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Sunny Sweeney is the party and the morning after. She’s the quip that makes you laugh and the truth that makes you cry, the devil that’s egging you on and the angel whispering that you aren’t alone. But those compelling contradictions aren’t what’s most interesting about Sweeney: it’s the depth and brazen authenticity she brings to all her roles that grabs you and won’t let go. “
I’ve grown up doing the bar scenes, and you have to have drinking and partying songs there-–you have to,” Sweeney says. “Now, my songs are still about the same things, but I feel like they’re more mature versions.”
Sweeney’s salty wisdom and Texas-hewn soprano have never sounded stronger than they do on Trophy, her anticipated new album. Trophy is a breakthrough––the album we all suspected she was capable of making. The wit and honesty that have always defined her stone-cold country have blossomed into confessional, complex songwriting for grown-ups, still whiskey-drenched and honk-tonk-ready. Drugs, death, the ex-wife, drinking, devotion, and longing for a child: it’s all here, raw and real. “I have not felt this good about music in a really long time,” Sweeney says from her front porch in Texas. “I’m really excited.”
The success of artists including Margo Price, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, and others make it seem like the world is more open now than ever before to smart women singing smart country. It’s about time. Sweeney is a veteran of the trade, and has logged her miles the old-school way. A three-year residency at the Poodle Dog Lounge in Austin––“It was a dump,” she says. “They didn’t even have a credit card machine or liquor license.”––along with improv and stand-up comedy experience went a long way toward teaching her how to hold a room of cynical drunks in the palm of her hand.
The mastery of holes in the wall, major label stint, and serious songwriting chops make Sweeney something of a rarity: an artist with bar room cred, mainstream validation, and songs meaty enough for listening rooms. Or, as Rolling Stone put it in September 2016: “Sweeney is one of the rare entertainers who can hold her own at CMA Fest as well as AmericanaFest.”
Produced by Grammy nominee Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories) and recorded at Sound Emporium and Decibel Studios in Nashville, Trophy goes 10 songs deep without a single throwaway line. While Sweeney wrote with her longtime favorites including Monty Holmes, Buddy Owens and Jay Clementi, she has expanded her circle of collaborators in recent years. Lots of time writing with Lori McKenna, Caitlyn Smith, Heather Morgan, and others resulted in a deck that’s refreshingly stacked: most of the songs on the album were written by women. “I feel like I have branched out a little in the writing department,” Sweeney says. “And the record I ended up writing was pretty heavily written with females. While Sweeney didn’t intentionally set out to write almost exclusively with women, the resulting songs capture the feminine experience with a combination of nuance, humor, and accuracy only possible because of the source. Album opener “Pass the Pain” is a perfect example of Sweeney canvassing familiar territory in a more complex way. “It’s a drinking song,” she says. “It all actually happened when I was going through my divorce.” Eased into with steel guitar and plaintive piano, the song begins with an indignant Sweeney demanding another round, but her brash confidence soon melts into a forlorn apology to the bartender reluctantly pouring her drinks, making the interaction and the hurt all the more real and sad. “Bottle by My Bed” explores a different kind of heartbreak with breathless candor. “I only call my husband baby cause I love that word / never wanted something so bad, that it hurts / even give up these damned old cigarettes / if I could have a bottle by my bed.” Written with the awe-inspiring McKenna, the song lays Sweeney’s soul bare and captures the agony of not having a child when it’s all you want. “That song is where I’m at right now in my life,” she says. “It’s the worst pain ever. When I wrote it with Lori, I never really even imagined singing it live––I certainly never thought I’d record it. Didn’t think I had the balls to do it.” Thankfully, she did. The song is important, not just because of Sweeney’s gut-wrenching delivery, but because it tells a story too seldom told.
Sweeney wrote a total of four songs with McKenna for the record. “She’s my spirit animal,” Sweeney says of McKenna. The pair’s “Grow Old with Me” is a tender ode to finally finding love that can last. “Trophy” is a wry takedown of Sweeney’s husband’s ex-wife. A slow burn with finger snaps and sauntering bass, the song reclaims an insult and makes it a compliment to laugh-out-loud effect. “Nothing Wrong with Texas,” grapples with returning to a home that has an outsized identity you needed to escape before realizing it completes you.
The album’s two covers sound like they could have been penned by Sweeney herself. Chris Wall’s subtly brilliant waltz “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” has never been in better hands. “Pills,” written by Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay, tackles addiction and impending overdose with jarring empathy and cleverness. “It’s a story about real life,” Sweeney says of the song. “Brennen is one of my best friends, and we think a lot alike.”
Perhaps most of all, Trophy is proof Sweeney knows exactly what she wants. “There’s a lot of personal stuff on this record,” she says. “I feel like the songs that get the strongest reaction are the ones that are the most truthful––the ones that have emotion. That’s my job as a writer: to evoke some kind of emotion. I want everybody who hears this album to come away with something, whether it’s to feel like they’re not alone or inspired or like they want to laugh. I just want them to feel something.”
“One of the best things about country music was that it was adult music,” Erin Enderlin says. “It was real music that dealt with hard issues in life so that people going through those things don’t feel so alone.”
The observation is signature Enderlin: She has a way of turning a song or even just a thought into an outstretched hand to the lonely or ashamed. Her new album, Faulkner County, channels that empathy into a 14-part collection of story songs that sound like confessions, conversations, and declarations, confided or professed in late-night, smoky corners and red-eyed, hazy dawns.
While she first turned heads as a godsend to those aching for an artist with some golden-era country backbone, Enderlin’s acclaimed 2017 record Whiskeytown Crier firmly cemented her as something even more: a literary songwriter and superb vocal stylist with a knack for sharply drawn––and often sad––characters. Backsliders, avengers, lovers, and victims––they’re all swapping forlorn tales on the collection, which is a fresh take on the concept album set in a small Southern town. Faulkner County proves there’s more––so much more––where that came from.
The release of Faulkner County will cap off a landmark year for Enderlin. Already a go to writer for stars looking for heavyweight country with classic panache Alan Jackson’s “Monday Morning Church,” Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call,” Luke Bryan’s “You DonDon’t Know Jack,” and a host of other songs for Randy Travis, Joey+Rory, and more are all Enderlin penned her own musical heroes have begun turning to her for songs. Reba McEntire, Terri Clark, Rodney Crowell, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, and Rhonda Vincent all recorded Enderlin penned gems over the last two years. As her 2019 four part EP series reimagined the possibilities of narrative arcs in music, she embarked on a touring schedule more than 100 dates strong. Enderlin was a featured act on Jamey Johnson’s SiriusXM Outlaw Country Tour, AmericanaFest and CMA Fest, and crossed the Atlantic for her first UK run. In June, she took home three Arkansas Country Music Awards including Female Vocalist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. Shortly thereafter, her song “I Can Be Your Whiskey,” was featured in Rolling StoneStone’s “10 Best Country Songs To Hear Now.”
The flurry of activity––especially from classic country giants who are still standing–– thrills Enderlin. “I can’t believe I got that Reba cut––it’s a lifelong dream,” she says. “It’s kind of ridiculous. Sometimes I just think, ‘Are there more five-year-olds thinking, I want to play the Opry and I want Reba to sing my songs!’ And then it happens?” She laughs, still high from the win.
As a writer, Enderlin favors the first-person perspective. Her story songs are vehicles for different women, speaking their truths, there by creating a tapestry of female experience that is nuanced and complex––like real experiences are. “I don’t really try to wrap it up in a nice little ‘moral of the story’ so that everyone can feel warm and happy at the end of it,” Enderlin says. “Sometimes it’s just a piece of time and a real emotion––a real situation that people go through. Sometimes it’s raw. Sometimes it’s complicated.” Enderlin pauses, as if considering whether or not to continue. “I think that’s something that is missing from country music right now.”
Faulkner County rights that wrong. Jim “Moose” Brown and Jamey Johnson produced a dozen of the album’s tracks, while Alex Kline stepped in to helm boards for the remaining two. With yearning fiddles, album opener “I Can be Your Whiskey” explores the urge to soothe a could-be lover’s pain. Casting judgment aside, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” chronicles comforts. Dylan Carmichael supplies out-front harmonies, and the result is commiserating, twinning vocals, more of a duet than a solo. “I was looking for a certain kind of guy’s voice,” Enderlin says. “I wanted it to seem like the people were having the same conversation, but they weren’t in the same room. I wanted that harmony to stick out.”
With saloon-worthy piano and a short story’s worth of lyrical detail, standout track “Queen of Marina del Rey” swaggers through its protagonist’s boozy, campy memories. “Tonight I Don’t Give a Damn” finds a woman settling for forbidden companionship and brown liquor in a dive bar. It’s one more example of Enderlin’s stealthy ability to make listeners pity instead of condemn. “I tend to gravitate toward the first person,” she says. “Sometimes there are stories that you can’t do that with, but there is a certain grittiness when you can––when you can take the character on and speak for them.”
Featuring harmonies from superb crooner Ronnie Bowman and production help from Kline, “Use Me Again”––written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson, and Billy Lawson––captures lovesick complicity with heartbreaking clarity. “Broken” is a sorrowful anchor. A first-person look at abuse’s lifetime of reverberations, the song introduces a woman living with choices made––both her own and that of those around her. “Hell Coming Down” decries the predictable misery that follows temporarily muting a heartache. One of four tracks that Enderlin didn’t write, “A Man With 18 Wheels”––penned by Leslie Satcher and Bobby Carmichael––is an ode to loving a traveling man. Other covers include the sublime “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” written by Pebe Sebert and Hugh Moffat, and album highlight “Sweet Emmylou,” penned by Rory Feek and Catherine Britt. Featuring harmonies from Vince Gill and Alison Krauss, the latter track is an ode not only to Emmylou Harris, but to the sad songs that offer steadfast shelter, heartbreak after heartbreak. “I enjoyed doing some songs I didn’t write,” Enderlin says. “It brings out a different part of who you are as an artist and a singer when you can connect with somebody else’s creativity.”
With harmonies from Terri Clark, “Hometown Jersey” captures the loyalty of the community who knew and loved you first. “Run Baby Run” soars with carpe-diem passion. Kicking off with pedal steel, breathtaking “Till It’s Gone” sits with a woman haunted by memories in a seedy motel room. The mourning steel serves as a second narrator, crying between Enderlin’s poignant vignettes. “I don’t think you can have too much pedal steel,” she says. “If someone says you can, you probably need to get rid of that person because you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.”
A Kline-produced full-band version of Enderlin’s beloved 2018 acoustic single “These Boots” gives listeners rare insight into the woman behind the stories. A storyteller first who typically prefers characters to autobiographical inspiration, Enderlin opens up about her own life in the song. “I feel like it’s something everybody can relate to,” she says of “These Boots.” “Everybody has dreams. Everybody has something they’re passionate about in their journey.”
The songs on Faulkner County would stand alone as winning modern takes on traditional honky tonk, but together, they create a major accomplishment in musicianship and storytelling. “I hope listeners get lost in it,” Enderlin says. “I hope they get so into these characters that it’s like reading a favorite book––you’re there in that story, and you forget whatever is going on in your life.”
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