Album Reviews: Sunny Sweeney and David Ball

Matt Clark | March 28th, 2007

This week I review two albums of cover songs, one unique and the other fairly standard. Sunny Sweeney’s album has actually been out for a couple of weeks, but only recently did I have the chance to give it several good listens.

Sunny Sweeney - Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame The success of Nashville independent labels has become a major industry story within the past year, but so far the rise of the indies has borne surprisingly little artistic fruit. Many artists on the prominent Nashville indy labels are making better music than their major label counterparts, but the indies have nonetheless displayed a frustrating willingness to play by the major labels’ rules. Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, Sunny Sweeney’s debut on Big Machine records, is a refreshing reversal of that trend.

Ms. Sweeney’s excellent cover-filled debut album was self-produced and self-released in Texas before it was reissued by Big Machine. On one hand, the execs at Big Machine should be commended for their courageous support of an unproven artist whose music is markedly different from most of the material on country radio. On the other hand, there is something uniquely cowardly about a debut album filled with tasteful arrangements of obscure cover songs that the casual fan could be forgiven for thinking were originals.

Sunny’s arrangements of largely well-chosen songs from talented singer-songwriters are enjoyable and artistic, if ultimately unnecessary, for she is a strong songwriter in her own right. The best cut on the album is the Sweeney-composed “Slow Swingin’ Western Tunes,” a catchy song that sounds like another ode to the jukebox until the jaw-dropping hook: “this is the way a love song could start / play it in reverse and you get yourself a broken heart.”

Thus, while I understand Sunny’s desire to pay homage to her Texas music heroes on a self-released CD, I don’t understand Big Machine’s willingness to allow their newest commodity to retread other’s songs while her golden pen stands idle. I have read several reviews that compare Sunny to Dwight Yoakam and Sunny’s sound is clearly similar to his fusion of rock and white-trash honkytonk. The difference between Sunny and Dwight is that when Dwight covers a song, it’s as if you’ve never heard it before. Conversely, after you peel away a few layers of Sunny’s instrumentation and iron out some of her East Texas twang, her covers aren’t very unique.

Nonetheless, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame is one of my favorite releases of the year so far. Covers of undeniably excellent songs by singer-songwriters like Jim Lauderdale, Iris DeMent, Keith Sykes and Tim Carroll are presented as authentic and unapologetic honkytonk anthems and especially enjoyable given that most music fans haven’t exactly worn out the original recordings. Despite Sunny’s paucity of writing credits, the album is nonetheless a strong artistic statement that will hopefully bring deserved publicity to overlooked songs, like the rollicking debut single, “If I Could.” Sunny’s debut will likely remain in regular rotation in my music library for some time and I’m looking forward to her next offering; I just hope that she writes most of it herself.

4 Stars

David Ball - Heartaches By The Numbers There are one-hit wonders like Billy Ray Cyrus and then there are one-hit wonders like David Ball. Since his 1994 instant classic “Thinkin Problem,” Ball has had only a few songs find success at country radio. Nonetheless, he has maintained a high profile in several Nashville music communities and has managed to perform a decent legend impersonation for an artist of such modest accomplish. Heartaches by the Number, an album of classic country covers (including the title track), is the latest chapter in that saga.

There’s nothing particularly unique or inspiring about this work. It consists entirely of familiar country classics performed with a fairly standard neo-traditionalist interpretation. Ball’s PR firm sent a message to The 9513 that read in part:

The album Heartaches by the Numbers is not the typical album of cover songs where the artist attempts to put a twist on or re-interpret popular songs. The idea behind this album was to record these songs so that people would hear them the way they originally sounded. The idea was not to re-invent these classic tracks but more to re-introduce them to music fans.

While David’s noble intentions explain the blandness of the recordings, I question the effectiveness of such an effort because Ball lacks the celebrity to “re-introduce” these tracks to music fans. The best way to hear songs the way they originally sounded is to listen to the original recordings, and most people with enough appreciation for country music to listen to this album have already done that. Save yourself time and money and spin copies of the superior originals.

David Ball has always been a class act and I’ll never complain about an artist recording an album like this. While no country music fan should find it disagreeable, it is also entirely unmemorable and I probably won’t listen to it again.

2.5 Stars

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  2. [...] guide to playing mandolin. They didn’t have one at my local store, so I came away with the Sunny Sweeney album and a book by Paul Hemphill called “Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams” [...]
  1. steve Johnson
    March 28, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame; I disagree with your view of her covers. Knowing all of the originals, I think she tattoos her own unique style on everyone. Also, I would rather have a album full of great covers then an album full of bad originals and I think the album strikes the perfect balance.

  2. Parker Snow
    March 28, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    After listening to her songs a couple of times on her website, I have to say thanks for bringing her to my attention. I really do not think it matters who writes the songs, just keep her singing them. I have not heard a voice this fresh and clear in a long while!!!

  3. Brody Vercher
    March 29, 2007 at 7:38 am

    I enjoyed the David Ball CD a little more than you did, but still wondered about the covers. This is the second country music album release from Shanachie Records. The first was from Daryle Singletary, another album of all covers with one lone original.

    I was somewhat excited back in January when I learned that both these guys, along with Confederate Railroad, were picked up and would be releasing new albums this year. I just hope that they get a chance to make an album that doesn’t consist entirely of covers because they’re too good to keep flying under the radar like they are now, plus they’re among a handful of artists who are still singing what can be considered real country music.

  4. Brady Vercher
    March 29, 2007 at 11:19 am

    Awesome review of the Sunny Sweeney album. I had heard one song from her before and wasn’t sure about her voice, but after listening to the album, I think her sound is quite refreshing. I thought the album was excellent even though the songs were all covers, but I’m curious about her own compositions. I’d have no problem recommending this album to anyone.

    I’m sure David Ball would disagree with the “one-hit wonder” label, after all, he did sing “Ridin’ with Private Malone.” ;) I like him alright, but I’m not too familiar with any of his work other than those two songs.

  5. Matt C
    March 29, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    I suppose David Ball could be a three-hit wonder: in addition to “Ridin’ With Private Malone,” he had a top ten with “When The Thought of You Catches Up With Me.” All three are great songs, but “Thinkin’ Problem” clearly dominates discussion of the artist.

    Billy Ray Cyrus also placed several songs in the top ten after “Achy Breaky Heart” (more than David Ball) but I don’t think anyone except the president of his fan club would dispute the one-hit wonder label.

  6. Matt C
    March 29, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Brody: I’ve never been a Confederate Railroad fan, but Daryle and David are certainly great, underappreciated artists. Ball released an album of originals in late 2004. I don’t know how many more will see from either artist, as it has to be very hard for these guys to find songs right now.

  7. Brady Vercher
    April 1, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    I was just jokin’ about the one-hit wonder moniker for David Ball, however, I checked out the third hit you mentioned, Matt, and it was pretty good. I went out to pick up the Sunny Sweeney CD at Barnes & Noble today and noticed the David Ball for $19.99. Way overpriced.

  8. Charlie Mack
    April 5, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Sad to say I won’t be buying Sunny’s record. Sorry Scott Borchetta and team Big Machine. I support her for the style of music she is playing and hope her disc opens some other mutherfuckers eyes in nashville, but a year ago this chick didnt even own a guitar and was in NYC trying to be an actress… not a country singer, an actress.

    My ultimate point of how country music has reached all time low levels is that out of obscurity, a chick like Sunny can go from trying to be an actress to a year later playing the Grand Ol’ Opry. Does the “Grand” not count for anything anymore or what?

  9. Ben J.
    December 12, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    I was in Dallas last February to catch Miranda Lambert at Billy Bob’s & was looking for something to do the night before. This girl from Austin who had asked to be my friend on MySpace a month or so earlier posted a bulletin that said she was playing in Ft. Worth – with nothing else to do I drove down to Woody’s Tavern and was gradually won over by this East Texas Girl. Hearing her pay homage to all of these great artists and throwing in cuts of her own like “Band of Gold” & “Slow Swinging Western Tunes” I was blown away.

    What had I walked in on? I couldn’t believe how good she was for being an independent artist. After the show I went and bought a cd and got to chat with her for a minute. The rest of the weekend was spent driving around in my rental car blasting Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame.

    I went down for Miranda Lambert (who put on a great show at Billy Bob’s) but walked away having heard possibly my favorite artist of the year. Of course after I got home and did some research on her I realized I had discovered her just before her album was to be reissued nationally by Big Machine.

    I can probably count on one hand the days that have gone by where a song from her album has not been heard by my ears.

    My Favorite track is also “Slow Swinging Western Tunes” followed closely by “East Texas Pines” & “Here Lately”

  10. Leo Robinson
    March 1, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I think David Ball is an outstanding performer and enertainer, I have listened to him for several years, hope to hear and seemore of him and his band

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