The disappearance of solo women from country radio has been the crisis du jour in country music circles over the last few months, with the majority of commentators and pundits using it as an opportunity to rail against radio programmers' narrow playlists and demographic baiting. A less popular, possibly more controversial counterpoint? The solo women in country music haven't been releasing a whole hell of a lot of quality material lately and seriously need to get their collective shit together.
Enter Texas native and erstwhile improv comic Sunny Sweeney. Armed with a penchant for some heavy steel guitar and a voice that, in the right moments, makes her a dead ringer for Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines, Sweeney has defied both the current boys' club mentality in country music and her peers' inability to find or write a halfway decent song. Her sophomore album, Concrete, includes of a handful of songs that sound tailor-made to build on her breakthrough single "From a Table Away." Sweeney has polished away some of the rougher edges of her first album, 2007's Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame, but Concrete is nonetheless full of smart, sharply observed songwriting and winning performances.
Drawing the inspiration for the album from a difficult divorce, Sweeney's slight traditionalist bent shines through in her songs about heartbreak and infidelity, but the point of view she brings to those topics is thoroughly modern. "From a Table Away" is written from the POV of the proverbial "other woman," offering a creative spin on the no-good-cheater archetype. It's a wonderfully complex song, with palpable sadness in Sweeney's delivery as she sings the accusatory refrain, "And I heard you tell her you still love her/So it doesn't matter what you say/I saw it all/From a table away." Even better is "Amy," on which Sweeney once again adopts the persona of an unfaithful man's mistress. It's a song of astonishing empathy and self-awareness, as Sweeney implores her lover's wife for both forgiveness and accountability: "I'll let him go for good/If you just treat him like you should/But if you don't love him, Amy/Let him leave." In attempting to come clean, Sweeney also reveals the depth of real anguish that all three parties have experienced.
What makes Sweeney's songwriting so impressive is that she understands how a single, well-turned phrase can elevate a song into something truly complex, and how it can subvert expectations for a particular subject. "Helluva Heart" might play as a fairly rote kiss-off if not for a revealing line like "I don't mind takin' the blame, baby, if it's mine." There's nothing noteworthy about the construction of the lyric, but it manages to give an immediate, complete impression of where the relationship in the song has gone wrong and of Sweeney's bitter response.
With a natural tear in her voice, Sweeney is a perfect, effortless fit for songs with that kind of bitter undercurrent. Her timbre splits the difference between that of Maines and Kasey Chambers, which is fine company to keep in both cases, and she sounds as vulnerable and resigned on "It Wrecks Me" as she does defiant and put-out on standout "Drink Myself Single." Her performances bring real character to the songs on Concrete. "Staying's Worse Than Leaving" opens with a disarmingly plain-spoken observation ("Leaving's hard/Trust me, it's really bad") that Sweeney gives depth by making that little "Trust me" aside sound impossibly weary, and that weariness is reflected later in the song, when she sighs, "I don't care who passes judgment on my reasons."
Sweeney just gets the economy of country songwriting and the presence that the best country singers possess, and that innate understanding makes Concrete a tremendous, heady record. That it manages to sound slick and contemporary—radio-friendly, even—without sacrificing its flourishes of pure twang and fiddle is all the more impressive, balancing Sweeney's love for traditional country music with strong pop hooks and punchy arrangements. It'll be a shame if radio doesn't take the album as a perfect opportunity to correct its gender imbalance.