NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Hear This Voice: Sunny Sweeney

And Check Out Texas Music From the Texas Sapphires and James Hand

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I’ve been listening to some Texas music recently, and I had forgotten just how some good, honest, freewheeling, homegrown music can function as a musical antioxidant. It flushes all the crap right out of your brain.

By and large, I’ve found over the years, Texas artists are in it mainly for the music. It’s just a different way of life and a different way of looking at music, compared to Nashville. Things may have changed since I was last down there, but I have never heard an artist in Austin talking about a songwriting appointment he or she has. They just write the damned songs. No appointment necessary. Amazing.

One of the most unexpected — and genuinely good — recent releases I have heard is James Hand’s CD, The Truth Will Set You Free. He’s now 53, and this is his first major album release. It was co-produced by the Texas music veterans Ray Benson and Lloyd Maines. The native of the small town of Tokio, Texas, has knocked around for years, supporting his musical habit mainly by working as a horse trainer. Hand is an intense songwriter and singer whose influences and whose own sound harken back to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. He delves into the mystical side of misery songs, as Hank did, with such incisive originals as “I’ve Got a Lot of Hiding Left to Do,” “If I Live Long Enough to Heal,” “Just an Old Man With an Old Song,” and “Shadows Where the Magic Was.”

This is some heavy-duty music, so be prepared for a wrenching emotional experience. At the same time, Hand’s songs supply the serious meat-and-potatoes substance that so many country songs are lacking these days.

Another impressive debut comes from the group, the Texas Sapphires. They are an exuberant, spirited bunch of rag-tag, sort of honky-tonk punkers. With their male and female co-lead singers, they sound to me very much the spiritual children of both Asleep at the Wheel and Gram Parsons. In fact, the Sapphires conclude their debut album Valley So Steep with a convincing and emotional rendering of Parsons’ “Las Vegas.” I have not yet seen them live, but I am sure they are a hell of a lot of fun in person onstage. A song such as “Bring Out the Bible (We Ain’t Got a Prayer)” has to make you smile.

My current main musical squeeze, though, is a young Texas woman named Sunny Sweeney. She possesses an exquisite, pure, yearning honky-tonk voice that floats above the music the way that few singers’ vocals can do. (Think Vince Gill, whose voice does that.) Her debut CD is Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame.

Sweeney is a talented songwriter, as evidenced by the title song (which, is not surprisingly, about the jerks in her life and other women’s’ lives) and by “Ten Years Pass” and “Slow Swinging Western Tunes,” but she also seems an astute song picker. On the album, she draws from such skilled songwriters as Jim Lauderdale (who also sings a duet with her on “Lavender Blue”), Iris Dement, Keith Sykes, Libbi Bosworth, Audrey Auld, Tim Carroll and Thom Schuyler. As she writes on her Web site, “I’ve heard it said before that good cover songs are better than bad originals. I have written plenty of songs, but only the ones I felt suited the mood of the record are the ones I wanted to use on there.”

She’s been a regular performer at Austin’s Poodle Dog Lounge, a cinderblock bunker of a honky-tonk that caters to people who are serious about good country music and serious drinking. And this is a serious honky-tonk album, steel guitar-drenched and sweaty and lovely at the same time. I know that not everyone still appreciates honky-tonk music. God bless Texas for keeping that proud music alive and well.