This next edition of this series shouldn’t feel as premature as it does.
Sunny Sweeney has now been active as a recording artist for around 15 years, and it’s a damn shame that she only has four albums under her belt. Of course, a rocky start could have likely attributed to that. For context, she signed to a then-newly formed Big Machine Records in the mid-2000s and cut an excellent honky-tonk record, and if you’re familiar with the other acts associated with that label, you’ll note the irony. Suffice it to say, nothing from that album gained any traction at radio, and it wasn’t until a slightly more polished – but no less excellent – sophomore follow-up came five years later that she found a real breakthrough. And as someone who religiously followed charts in the late 2000s/early 2010s, I remember rooting for “From a Table Away” to establish Sweeney as the next superstar in the genre.
That … didn’t happen, and while the song become a modest top 10 hit, her follow-up singles quickly faded from memory, and what could have been never happened. It’s not all bad; Sweeney has since returned to her Texas roots to record two more excellent albums and has benefited from a time period where radio isn’t the only way of discovering new acts and where it’s easier than ever to keep up with old favorites.
As always, this feature is simply meant as my way of examining 15 favorite songs by the artist featured here, and I invite you to share yours as well, if you have any. If you’d like to request an act to be featured here, let me know that, too. Onward!
No. 15, “Next Big Nothing” (written by Audrey Auld Mezera)
A song fitting for a debut album, in which Sweeney’s tongue-in-cheek delivery works wonders for a track about acknowledging how you’re never going to make to the A-list, especially when you cut hard-edged honky-tonk music, even in 2006. Just as well – sometimes a smoky bar captures an artist’s essence better anyway. It’s not bitter or petty, it’s just a fun sing-a-long that the underdogs can relate to, no matter the profession.
No. 14, “Fall For Me” (written by Lisa Carver, Jaida Dreyer, and Carolyn Dawn Johnson)
Weirdly enough, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame and Trophy are my two favorite albums by Sweeney, and yet Concrete won out in a big way on this list. This is the first entry from it, the final track off of that album and one that shows how adept Sweeney is at elevating what could have been a mere filler track. Because, yeah, she never exactly says how she’s going to make this potential significant other fall for her, but there’s an urgency in Sweeney’s delivery and a general tension in the minor tones and faster percussion that’s almost folk-pop-like in execution, enough to where the subtext suggests it’s likely a relationship that will never be, yet one she desperately wants. Catchy and alluring.
No. 13, “The Old Me” (written by Lori McKenna and Mark D. Sanders)
And this is the second cut, a track that plays off the metaphorical angel and devil sitting on one’s shoulders and turns it into a fun, tongue-in-cheek romp, where the main twist is that the old hell-raiser this character used to be is very much who she still is now. It’s clever, and it gets bonus points for working in “instigator.” Lori McKenna, you tease.
No. 12, “Grow Old With Me” (written by Lori McKenna and Sunny Sweeney)
Well, this is odd. A happy sentiment and ending for a Sweeney track, where that main hook of “grow old with me, I’ll keep you young forever” is so earnestly sweet that it basically carries the entire song. I’ve never been wild about the sandier percussion that feels out of place here, but the generally understated arrangement between the fantastic dobro touches and acoustics keeps this tempered and grounded, enough to where this love story, late as it comes for these two, feels like it’s already written a few chapters in its own book, and still has a ways to go.
No. 11, “Unsaid” (written by Caitlyn Smith and Sunny Sweeney)
Between the huge, lavish string accompaniment that erupts at the song’s climax and the generally atmospheric yet controlled production, I’m not surprised to see Caitlyn Smith’s name in the writing credits. And I mean that as a compliment, because while this is unlike pretty much anything else in Sweeney’s discography, the dramatic flair works in capturing a final gesture for a fallen loved one that obviously can’t be said – in part because finding the right words for goodbye is tough, but also because it’s too late anyway, and Sweeney knows she let her pride keep her from patching up a falling out. Somber stuff; I just wish it didn’t end so abruptly, but maybe that’s the point, too.
No. 10, “Sunday Dress” (written by Sunny Sweeney, Buddy Owens, and Monty Holmes)
Most of these tracks find Sweeney acting against her better judgment, but this track sees her going against societal expectations with a little bit of humor and a whole lot of bitterness. Simply put, it’s her calling off her wedding in a small town where everyone talks and fits the stereotypes of small town folks fairly well – even her own mother, who prays for her sinful daughter who’d dare break sacred bonds. It doesn’t really matter why – maybe she wasn’t ready, or maybe she felt pressured into doing it too soon because that’s how life goes. Either way, it’s a heartbreaking look at how keeping up appearances for some matters more than finding true, individual happiness, especially in a place like that.
No. 9, “Ten Years Pass” (written by Sunny Sweeney and Elizabeth Mason)
Sweeney plays the vindictive hell-raiser well, and she also plays the worn-out troubadour well, too. And between the deeper-rougher mix in the more thumping percussion, bitter electric axes and pedal steel, it’s a moody examination of how much we do and don’t change over time. I keep thinking of Caylee Hammack’s “Small Town Hypocrite” as a modern example in its theme of staying behind in a dead-end town with someone out of some vestige of love, only for everything to change and cause them to drift apart, and cause the main character to realize their mistakes. Still, optimism wins out, and she finds that break to leave and find her true love, which is enough of a starting point for something better.
No. 8, “Slow Swinging Western Tunes” (written by Sunny Sweeney)
Probably her coolest-sounding tune, between the slicker, minor guitar accompaniment and the generally moody atmosphere seething with regret over the love song that never was, especially in that explosive outro. It’s a simple song of heartbreak, but I like the main twist of the hook, how that metaphorical slow swinging western tune was supposed to be upbeat and emblematic of their love. But hey, that’s why they call them slow swinging western tunes after all, isn’t it?
No. 7, “Better Bad Idea” (written by Galen Griffin, Buddy Owens, and Sunny Sweeney)
Sweeney has a lot of straightforward, devil-may-care drinking songs that are always a blast to cycle through, but this? This amps up the stakes, between the shuffling percussion and thumping guitar melody that carries a ton of swagger and raw firepower in setting up its seedy ambitions. The simple truth I’ve yet to really say out loud is that Sweeney often dares you to judge the characters she plays, and while this is your fairly standard bar hook-up track that will likely lead to something bad, it invites it all the same, and it’s as inviting as a siren’s song, at that. Dangerous, but awesome, too.
No. 6, “Amy” (written by Brennen Leigh and Sunny Sweeney)
Tracks where the “other woman” confronts the victimized wife are rare enough as it is (“Jolene” and “Diane” sit atop their lonely perch), but to find one where the former character stands up to the latter? Woah. Of course it’s regretful in its approach, but the main twist with “Amy” examines why the cheating occurred in the first place, where two lonely people find comfort and love in one another as one tries to escape an assumed abusive, unloving significant other. It’s a track where the moral ambiguity is sky high, but also carries some hurtful truths for all involved.
No. 5, “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving” (written by Jay Clementi, Radney Foster, and Sunny Sweeney)
From that opening lone echo of the main guitar melody that gets repeated to great effect later on in the track, I knew I loved this the minute I heard it a decade ago. It’s another moment where Sweeney’s urgency elevates a breaking point neither partner wanted to get to in their relationship, yet did anyway. I’ve always loved the approach, too – how neither partner necessarily wants this break, but knows they’ll only keep tearing each other down if they don’t end it, because the love died a long time ago, but the friendship still hasn’t. There’s still time to save that, at least.
No. 4, “It Wrecks Me” (written by Jay Clementi and Sunny Sweeney)
It’s another moment where Sweeney plays “the other woman,” but unlike “Amy,” there’s no silver lining for anyone here – just a long line of drawn-out pain and regret as she hopes she can convince her cheating lover to choose her, yet knows her own love will go unreciprocated in the end. Coming off the smoky touches of bass riding off the pedal steel, it’s likely her most tempered moment, especially when she knows she doesn’t deserve sympathy for her heartache. But to be haunted by it anyway and go on loving … there’s something cutting about that that earns it anyway.
No. 3, “But You Like Country Music” (feat. Brennen Leigh) (written by Brennen Leigh and Sunny Sweeney)
Music unites, even on this absolutely riotous, satirical look at how polar opposites who fit any stereotypes you’d like to throw at them as right-wingers or left-wingers tear down each other and find comfort in country music. This isn’t how it’d play out in real life, mind you, but it’d sure be cool if it did. Of course, half of the fun and appeal is hearing these two continue to tear into each other even despite that connection, out of sisterly love or something like that. This theme has been played out much more seriously before and has often felt cloying as a result. This song, however, never takes itself seriously in the slightest, and between the comedic wit traded between Sweeney and Brennen Leigh and the chemistry between them, it’s an absolute blast. Seriously, though, if the person you’re conversing with doesn’t like Dwight Yoakam, show them the door immediately.
No. 2, “From a Table Away” (written by Bob DiPiero, Karyn Rochelle, and Sunny Sweeney)
Sweeney’s biggest and most well-known single, and one that follows the path of regret established in “It Wrecks Me” by hammering the nail in the coffin for a love that could have been. But, man, the pure audacity and stones of this track, to not only have the composure to see your cheating significant other with his wife in public but to also confront him and tell him off … hell yeah, Sweeney. Of the trio of “other woman” tracks here, there’s a bitter truth for the wife on “Amy” just as there’s an unfortunate burden carried by the victim on “It Wrecks Me.” But “From a Table Away” shows how all it starts with one simple mistake by the person who should really be the one to carry all that blame.
Before we get to my No. 1 pick, let’s go through a few tracks that just narrowly missed the cut for this list:
“Drink Myself Single” (written by Monty Holmes and Sunny Sweeney)
“Carolina on the Line” (written by Sunny Sweeney, Lance Miller, Brad Warren, and Brett Warren)
“East Texas Pines” (written by Libbi Bosworth and Gary Griffin)
“My Bed” (feat. Will Hoge) (written by Sunny Sweeney, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe)
“Lavender Blue” (written by Keith Sykes)
No. 1, “Bottle By My Bed” (written by Lori McKenna and Sunny Sweeney)
Another edition of this series where the consensus pick is undoubtedly the right one. The pure, understated beauty of this song is absolutely transcendent, and as a track from Sweeney’s most recent album, it’s worth noting the progression, too. This pushes past the drinking and the cheating for something more stable and grounded … or it tries to, at least. The bottle she wants by her bed is a baby bottle, not a beer bottle. It’s Sweeney’s honest admittance of her inability to carry a child, and how that while the touring lifestyle and wilder adventures carry their own thrills, it will all end someday, and so to not have to something to look forward to afterward … it’s gutting, especially when she’s lived every word. And to talk about it beyond it, I admit, it’s uncomfortable to really discuss something so honest and personal from another point of view. Like the best country weepers, though, uncomfortable as it is, it’s also honest and important, and it’s absolutely the crowning moment in Sweeney’s discography thus far.