Brennen Leigh, Bri Bagwell
515-B North McDonough St.
Decatur, GA, 30030
Doors 7:45 PM / Show 8:00 PM
Sunny Sweeney is the party and the morning after. She’s the quip that makes you laugh and the truth that makes you cry, the devil that's egging you on and the angel whispering that you aren’t alone. But those compelling contradictions aren’t what’s most interesting about Sweeney: it’s the depth and brazen authenticity she brings to all her roles that grabs you and won’t let go.
“I’ve grown up doing the bar scenes, and you have to have drinking and partying songs there-–you have to,” Sweeney says. “Now, my songs are still about the same things, but I feel like they’re more mature versions.”
Sweeney’s salty wisdom and Texas-hewn soprano have never sounded stronger than they do on Trophy, her anticipated new album. Trophy is a breakthrough––the album we all suspected she was capable of making. The wit and honesty that have always defined her stone-cold country have blossomed into confessional, complex songwriting for grown-ups, still whiskey-drenched and honk-tonk-ready. Drugs, death, the ex-wife, drinking, devotion, and longing for a child: it’s all here, raw and real.
“I have not felt this good about music in a really long time,” Sweeney says from her front porch in Texas. “I’m really excited.”
The success of artists including Margo Price, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, and others make it seem like the world is more open now than ever before to smart women singing smart country. It’s about time. Sweeney is a veteran of the trade, and has logged her miles the old-school way. A three-year residency at the Poodle Dog Lounge in Austin––“It was a dump,” she says. “They didn’t even have a credit card machine or liquor license.”––along with improv and stand-up comedy experience went a long way toward teaching her how to hold a room of cynical drunks in the palm of her hand.
The mastery of holes in the wall, major label stint, and serious songwriting chops make Sweeney something of a rarity: an artist with barroom cred, mainstream validation, and songs meaty enough for listening rooms. Or, as Rolling Stone put it in September 2016: “Sweeney is one of the rare entertainers who can hold her own at CMA Fest as well as AmericanaFest.”
Produced by Grammy nominee Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories) and recorded at Sound Emporium and Decibel Studios in Nashville, Trophy goes 10 songs deep without a single throwaway line. While Sweeney wrote with her longtime favorites including Monty Holmes, Buddy Owens and Jay Clementi, she has expanded her circle of collaborators in recent years. Lots of time writing with Lori McKenna, Caitlyn Smith, Heather Morgan, and others resulted in a deck that’s refreshingly stacked: most of the songs on the album were written by women. “I feel like I have branched out a little in the writing department,” Sweeney says. “And the record I ended up writing was pretty heavily written with females. While Sweeney didn’t intentionally set out to write almost exclusively with women, the resulting songs capture the feminine experience with a combination of nuance, humor, and accuracy only possible because of the source.
Album opener “Pass the Pain” is a perfect example of Sweeney canvassing familiar territory in a more complex way. “It’s a drinking song,” she says. “It all actually happened when I was going through my divorce.” Eased into with steel guitar and plaintive piano, the song begins with an indignant Sweeney demanding another round, but her brash confidence soon melts into a forlorn apology to the bartender reluctantly pouring her drinks, making the interaction and the hurt all the more real and sad.
“Bottle by My Bed” explores a different kind of heartbreak with breathless candor. “I only call my husband baby cause I love that word / never wanted something so bad, that it hurts / even give up these damned old cigarettes / if I could have a bottle by my bed.” Written with the awe-inspiring McKenna, the song lays Sweeney’s soul bare and captures the agony of not having a child when it’s all you want. “That song is where I’m at right now in my life,” she says. “It’s the worst pain ever. When I wrote it with Lori, I never really even imagined singing it live––I certainly never thought I’d record it. Didn’t think I had the balls to do it.” Thankfully, she did. The song is important, not just because of Sweeney’s gut-wrenching delivery, but because it tells a story too seldom told.
Sweeney wrote a total of four songs with McKenna for the record. “She’s my spirit animal,” Sweeney says of McKenna. The pair’s “Grow Old with Me” is a tender ode to finally finding love that can last. “Trophy” is a wry takedown of Sweeney’s husband’s ex-wife. A slow burn with finger snaps and sauntering bass, the song reclaims an insult and makes it a compliment to laugh-out-loud effect. “Nothing Wrong with Texas,” grapples with returning to a home that has an outsized identity you needed to escape before realizing it completes you.
The album’s two covers sound like they could have been penned by Sweeney herself. Chris Wall’s subtly brilliant waltz “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” has never been in better hands. “Pills,” written by Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay, tackles addiction and impending overdose with jarring empathy and cleverness. “It’s a story about real life,” Sweeney says of the song. “Brennen is one of my best friends, and we think a lot alike.”
Perhaps most of all, Trophy is proof Sweeney knows exactly what she wants. “There’s a lot of personal stuff on this record,” she says. “I feel like the songs that get the strongest reaction are the ones that are the most truthful––the ones that have emotion. That’s my job as a writer: to evoke some kind of emotion. I want everybody who hears this album to come away with something, whether it’s to feel like they’re not alone or inspired or like they want to laugh. I just want them to feel something.”
Brennen Leigh is an American songwriter, guitar player, mandolin player and singer whose to-the-point storytelling style has elevated her to cult icon status in Europe, Scandinavia, across the United States, South America and the United Kingdom. It's easy to see why she's caught the ear of greats like legendary Lubbock fiddler Tommy Hancock (widely regarded as the godfather of West Texas music), who was quoted as saying of Leigh's work; "It's great to hear music that affects you on an intellectual level as well as makes you want to dance".
All musical and performing prowess aside, the thing Leigh has become most famous for is her whip-smart songwriting. Her songs have been recorded by country music legend Lee Ann Womack, Sunny Sweeney, Charley Crockett, Whitney Rose, Austin's The Carper Family, and Norway's Liv Marit Wedvik, among others. Leigh has collaborated with songwriting greats such as Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale, John Scott Sherrill, Robbie Fulks, Charlie Louvin and David Olney. On the critically acclaimed duet album Holdin' Our Own (2008), Leigh sang duets penned with country rockabilly giant Jesse Dayton. In 2013 Leigh released the Gurf Morlix produced Before The World Was Made with her frequent songwriting and touring partner Noel McKay. In 2015, Leigh appeared on Don't Forget Me Little Darling, Remembering the Carter Family, along with fiddler Jenee Fleenor (Blake Shelton, Martina McBride) and guitarist Brandon Rickman (Lonesome River Band). Leigh was a core member of country bluegrass band High Plains Jamboree from 2015 to 2017, also featuring fiddler Beth Chrisman, guitarist Noel McKay and bassist and banjo player Simon Flory. Rolling Stone called the band "One of the Best Things We Saw at AmericanaFest."
Leigh is two time Texas Music Awards Best Female Vocalist, 2018 Ameripolitan Music Honky Tonk Award winner, appeared on USA Network's Nashville Star in 2003, and most notably, was champion of the 1993 Vergas Loon Calling Contest as a child in her home state of Minnesota. It was there Leigh got her musical start, when she began touring at age fourteen as part of a mandolin and guitar duet with her brother Seth Hulbert. She lives in Nashville and is a staff writer at Writer's Den Music Group on Music Row.
In My Defense, is a collection of ten carefully crafted songs that give her fans an inside peek of how this girl chasing a dream for over fifteen years, has blossomed into the woman living those dreams.
As the record kicks in, haunting, echoey guitars set a tone of where the listener is going to go. “Asphalt & Concrete,” the first song on the record, paints a picture of a desert girl cutting loose and losing a bit of herself in the big city. Bri soars vocally as she sings, “Well I’m into sunsets and I love the sand, but I wasn’t myself in a disrupted land, with buildings and people and too many drinks in my hand.” Bri is constantly flirting with the lyric as she tussles, barefoot on the streets of Austin.
“If you were a Cowboy” follows and is the slated as the first single releasing to radio and streaming outlets. A hard driving, sexy, mid-tempo tune with just enough attitude, it gives listeners a resume of what it takes to capture a confident, hard-working woman’s heart. Bri explains, “This is the only song on the record I didn’t write. It wasn’t my intention to cut outside of my craft, but my producer Rachel Loy played me the song, and I instantly looked at her with ‘I-have-to-have-this’ eyes.” As this female anthem drives, “if you had real dust on your boots, the kind that’s passed down from your roots, I bet i would fall for you, if you were a cowboy,” every woman feels the need for a strong, hard-working man, but she also has no time for anything inauthentic.
“I am so proud of the record we have created, no matter how cliche that sounds. I have put everything I have, and every dollar to my name creating this record for myself and my fans. I truly believe it is the best record I have ever released, and the pressure I felt to create something great pushed me to the max. I embraced it. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.” With songs like “Cheat on Me,” (a co write with Courtney Patton), “Graffiti,” “Ring a Bell” (co write with Jody Booth), and “I Can’t Be Lonely,” each song takes on a autobiographical life of its own, but comes together in a cohesive image of the woman that sings them. “Rachel and I spent countless hours, concentrating and obsessing over every lyric, every melody… we tore apart and reconstructed anything necessary to make sure everything was exactly what the song truly needed. I think you can feel the work we put in when you listen to it.”
The CD’s last song, “Empty Chairs,” will strike a chord with her friends, peers, and mentors as a songwriter’s lament. Bri sheds light on the constant struggle that every touring musician battles: the rollercoaster of how live show attendance, record sales, and ticket counts are the benchmark of how performers are judged in this business, and the toll the size of the audience can take on their heart each night. It’s a song that lets the listener see inside of Bri’s dream, and how important each set of ears is to her. Naturally, doubt can enter one’s mind in any given situation; Bri shares how faith in her dream can at times be a struggle, despite her gratitude and obvious trust in the path God has chosen for her. She beautifully sings, “I’m grateful, but if they only knew, what’s behind three chords and the truth. They only get to see me at my best, but I’ve been cursed and I’ve been blessed, by the answer to my prayers. It’s hard to beat the thrill of a high, when I play a sold out night and feel like God has put me there. But Lord are you still with me, when i see Empty Chairs”. Simple, yet masterful in its message.