There isn’t just one tradition in country music. There are multiple traditions, each one a unique thread that is either continued with successive generations or cut off entirely once it’s no longer tended to.
The recent passing of Loretta Lynn and a charity performance by the retired Patty Loveless were both a stark reminder of an incredibly endangered thread: the female honky-tonk singer. For all the rightful praise that Lynn received from female country artists after her passing, most of those honoring her were inspired by her feisty attitude, country pride, and candid songwriting. There hasn’t been a female artist on the radio who sounds like Loretta Lynn since Loveless had her last big hits many years ago.
But there is one artist carrying on the sound of Loretta Lynn, as well as her approach to songwriting, and she’s doing a damn good job of it. Sunny Sweeney’s Married Alone is pure honky-tonk heaven, even when – no, especially when – her characters are going through hell. But Married Alone isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. To keep Lynn’s legacy going, artists need to bring their own ideas and a contemporary point of view while utilizing those classic sounds.
Married Alone alternates between darkened despair and dogged resilience. The title track, featuring harmony vocals by Vince Gill, is a gripping ballad about sleepwalking through a marriage that is all over but the signing. “Fool Like Me” and “How’d I End Up Lonely Again” are exercises in self-flagellation, piling on the hurt with every twangy line. “Easy as Hello” is deeply reflective, making one of those obvious country music observations that leave you surprised that nobody thought of it before: why can’t goodbye be as easy as hello? “Tie Me Up” is just as clever, as she warns a potential suitor that he can tie her up, but he can’t tie her down.
The album’s two best moments capture Sweeney’s resilience. “A Song Can’t Fix Everything” is Married Alone‘s centerpiece, a poignant statement on how music can transport us to another place and time, even if it can’t bring back the ones we’ve lost, including the younger versions of ourselves. “Still Here” is explicitly about committing to a marriage in the face of struggle, but as the album closer, it implicitly feels like Sweeney’s insistence on sticking around in country music, despite the genre’s frustratingly limited vision of what it should look and sound like.
Married Alone is Sunny Sweeney in fine form, and it carries on an important tradition in country music that is well overdue for a renaissance.