Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
I’m young enough to say that country radio influenced my passion for the genre, and for as fun as it is to keep up with this website and every new country music release, I do, admittedly, miss the days when I could be caught off guard by new music. I still am, of course, but I’m also actively seeking it. What I’m referring to is an instance where a song comes into your life at a moment when you least expect it.
As such, I remember clamoring (if only to myself) for Sunny Sweeney to become a star when I heard “From A Table Away” in 2010. Taylor Swift was almost single-handedly insuring that Big Machine Records would become a breakout record label leading into the next decade, and with Sweeney as a signee … well, one could hope, right?
That didn’t happen, though. Sweeney’s journey with mainstream country music and Nashville mirrored Jack Ingram’s story more than it did Swift’s – a native Texan who built a grassroots fan base and found that country radio wasn’t quite ready to accept a hard-bitten slice of country music, especially knowing the places mainstream country music actually went in the 2010s. “From A Table Away” was a legitimate hit, but it was also her only one.
But that’s a familiar story for certain Texas artists, and instead of giving up, Sweeney returned to her home state and kept releasing solid projects more in line with her natural style. Fittingly, then, 2017’s Trophy is the moment where Sweeney shed any bittersweet memories left and came into her own as an actual artist; with her production quality more fierce, her writing sharper than before, and her candid performances driving it all.
To be honest, however, it’s always been an album where I have trouble contextualizing what makes it so great. There isn’t much of a thematic arc present, though I also can’t name a weak track in the bunch; and the production is sharp, but still decidedly comfortable in its lane of rough-edged Texas music.
I think it may boil down to Sweeney herself, whose blunt demeanor makes some of the seedier material in “Better Bad Idea” and the title track come through with a righteous fury while also knowing when she’s beat on tracks like “Pass The Pain.” Sure, the themes are relatively simple, but it’s the depths to which Sweeney goes that makes her material hit with a different sort of punch – “Unsaid” catches itself in the aftermath of regret, for instance, but also puts things into perspective when realizing Sweeney can’t make amends for her late friend, no matter how bad she wants to. It’s that same broken state she finds herself in on “Bottle By My Bed,” where her plea to have a child of her own is still too brutal to effectively put into words to this day.
One always gets the general sense, however, that no matter what situation she finds herself in, she’ll be fine … eventually, that is. There’s a sense of independence to this album, knowing that the lessons she learns are ones she needs to discover on her own. She’s lonesome, down and out on “Pass The Pain,” for instance, but also dropping some not-so-subtle hints not to mess with her, either. And when she’s confronted by an old addict friend on “Pills,” the general feeling is that she’s moved on and he’ll have to find his own way – either to complete destruction or to redemption. Of course, that’s also lending a narrative to the overall discussion that, again, isn’t necessarily meant to be there; the songs are mostly self-contained and stand on their own, and consistency is, after all, one of the most underrated features in music.
Trophy was also a shift from the cleaner, polished tones of her earlier work in favor of something grittier and more layered. There’s a nasty little percussion line driving “Better Bad Idea” I’ve always loved, especially with its meatier groove and the burnished tones fading out the track. And the sandier bass driving “Pills” is certainly enough to induce the head rush it’s trying to cause, which also is what makes the title track such a thrill. And the strings and other orchestral flourishes filling in “Unsaid” may be unexpected for the album’s general tone, but it’s also a fitting example of everything coming together at just the right moment.
It is, however, also just a really great, decidedly country sound. It’s a bold move opening the album with a slower country ballad in “Pass The Pain,” but there’s a sweeping richness to the pedal steel and piano; and those fiddles do quite fit the part on “Nothing Wrong With Texas.” The only track I’ve never been wild about is “Why People Change.” For one, the live vocal and instrumental pickups just don’t stand out much, and given that Sweeney often gives life to her stories by letting the details fill themselves in (subtext that the actual text also supports, in other words), it’s one moment that could have benefited from a stronger foundational story.
I consider 2017 to be the weakest year of the past decade for country music, but that statement doesn’t extent toward Trophy (or Marty Stuart’s Way Out West, for that matter). “Nothing Wrong With Texas” may basically hit the message square-on, but it’s also a fitting expression of the album itself – a chance for Sweeney to truly be reminded of that passion for music and create a genuinely excellent country album to boot. It may, sadly, not be her most prominent commercial achievement, but for all intents and purposes, Trophy is a fitting artistic achievement, and, depending on your perspective, that may be what matters most anyway.