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.
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.
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.