How the hell did we get to this point where the predominant performers in country music are these namby-pambys in designer jeans tractor rapping about their damn trucks, and powder-puff pop castoffs cooing about their stupid boyfriends? Country music is supposed to be the spot on the dial for regret, self-loathing, and brutal honesty—where the broken-hearted and the thrice divorced go to commiserate. Screw your dumb keg party in a cornfield.
Lucky for us, Sunny Sweeney has come in like a counterbalance with her great new album Married Alone. It’s country. The stories cut to the bone. From one night stands, to waning love, to loveless marriages that have lost all hope, it’s country music for adults, but adults that are still trying to get the hang of adulting. It’s also for people who just love kickass songs that are actually country.
Sunny Sweeney is twice divorced herself, and in country music, you don’t shy away from your failed relationships, you overshare about them and wear them like a badge of courage. They’re collateral assets, like a prison stint for a petty crime. Co-writing all but a couple of songs on the album, Sunny Sweeney puts her life of struggling with frayed relationships and an occupation that puts her on the road into songs that you can palpably feel and buy into completely coming from her. This isn’t fiction or cosplay. This is a Sunny Sweeney biography set to song.
Paul Cauthen is who Sunny tapped to be the producer on Married Alone, moving on from her previous producer Dave Brainard. Paul Cauthen is a big name, but if we’re being honest, he’s one who’s been off into some weird stuff lately that doesn’t always bring to mind “country.” But starting with the first song “Tie Me Up,” which has been a fan favorite live for a while now, you’re reassured and relieved where this album is going. “Tie Me Up” is a straight up Waylon beat honky-tonker. The first single that was released from the album, “A Song Can’t Fix Everything,” featured Paul Cauthen, and is caked in steel guitar.
In fact, this might be the most country album of Sunny Sweeney’s career, and she continues to get more country as time goes on. Let’s not forget, she started in Nashville signed to Big Machine Records, and releasing singles to mainstream country radio. Now Sunny Sweeney might be the closest thing our generation has to an Outlaw country queen, not just from the sound, but from what she sings about: chasing the loneliness away with one night stands, pinballing from wanting a real love to refusing to be anchored down.
Top-flight songwriters like Lori McKenna, Brennen Leigh, Josh Morningstar, and others come in to help refine and focus Sunny’s stories resulting in some really excellent tracks. “Married Alone” featuring Vince Gill coming in with his high harmonies is worth the title track status. Caitlyn Smith co-writing “Want You To Miss Me” chronicles a selfish, but common post-relationship sentiment many feel. “All I Don’t Need” composed with Lori McKenna perfectly illustrates the conflict between the head and the heart.
If this album creates any point of frustration, it’s how it reinforces that producer Paul Cauthen can be a party to some really great country music when he chooses. The album also offers some good texturing by exploring various approaches to songs that still fit within the range of country music styles.
But let’s face it, Sunny Sweeney is her own woman. It’s her approach and songs that make this album the standout that it is. It’s her honesty, and the way the sentiments marry perfectly with the music that make Married Alone a pretty excellent example of everything country music is supposed to be.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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