hit in a sane world.

5. Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

Alison Krauss is another artist with whom I’d become a bit disillusioned, but she redeemed herself nicely with this collection of cover songs, which aren’t quite classics for the most part, but deserved to be introduced to a new audience. This is the best album she’s done in years — arguably the best of her career.

4. Zephaniah OHora with the 18 Wheelers – ‘This Highway’

This collection of original material which recreates the Bakersfield and countrypolitan sounds of the 60s was a pleasant surprise. Although it could have benefited from a little more variety in tempo, this a wonderful album and I hope that it is the first of many from this native of Brooklyn.

3. & 2. Chris Stapleton: ‘From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2’

These widely anticipated follow-ups to 2015’s Traveller were presumably intended to be a double album, but Mercury Records seems to have gotten cold feet about the sales potential of a double set, so they split it into two separate releases. Both discs feature very sparse production and gorgeous harmonies from Chris’ wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton. With a heavy blues influence, theses albums are not traditional country, but there are a perfect antidote to the overproduced pop masquerading as country music on the radio today. I liked the second volume slightly better than the first.

1. Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection finds the Red-Headed Stranger teaming up with his two sons Lukas and Micah and digging deeply into the catalog of Hank Williams. Despite their youth, the younger Nelsons show obvious enthusiasm for the material, proving that Willie raised those boys right. This was a pleasure from start to finish. My favorite track was the Hank Cochran-penned “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which was hit for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely in 1973 and later recorded by Willie for his Red-Headed Stranger album.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2017

While the mainstream sinks further away from country music, I have found some great music this year. It is marked, however, that much of the best music harks back to the past in one way or another. Another difference from radio trends is that half of the top 7 are female artists. Here are my favourite full length albums of 2017:

10. John Baumann, Proving Grounds

An overlooked gem I never got round to reviewing in the summer, this release from a young Texas singer songwriter of the troubadour type was full of high quality songs. Definitely an artist to watch.

Highlights: ‘Old Stone Church’, ‘Lonely In Bars’, ‘Here I Come’, ‘The Trouble With Drinkin’’, ‘Meg’

9. Chris Stapleton, From A Room, vols 1-2

While his music is not traditional country, it is a lot better than most mainstream efforts these days. Chris Stapleton has a great voice and is a superb songwriter, and wife Morgane’s harmonies add the final touch. I am counting these two almost-full length albums as one for the purpose of this list.

Highlights: ‘Up To No Good Livin’’, ‘Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning’, ‘Either Way’, ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, ‘Scarecrow In The Garden

8. Conway Twitty – Timeless

The recently re-released recordings are a delightful reminder of what country music used to be. Arrangements laden with steel, great songs and Conway’s emotive vocals all contribute to a wonderful album, with only a couple of less stellar moments.

Highlights: ‘Lost Her Love) On Our Last Date’, ’15 Years Ago’, ‘Next In Line’


7. Gene Watson – My Gospel Roots

This only came out on 8 December, just in time to make my year-end list. It is an excellent religious album from one of the best living country vocalists, with an interesting selection of material. The full review will be posted on Friday.

Highlights: ‘Fit For A King’, ‘Help Me’, ‘Old Roman Soldier

6. Charley Pride – Music In My Heart

The legend’s 2017 album is his best music in years. He is in fine voice and the songs are great.

Highlights: ‘Standing In My Way’, ‘I Learned A Lot’, ‘The Way It Was In ‘51’, ‘It Wasn’t That Funny

5. Jason Eady – Jason Eady

A thoughtful, often compelling collection of songs from one of my favorite singer-songwriters.

Highlights: ‘Barabbas’, ‘Where I’ve Been’, ‘No Genie In This Bottle’, ‘Black Jesus’, ‘Why I Left Atlanta’, 40 Years


4. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy

The Texan singer-songwriter released another great record this year, mixing attitude and heartbreak in eqal measures.
Highlights: ‘Bottle By My Bed’, ‘I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight’, ‘Trophy’, ‘Pass The Pain’

3. Alison Krauss – Windy City

Alison Krauss’s beautiful voice on a country leaning collection of standards, beautifully prodiced and exquisitely sung. Flawless.

Highlights: ‘You Don’t Know Me’, ‘River In The Rain’, ‘Losing You’, ‘Gentle On My Mind’, ‘All Alone Am I’, ‘Please Don’t Tell me How The Story Ends’


2. Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary – American Grandstand

A delightful pairing of one of bluegrass’s best female vocalists with country traditionalist Daryle Singletary. Rhonda’s voice blends even better with Daryle than it did with Gene Watson https://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/album-review-gene-watson-and-rhonda-vincent-your-money-and-my-good-looks/ a few years ago. Magnificent.

Highlights: ‘We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds’, ‘One’, ‘A Picture Of Me Without You’, ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, ‘American Grandstand


1. Erin Enderlin – Whiskeytown Crier

The singer-songwriter’s latest album is a superb collection of story songs. My only reservation is that several of the songs have appeared upon her previous releases, but this is a truly excellent album.

Highlights: ‘Broken’, ‘Caroline’, ‘His Memory Walks On Water’, ‘The Coldest In Town’, ‘Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Ten Favorite singles of 2017

While it does become harder and harder to assemble this list each year, it always amazes me that quality country music does exist, even if the upper echelon of the airplay chart screams otherwise.  Sit back and enjoy what I consider the ten best singles released this year:



10. Tanya Tucker – Forever Loving You

Go online and you’ll find countless videos of Tucker where she details the volatility of her relationship with Glen Campbell. She freely admits to the drug and physical abuse that defined their union, which became a cornerstone of her early 20s. Even after they split, and she went onto some of her greatest success, she clearly never truly got over him.

More than a tribute to Campbell, “Forever Loving You” is an exquisite love song. Tucker is in fine voice, which makes the longing for new music all the more aching. Why does this have to be a standalone one-off and not the lead track to a new album?

9. Alan Jackson – The Older I Get

Easily Jackson’s greatest achievement since “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore.” He’s in a contemplative mood, looking back in the year he received induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If this is any indication, I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

8. Jon Pardi – She Ain’t In It

The best mainstream single of 2017 comes from the newly crowned CMA New Artist of the Year. The lyric isn’t earth-shattering, but the drenching of fiddle and steel more than makes up the difference. With his solid foundation in traditional country and his willingness to stay true to himself no matter the cost, Pardi’s future is bright. As of now, he’s one of the good guys.

7. Lee Ann Womack – Hollywood

A housewife is begging her husband to engage with her. He won’t bite except to dismiss her feelings or downright ignore their partnership. She’s exhausted from their loveless marriage, and the part he’s playing in it, so much so she wonders, “either I’m a fool for asking or you belong in Hollywood.” The first of two songs in this vein comes with that killer hook and Womack’s equally effective performance.

6. Alison Krauss – Losing You

Krauss revives a somewhat obscure Brenda Lee hit from 1965 and knocks it out of the park. The covers album that followed is just as rich and deeply satisfying.

5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires

If life didn’t come with an expiration date, would we love as hard? Isbell asks that central question on the stunning centerpiece from That Nashville Sound. He proves mortality is actually a good thing, not something to be feared. For my ears, “If We Were Vampires” is the love song of the year.

 4. Chris Stapleton – Either Way

In my more than twenty years of seriously consuming country music, no song has stuck with me as long or had as great an impact on my psyche as “Either Way.” Lee Ann Womack brought it to life eight years ago in what still remains the song’s definitive version. Stapleton sings the fire out of it, too, but his greatest achievement is being the man who wrote it. He’s easily among the upper tier of the greatest country songwriters of his generation.

3. Brandy Clark – Three Kids No Husband

Clark teamed with Lori McKenna on an anthem for the women who assume all titles without a man to even the score. Both have recorded it, but it’s Clark who found the subtly within the lyric and ultimately drove it home.

2. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed

Many songs have been written about the struggle for a woman to conceive, but none are as achingly beautiful as Sweeney’s tale of heartbreak in the wake of a miscarriage. A powerful and universal tale for anyone who has suffered the same fate.

1. Erin Enderlin – Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

I didn’t have a clear favorite single this year until I played these ten songs back-to-back when considering the rankings. Enderlin blows away the competition with her story of a wife realizing how foolish she is for staying with the cheating bastard who probably never loved her in the first place. A true country ballad for the ages.

“Every Little Thing” and Carly Pearce’s fabricated fairy tale

The deeper I lean into the marketing of mainstream country music, The more I’m seeing the blatant manipulation. It’s no secret that Keith Hill’s comment that women are the tomatoes on the salad was offensive and misogynistic, but it was also, unfortunately, spot on. Women, unless they are members of a group, duo or collaboration also featuring men, have been shut out of even marginal airplay. Miranda Lambert is justifiably pissed at her diminishing returns, even as her music veers more and more towards Americana.

Media outlets that cover mainstream country have been celebrating the success of Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” with Rolling Stone Country saying she “defied the odds with risky song” in a recent headline. I’ll admit, it’s against the norm, in this current climate, to release a ballad and have it succeed. The slower a song is the less likely it will fall under what is deemed “radio friendly.” That logic is nothing new.

But what’s baffling is the suppression of the truth. Carly Pearce is succeeding on her own merit about as much as Thomas Rhett. This grand success story? It’s all courtesy of iHeart Media and their “On The Verge” program. “On The Verge” exists to help struggling artists succeed and pretty much guarantees them a #1 hit. It’s the only reason former American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina scored a chart topper with “The Road Less Traveled” seven years after her debut album bombed into oblivion. There’s absolutely no fairy tale here, no reason to cheer or even get excited. These feats are political manipulations swept under the rug disguised as major success stories.

We’re at a crisis point right now with female artists. Not only are none getting airplay, there really aren’t any in the mainstream sector for radio to embrace. Brandy Clark and Sunny Sweeney would never get airplay for the latest music, in any era, since they’re 40 years or older. Ashton Shepherd didn’t connect, with her heavy twang, so MCA dropped her. Ashely Monroe was told, on her last radio tour, that “On To Something Good,” was dead on arrival. Kacey Musgraves has done next to nothing to endear herself to the mainstream audience beyond wearing crazy outfits and adorning her sets with neon cacti. She will join Harry Styles on tour next year. Will Maren Morris connect? Possibly, as she’s already building a following. But I would think she’d have to prove herself as more than the “80s Mercedes” singer. “I Could Use A Love Song” has done that for me, but it’s only a step in the right direction for her to take as she contemplates her follow-up to Hero.

About the only person, we can count on is Carrie Underwood, who is currently in between albums. Time will tell if her newly minted deal with Capitol Nashville, the label that refused to sign her as a pre-teen back in 1996, will yield further success. I can’t imagine her being blackballed but I never thought Dixie Chicks would fall from grace like that either. In this market, anything is possible.

Is there a solution or silver lining in all of this? I honestly have no idea. I never imagined mainstream country music would ever be in this bad a shape in my life. It took until I got to college to see why Luke Bryan has been able to succeed like he has. He’s tapped into an audience previously ignored by country music, those who love to socialize and party and be high on life. He’s like the male Taylor Swift in that sense. He’s found his audience and he’s running with it all the way to the bank.

This era is the building block for whatever comes next. Has anyone else noticed the glaring oddity of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad?” The song has succeeded without a music video, parent album or physical release of any kind. I can’t remember any other massive song that lacked even one of those three elements. These are uncharted waters and they’re reaping big rewards.

Maybe you know where we’re going from here. I know I probably shouldn’t care, and I have spent the majority of this year focused on independent releases, but I do. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature as female artists have always been my favorite, the ones I listen to most frequently. I guess Angaleena Presley and her fellow Pistol Annies said it best:

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I hate to put a damper

On the fairy tale you pictured

I shoulda known all along that

Glass slippers give you blisters

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

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

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

Grade: A+

Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country

Single/Song Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Bottle By My Bed’

trophyThe first single from Sunny Sweeney’s much anticipated new album is something of a change of pace emotionally. Coming to the song cold I expected this to be about the alcoholic type of bottle, but it is something quite different. Drawing on her real life experience of infertility the song, which Sunny wrote with Lori McKenna, voices her and her husband’s longing for a baby.

She compares her life, apparently enviable, but empty, to that of friends already raising children, whereas she has “an empty room at the top of the stairs”. She says she would be happy to exchange worldly possessions for the baby bottle, and later the carpool.

Occasionally addressing the future child she dreams of, she declares,

“I don’t even know you yet but I know I love you”

There is a thread of hope saving the mood from one of self-pity, ending the song with “We wait”.

A fairly sparse string arrangement allows the song’s emotions to take center stage, with a somber cello performance from Jake Clayton standing out. Sunny’s incisive vocal sells the song effectively.

This is a subject rarely addressed in country music. There’s an obscure track by Kellie Coffey, ‘I Would Die For That’, and the Dixie Chicks’ more allusive ‘So Hard’ (from the post-controversy Taking The Long Way). But Sunny’s song is the best written of these three, and the one which speaks most strongly to me. It has a special resonance for me as my mother has talked about her own struggles with fertility, many years ago, putting strain on my parents’ marriage before eventually adopting me and my brother, a path less easily available nowadays.

I’m not sure I can hear this as a radio single, but it is the kind of song which gives country music its reputation as the reflection of true life in all its complexities.

Grade: A+

Listen here, and read an interview with Sunny about the background to the song.

Christmas Single Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘One More Christmas Beer’

one-more-christmas-beerSunny Sweeney’s new Christmas single is a closely observed, affectionate and highly comic look at the strains of Christmas with the family. The song (written by Sunny with Monty Holmes and Buddy Owens) has been around for a while but appears to be new to iTunes.

Opening with a jaunty whistle and some Christmas bells before launching into the tune, Sunny paints a picture of family who drink, fight and drink some more to cope with the misery of being cooped up together, all with charm and good humor.

The later it gets
The drunker we are
Someone always ends up in a fight
We think that a family try to get along
At least this one day a year
Well the fact is we can’t
We never will
So pass me one more Christmas beer

Later we hear that

Grandma is bitchin’
About men in the kitchen
It’s a good thing my grandpa can’t hear

It’s left unstated whether Grandpa is just deaf or has passed beyond all earthly cares, although I presume the former.

If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em
Get drunk and annoy ‘em
I’m usually the one that tries to hold it together
Someone smoked up all my Christmas cheer
We don’t know any better
Same thing different year
God bless the family
Can’t wait till it’s over
Pass me one more Christmas beer

This is a fun counterpoint to the enforced jollity of so much Christmas music. Like most comedy, it’s deliberately exaggerated, but not so far as to seem removed from reality.

Highly recommended.

Grade: A+

Single/song review: Sunny Sweeney and Brennen Leigh – ‘But You Like Country Music’

but-you-like-country-musicI’m a fan of both Sunny Sweeney and Brennen Leigh, so I was intrigued to hear their new duet. Although it’s not a formal radio single, it’s available now as an iTunes download, and it is well worth hearing.

A closely observed (if comically exaggerated) and witty debate between two women with very different outlooks on life who share a deep love of country music, the song wraps up a serious message about diversity and tolerance in a set of funny putdowns.

Brennen plays the environmentally aware hippie, and Sunny her ultra-conservative neighbour. they disdain and ignore one another until they discover a shared love, criticising one another’s choice of cars, garden layout and clothing, and swapping insults.

Sunny opens with:

I saw you pull up next door in your Subaru
I bet that thing runs on veggie oil…
I bet you’re probably growing marijuana
In that big organic garden in your yard
You walk around in sandals and pyjamas
Was getting dressed really all that hard?

Brennen responds,

I’m surprised you even saw me where you’re sitting
Behind that 747 in your drive
That’s the greenest grass I think I’ve ever seen
It’s probably from all the dangerous pesticides

They add in some political gibes, before they find common ground:

I was gonna keep my distance
‘Cause we are so different
Til one day I heard you cranking up the Hag

You like country music do ya?

What if I do, what’s it to ya?

Well, if you like country music
Then I guess you’re not so bad

They conclude,

It’s true that we’ve got nothing in common
But a love of country music conquers all

This is highly entertaining. The production is very traditional – no wonder, when their respective record collections,

cover all the bases
From Kitty Wells all the way to Dwight

Generally, a delight. <a href="http://“>Watch them performing it live.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Sunny Sweeney – ‘From A Table Away’

Occasional Hope’s top 10 singles of 2015

law 2015Country radio may be going from bad to worse with the arrival of the likes of the obviously non-country Sam Hunt, but there have been some superb singles released this year, particularly from female artists. A few of them have even made an impact on radio, proving there is still hope. Among the singles that just missed the cut for my top 10 were the charming first two singles from Kacey Musgraves’ second Mercury album – ‘Biscuits’ and ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’; Sunny Sweeney’s dead-marriage duet with Will Hoge, ‘My Bed’; and Chris Young’s sexy ‘I’m Comin’ Over’.

10. Jon Pardi – ‘Head Over Boots’
Sunny and catchy – this is country rock done exactly right. It’s currently working its way into the top 40.

9. Chris Stapleton‘Nobody To Blame’

Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton’s unexpected triple victory at this year’s CMA Awards was the pleasantest surprise I’ve had at an awards ceremony in years. Showing why he deserved it, his November single release is an excellent song imbued with his bluesy soulful brand of country music.

burning house8. Cam – Burning House
I hear Camaron Ochs as more folky pop rather than a country singer at heart, but I’ve really liked her two 2015 singles, the upbeat ‘My Mistake’ (about embarking on a one night stand with no regrets), and the gentle melancholy of ‘Burning House’. The haunting melody makes this my favourite of the two, and for a change radio agrees with me, as this has proved to be her breakthrough, with the track at #11 on the country radio chart as of early November. Her debut album is due this month.

shut up and fish7. Maddie & Tae – ‘Shut Up And Fish’
An irresistibly catchy tune from the effervescent duo, which uses its comic trappings to dress up a serious message about sexual harassment.

6. Jason James‘I’ve Been Drinkin’ More’
Perhaps the most obscure of my top 10 singles is this solid barroom shuffle, which sounds like a forgotten county classic:

I’ve been drinkin’ more
Since you’ve been lovin’ me less

5. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got the Boy’
Disappointingly the album it heralded turned out to be otherwise terrible, but I still like Jana Kramer’s mature reflection on the passing of teenage romance, written by Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols and former child TV star Jamie Lynn Spears. Her vocal ability may not stand up to the other women who made my top 10 this year, but on this song at least, she has an appealing warmth. It was another genuine hit, and is still rising.

4. Trisha Yearwood‘I Remember You’
The second single from Trisha Yearwood’s 2014 mixture of hits and fine new songs, Prize Fighter, is an impeccable song, written by Canadians Kelly Archer, Ben Caver and Brad Rempel. My review said it was “as close to perfect as it gets”, and it is an exemplary example of understated subtlety in both the vocal and the production.

jamey johnson3. Jamey Johnson‘Alabama Pines’
Jamey Johnson has not been very forthcoming with new music even now that he has launched his own label. But he did share this single with us earlier this year, even initially allowing it to be downloaded free. A beautiful, steel laced melody, it looks back on his southern childhood and the dreams of a life in music who took him away.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
For most of this year, the title track of Ashley’s latest album has been the song I’ve returned to over and over again. When I reviewed that set I called this a truly outstanding song, and my feelings have not changed. Written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, and sung by the delicately vulnerable Ashley Monroe, this is a beautiful depiction of the pain of love which lasts longer on one side than the other:

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t
For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

It wasn’t a hit of course – it was far too good for country radio: too country, too subtle, and too female.

1. Lee Ann Womack‘Chances Are’
I thought Ashley Monroe’s single was going to make #1 on my list until I heard late in October that Lee Ann Womack had issued the best song on her critically acclaimed 2014 album The Way I’m Livin’ as its third single. A world-wearied and desperately lonely soul still has hope for love and happiness:

Chances are I took the wrong turn
Every time I had a turn to take
And I guess I broke my own heart
Every chance I had a heart to break
And it seems I spent my whole life
Wishin’ on the same unlucky star
As I watch you ‘cross the barroom, I wonder
What my chances are

Well, I know you’ve been around
And you’ve seen what you needed to see
And at night when you’re dreamin’
You’re probably not dreamin’ ‘bout me
Oh, it’s safe to say I’ve stumbled
But I’ve managed to make it through this far
As I take one step and then another
I wonder what my chances are

I have watched the world go by
Hand in hand and wondered why
I’m still so alone
Could I lay down my foolish pride
Maybe finally find my heart a home

The band has started playing
A simple song I used to know
I take your hand and walk you out
Dance to the rhythm way down low
Every heart has got a story
Mine just has a few scars
But they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are
Well, they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are

I first heard this excellent song sung by its writer Hayes Carll a few years ago, but LAW’s version of this excellent Hayes Carll song is quite exquisitely beautiful: beautifully sung and interpreted like a masterclass in country music, and tastefully produced with lovely steel guitar dominating the mix. Her unexpected but well deserved nomination as the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year probably won’t gain her airplay for this stunning record, but it’s unmissable.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of the Year

johnnycashCompiling a list of the year’s best albums is a much easier task than putting together a list of the year’s best singles. My list is comprised entirely of works by veteran artists who have more or less been put out to pasture by country radio but continue to produce quality music for their loyal fans.

10. Provoked — Sunny Sweeney

In a sane world, Sunny Sweeney would be a superstar. But even though she never quite found her niche at radio and is no longer on a major label, her first release in three years makes it crystal clear that she’s not about to quietly fade away.

Ray Price9. Beauty Is … The Final Sessions — Ray Price

Ray Price was dying of cancer while recording his swan song, but you’d never know it by listening to it. His voice sounded remarkably strong for an 87-year-old in declining health. Fans of Price’s countrypolitan period will enjoy this one.

8. Carter Girl — Carlene Carter

Her tribute to her famous ancestors has a few missteps along the way — mostly when the arrangements get a little too contemporary but overall Carlene Carter’s labor of love is very well done and well worth the asking price.

7. Band of Brothers — Willie Nelson

Willie’s voice has grown weaker with age but he is still a top-notch musician and songwriter and shows that he can still deliver the goods with this collection produced by Buddy Cannon.

Do You Know Me6. Do You Know Me: A Tribute to George Jones — Sammy Kershaw

I can’t think of anyone better suited to do a Jones tribute album, whether it be covers of the Possum’s classic hits or biographical title track that was written for but never recorded by Jones.

5. Influence, Vol. 2: The Man I Am — Randy Travis

This album’s tracks were all recorded in the same sessions as those that appear on the first Influence volume that was released last year. I had initially feared that Volume 2 would be made up of the leftover tracks that weren’t deemed good enough for the first disc, but I was pleasantly surprised at how strong Volume 2 actually is. I may even prefer it to its predecessor.

4. Our Year — Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

This sparsely produced follow-up to last year’s Cheater’s Game is the perfect antidote to the overproduced bro-country currently being pushed by Nashvegas. I was a little surprised that they released this album only a year after its predecessor. Is it greedy to wish for another one in 2015?

blue smoke album3. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

After releasing a trio of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums in the early 2000s, Dolly lapsed back into the pop-country territory that she’d explored throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. She recovered nicely with Blue Smoke, and I really hope that this is the beginning of another creative surge and not just a one-off.

2. The Way I’m Livin’ — Lee Ann Womack

This was the comeback story of the year as far as I’m concerned. The Way I’m Livin’ is the sort of album I had hoped she would release as a follow-up to There’s More Where That Came From. It took almost a decade to happen but it was well worth the wait.

1. Out Among The Stars — Johnny Cash

This vintage Cash album was recorded mostly in the 1980s when the Man In Black was still in good voice. He was in the midst of a commercial dry spell and label politics prevented the completion and release of the album for 30 years. It was recently discovered and completed by his son John Carter Cash and is a real treat for Cash fans.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2014

the way im livinIt’s not been the best of years for mainstream country music, but great music is still out there to be found if you’re willing to hunt it down. There was a plethora of great covers projects, including excellent offerings from Joey + Rory and Gene Watson, and a number of other fine records which just missed the cut in my top 10 selection.

10. Dave Adkins ‘Nothing To Lose
Classic high lonesome bluegrass from a singer with a big, emotional voice.
Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Even Walk’, ‘Don’t Pray That Way’, ‘Mistaken Heart

9. J P Harris & The Tough Choices – ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is
Authentic retro honky tonk with some great songs.

Best tracks: ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is’, ‘Truck Stop Amphetamines’, ‘Every Little Piece’

provoked8. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked
Back on an independent label, Sunny Sweeney’s unbridled honky tonk with a modern twist is irresistible.

Best tracks: ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband’, ‘Backhanded Compliment’, ‘Sunday Dress

7. Fayssoux, ‘I Can’t Wait
A lovely mellow folk-country record.

Best tracks: ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’, ‘I Made A Friend Of A Flower Today’, ‘Golightly Creek’

6. Randy Travis – Influence Vol 2
The second instalment of Randy’s covers project, fortunately recorded before his recent health crisis was, unexpectedly, even better than the first one.

Best tracks: ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’, ‘For The Good Times’

daylight and dark5. Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark
Solid country music from a talented singer-songwriter I like more every tie I hear him. This was one of the year’s first releases, and it hasn’t lost its appeal for me.

Best tracks: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Liars And Fools’, ‘Late Night Diner

4. Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me
The bluegrass star offers a stellar selection of material. The packaging is a touch gimmicky, with two CDs in one packages, each containing just six tracks. One is billed as straight bluegrass, the other traditional country, but both are wonderful. My only criticism is that it would be nice to hear some new songs of this quality.

Best tracks: ‘I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All)’, ‘Teardrops Over You’, ‘We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds’ (ft Daryle Singletary), ‘Beneath Still Waters

3. Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record
I was very impressed by fiddler/traditional country singer Jade’s debut album. Very much in the style of Amber Digby, this is packed full of heartbreak numbers, backed with fiddle and steel. It just squeezes in ahead of Rhonda thanks to the inclusion of original material.

Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’, ‘I Had A Husband’, ‘I Can Bring Him Back’, ‘I’m Dynamite’

lucky2. Suzy Bogguss – ‘Lucky
In a year which saw a lot of fine tribute and cover albums, this was the best of the lot. Suzy’s beautiful readings of Haggard songs are exquisite. This record is just lovely. The sensitive vocal interpretations are backed by delicately stripped down arrangements which shows that less is more.

Best tracks: ‘If We Make It Through December’, ‘Sing Me Back Home’, ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’

1. Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin
I was disappointed by Trisha Yearwood’s return, when she only recorded six new songs. But Lee Ann Womack did not disappoint, with that exquisite voice wrapped around 13 excellent songs. ‘Chances Are’, my favorite, is sublime. She sounds thoroughly revitalised by her move from the major labels and hankering after radio play to Sugar Hill’s focus on artistry. The result is magical.

Best tracks: ‘Chances Are’, ‘Nightwind’, ‘Sleeping With The Devil

Razor X’s Top 10 singles of 2014

law way im livinIt seems that every year it becomes more and more difficult to compile a list of the year’s ten best singles. I don’t listen to country radio very much (OK – at all) anymore, so when one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I’m not always aware of which tracks have become singles. In fact, many veterans on independent labels no longer bother releasing product to radio. That being said, there were some worthwhile single releases this year and the following were my favorites:

10. All Alright — Zac Brown Band

The Zac Brown Band had been one of the few consistent bright spots at country radio in recent years. This tune has a great melody and a strong vocal performance, and I would have rated it higher had it not been for the over-the-top guitar solo that mars an otherwise very good record.

9. Like A Cowboy — Randy Houser

In another era, Randy Houser might have been a superstar. He’s one of the genre’s best vocalists but like many of his contemporaries he has struggled to consistently select strong material. This pop/rock-with-steel-guitar power ballad is not a timeless classic, but it’s one of the relatively few songs that didn’t either bore or annoy me. Yes, the bar has been lowered that much. That’s not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy this song, just an admission that it probably wouldn’t have made my Top 10 list in a stronger year.

8. Lay Low — Josh Turner

Turner is another artist whose talent often far exceeds the quality of the songs he sings. The lyrics don’t have a whole lot of depth but Turner’s vocal performance is enough to make this an enjoyable listen.

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-Phase7. Bad Girl Phase — Sunny Sweeney

After a three-year hiatus, Sunny Sweeney returned this year, feeling feisty and letting everyone know that she’s not just the girl next door in this unfortunately non-charting effort.

6. PrizeFighter – Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson

Trisha Yearwood is another one of my long-time favorites who made a comeback this year. While not the strongest entry in her discography, “PrizeFighter” is a good, though not great, record.

A Million Ways To Die Single Cover5. A Million Ways To Die — Alan Jackson

Radio totally ignored this song from the film A Million Ways To Die In The West. This retro-sounding effort totally different from anything Jackson has ever done and is reminsicent of something Johnny Cash would have enjoyed sinking his teeth into. A fun listen if you don’t take it too seriously.

4. Who I Am With You — Chris Young

His latest album found Chris Young moving in a more pop direction. While I prefer his more traditional efforts, he is such a strong vocalist, it’s difficult not to like his music. On this track, he often sounds like a young Randy Travis, though the song itself is a far cry from Randy’s brand of country.

3. That’s What Dreamers Do — Travis Tritt

This is a very nicely crafted ballad, from a film about the life of Walt Disney. Tritts’ voice sounds a little more worn than it did back when he was a staple on country radio, but this song holds its own with the best of his 90s ballads.

dolly bluesmoke2. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

This bluegrass-flavored single and the album from which it came marks Dolly Parton’s strongest effort since her bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill. At nearly 69 years of age, Dolly sound fresh and energetic and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

1. The Way I’m Livin’— Lee Ann Womack

A lot of big names returned from long hiatuses this year, but Lee Ann Womack’s was the one I was most excited about. This non-charting record is an example of what country music used to be all about. It’s the first release of the post-major label phase of her career. I hope that her association with Sugar Hill is a long one and that she’ll begin releasing music more frequently than she has in the past. Country music needs more Lee Ann Womacks.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2014

what we ain't got

jake owenEvery year the pickings on country radio seem to get slimmer and slimmer, with fewer slots available for anything really country, or for material with any lyrical depth. But there are still some gems out there, and a few of them are even hits. So here is my personal pick of the year’s singles.

10. All Alright – Zac Brown Band
The arrangement is a bit rock-oriented for my taste with fuzzy guitars but this is a great song with a very strong melody and plaintive vocal from Zac, so it just squeezes into my top 10 ahead of Josh Turner’s current single ‘Lay Low’ which I liked a lot but didn’t feel had a lot of depth. ‘All Alright’ underperformed on country radio, just scraping into the top 20, perhaps because the band have cut their ties with Atlantic and lost some promotional muscle.

9. Bad Girl Phase – Sunny Sweeney
Sunny rocks out and exercises her wild side.

brandy clark8. Hungover – Brandy Clark
One of the best songwriters in Nashville (she also co-wrote ‘Bad Girl Phase’), Brandy is also a fine singer, and this single comes from my Album of the Year of 2013. A jaundiced depiction of a marriage failing thanks to one party’s drinking, while the other moves on, unnoticed, it is a brilliantly observed slice of life. Brandy has recently signed a deal with Warner Brothers which may get her music wider recognition.

7. I’ll Be Here In the Morning – Don Williams
One of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 80s revives a deeply romantic song reminiscent of his best, written by the legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Warm and tender in all the right ways.

dreamers6. That’s What Dreamers Do – Travis Tritt
The 90s star at his ballad-singing best, with a sensitive and thoughtful lyric about rising past hard times. It was written for a Walt Disney biopic, but its genuinely inspirational message is universal. Tritt’s vocal is excellent, sweet and tender, and backed by a tasteful arranagement.

5. What I Can’t Put Down – Jon Pardi
The young country-rocker’s third single (written by himself with Brice Long and Bart Butler) peaked just outside the top 30 – a disappointment following his top 10 breakthrough in 2013. The singer’s youthful energy sells the cheerful confession of over indulgence in sinful pleasures. Highly likeable.

ronnie dunn4. I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes – Ronnie Dunn
Technically this came out at the end of 2013 (and Razor X listed it in his top 10 singles for that year), but I’m counting it as a 2014 single. A melancholy reflection on growing older which was written by Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, and Barry Dean, Dunn’s vocal is perfectly judged with a wistful yearning for the lost innocence and carelessness of youth, “When I didn’t know what wasn’t good for me, but I knew everything else for sure”. Unfortunately it was far too good, and adult, for country radio to give it the time of day.

3. Girl In A Country Song – Maddie & Tae
This smart and funny satirical take on bro-country was a big surprise, coming from a pair of unheralded teenagers. It’s still on the poppy side aurally – but the clever and punchy lyrics work so well I don’t care about that for once (and the production is relatively restrained). They remind me quite a bit of the shortlived Wreckers. I’m interested in seeing what they come up with in future – and this song making it big on country radio is a great sign.

2. Blue Smoke – Dolly Parton
A delightful confection from another veteran who still has the goods. Dolly wrote the bluegrass-tinged tune as well as performing it with her customary zest.

1. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen
This is a beautifully understated and philosophical sad lost love song written by Travis Meadows based on his own bitter experiences. Jake has gone on record to declare this the best song he has ever recorded, and he is dead right. It’s also the best mainstream single by anyone for quite some time. It’s still rising slowly up the charts, and may not be the smash hit it deserves to be: but it’s the song of the year as far as I’m concerned.

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked’

sunnysweeneyFollowing a three-year break from the recording studio, Sunny Sweeney is back, and as you may have deduced from the title of her new collection, she is in a feisty mood.  She’s been through a lot of changes both professionally and personally since the release of 2011’s Concrete:  divorce, remarriage and parting ways with Republic Nashville Records.  Those who, like me, were hoping that freedom from the shackles of a major-label contract would result in an album more like the excellent Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, will find much to be happy about.  The Luke Wooten-produced Provoked is not as rootsy as her debut, but it is less polished than Concrete and has plenty of traditional moments.  There are more than a few concessions to contemporary tastes, with perhaps an eye still on the charts, but the prospects of a radio hit are unlikely without major label backing.

Provoked contains a generous 13 tracks, eleven of which were co-written by Sunny.  The album opens with the excellent “You Don’t Know Your Husband”, a collaboration with Angaleena Presley and Mark D. Sanders.  It’s a Loretta Lynn-style confrontation over a man, although Sunny is cast in the role of the other woman rather than the agrieved wife.  It’s followed by  “Bad Girl Phase”, which was written by Brandy Clark, Jesse Jo Dillon and Shannon Wright and released as a single a ilttle over a year ago.  It’s got more of a rock edge than we’re used to hearing from Sunny but to her credit she makes no attempt to tone down her twang on this number or anywhere else on the album.  It’s a catchy number that I like more each time I hear it, but the production is a bit cluttered and at times threatens to drown out her vocals.

Following “Bad Girl Phase”, the album enters a somewhat lengthy dull phase, through the more contemporary “Second Guessing”, “Carolina on the Line” and “Find Me”, none of which are particularly memorable.  But just when one might be about to give up on the album, things pick up nicely with the uptempo “Can’t Let Go”, a Randy Weeks number that reminds me of something The Judds might have recorded in their early days.

The album’s best moments are primarily in the second half, beginning with “My Bed”, a duet with Will Hoge that Sunny wrote with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe.  “Sunday Dress” finds her jilted, presumably at the altar, and unwilling to face the prying eyes of her small-town neighbors.  “Used Cars” is a nice mid-tempo number about finding love even when one is a little past one’s prime.  Her feisty side emerges again on the album’s last two tracks; on “Backhanded Compliment” ,she takes issue with those who either knowingly or inadvertently make catty or thoughtless remarks and the confrontational “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is a working class honky-tonker of the kind that Johnny Paycheck used to pull off with gusto.

Provoked is an intelligent, well-written collection of music that will probably be ignored by the mainstream but it has all the makings to be a cult hit. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an album by a current female artist this much.  I highly recommend it.

Grade:  A

Single Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Bad Girl Phase’

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-PhaseIt’s a been while since Sunny Sweeney last released new music, so I was excited to find she had a new single out leading up to a new album due out in August.

She is in defiant mood, celebrating going through the titular “bad girl phase” in country rock style somewhat reminiscent of Miranda Lambert and the Pistol Annies. The production is a bit on the loud side, but not overwhelming by any means, and Sunny’s voice and energy cut through the backings with no problems. I was initially not quite sure about this direction for Sunny, but the song (written by Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon) is extremely well constructed and sung with real conviction which sells it, and the track wears well on repeated listens.

The protagonist is more than happy to be drinking, smoking and playing the field for a while:

My moral compass’s taking a break
I’m a good girl in a band girl phase
The devil on my shoulder wants a beer right now
And a cigarette and a new boyfriend or two
Cause one’s no fun and loves just a waste
On a good girl going through a gone wild stage


Good girls say no
Bad girls say “I’m there!”

The style is a little more in the contemporary direction than Sunny’s previous work, and I could see this getting some radio play with its combination of attitude and tempo, even though she is now going it alone. It’s a well written and performed song which I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s already available for download on iTunes.

Grade: B+

Listen here.

ACM Award predictions

The Academy of Country Music is announcing its annual awards live on TV on Sunday. Here are our predictions and hopes for the ceremony:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift

Jonathan: First off, let the Carrie Underwood backlash begin. And end. I agree with the fans who love her, but she didn’t make enough of a splash in 2011 to be considered here. At least you need to release a solo single. I agree with this list as it features most of the big players in country music right now. I would’ve included Zac Brown Band here as musicianship should win out over star power. But I can’t say any of these artists don’t deserve it from a numbers perspective.
Will Win: Taylor Swift – it’s still a fan voted award and she has the largest fan base for these kinds of contests.
Should Win: Blake Shelton – not because of his radio hits but because he’s the only one here to ascend to the next level in 2011. He makes country music look cool on The Voice, too. He may not have a strong catalog of singles but we could do far worse in Hollywood’s ideal of country music.

OH: I think I would also lean to Blake Shelton here. Chesney, Aldean and Swift have all had bigger tours and more impressive sales, but Blake has been representing country music to a mass audience thanks to his TV exposure. However, this being a fan-voted category, I think Taylor Swift will be Sunday’s winner, with only the fast-rising rocker Jason Aldean likely to challenge.

Razor X: Taylor Swift has this one in the bag, as it’s fan voted again this year.

Note: Voting is still open for anyone who wants to make their contribution. Read more of this post