Sunny Sweeney, Reporting From The Front Lines
Standing onstage in the basement of Hill Country Barbeque, Sunny Sweeney seems right at home on her visit to the nation’s capital. It's a sort of safe house for Texans who stray too far from home. Ray Wylie Hubbard was here last summer and Billy Joe Shaver is coming soon. And now one of Austin’s own had a question to ask.
“How many of y’all are divorced?”
The resounding response is pretty loud. There are more than just a few who know the subject, a familiar theme that is a bedrock of country music.
Sweeney has a little story to tell as she introduces a new song “Pass The Pain.” There was the time she was sitting alone at a bar at three in the afternoon when the bartender approached her and asked, “Ma'am, can I call you a cab?”
A week later it's the day of the release of her fourth album Trophy. Sweeney is somewhere on the road between Springfield, Illinois and Kansas City. I ask her how much was fact and artistic license.
“I swear to god I was so depressed from going through a divorce. ‘My marriage is failing... this sucks’,” she remembers thinking and validating the story. The bartender’s question went over her head. When he asked her a second time. she suddenly realized she was being kicked out.
“Not that I was being belligerent,” she emphasizes. “I looked pathetic is probably what he was telling me.”
The piano and fiddle on “Pass The Pain” makes it sound somewhere between being in church and at a session of The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street. Sweeney, who typically doesn't like piano and initially questioned using it on the track, felt adding it made the song sadder and more lonesome. It's testament to the authenticity and sound of Trophy in which you feel like you're inside the studio with Sweeney’s band as they play soundtrack for her rollercoaster of emotions.
Sweeney’s narratives are born out of the story songs she first heard listening to Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn and that have informed her well over the years. Sweeney beams about her friend and favorite country singer Trisha Yearwood who joined her on “Pass The Pain.” For the new album, she also enlisted Jack Ingram to sing with her on “Grow Old With Me” and Ray Benson on "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight," her favorite country song of all-time. Mickey Raphael's harmonica fits like a glove weaving itself throughout. Sweeney liked the song so much she didn't change the sex.
Over the last decade, Sweeney has been through a lot since shereleased her debut Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame. She flirted with the big time with a major label release Concrete but went back to becoming an independent artist. She's built up equity in the country community, celebrating ten years of appearing on the Grand Ole Opry the week of the release of Trophy.
If as an independent artist Sweeney is still fighting the same battles to get on country radio, it's not because of the company she keeps. Over the years she has co-written songs with some of the genre’s best writers including Natalie Hemby, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe.
Lori McKenna, who helped write “Girl Crush" and earned a Grammy for Song of The Year, was the first writer who pitched a song to Sweeney. A decade later, she and Sweeney teamed up to write four songs on Trophy, including the clever title track and the emotionally devastating centerpiece, “Bottle By My Bed.”
When you talk to Sweeney, you notice she is quick to respond on time and dates. She can tell you the number of times she's been on the Opry (forty-eight). When you mention her second marriage, she beams with pride saying it's five years and running. She also remembers the month of April 2013 when she went to twelve baby showers. During that time, Sweeney and her husband had been trying to have a baby. While happy for her friends, the dozen gifts and showers were twelve reminders of what she didn't have in her life.
“All my friends are raising babies, I'm still raising cain,” were the words in a line Sweeney brought with her to a co-write with McKenna. After the session, McKenna dropped her off at her hotel room. “‘Well that felt good,’ Sweeney remembers thinking over a glass of wine. "'I’ll never have to listen to that again.’” Sweeney thought of it as a journal entry. But after trying it out at a songwriters round, she sensed the emotional reaction. “Maybe this is something to look at,” she thought to herself.
"I only call my husband baby cause I love the word
I've never wanted something so bad that it hurts
I'd even give up these damned old cigarettes
If I could just have a bottle by my bed"
Already Sweeney has received responses that the song has helped people who are going through the same thing. If a quiet anthem, it's a self-affirmation for the hope of a couple that still hasn't given up.
The album’s closing track “Unsaid”came out of the grief Sweeney felt following the suicide of a friend. “I was just so pissed,” she remembers of the day she went to Caitlin Smith’s house to write what became “Unsaid.” “He left his wife and kids. None of us got to say goodbye.” For Sweeney, the song speaks more broadly about all of the things we don't say to those we love.
If as it’s been said that once songs are written they cease becoming the writer's and become the audience's instead, “Bottle By My Bed” and “Unsaid”might just be two that feel that way. The songs help validate the value for Sweeney of being an independent artist.
“You have to learn to trust your fans,” she relates. “You really do. That was my biggest complaint about the big label thing. They didn't want you to sing songs that were going to go on your record. I thought, ‘Are you crazy? My fans are straight up. They're going to tell me if they like a song. And I would much rather have their opinion than yours.'”
“‘Honey, We've Got To Stop Second Guessing’”
Onstage at Hill Country, Sweeney is still having fun with her divorce. She holds up a plastic trophy cup and proceeds to drink wine from a straw as she tells the origin of the album’s title track. Sweeney heard through the grapevine that her one of her husband’s exes was calling Sweeney his trophy wife. “Well I guess she doesn't know that I write songs for a living.” Sweeney shared, telling me the comment was a goldmine. McKenna contributed the line that had Sweeney in uncontrollable laughter, and filling her heart and soul. “Well I guess he's got a trophy for putting up with you."
For all of the humor in Trophy, Sweeney doesn't downplay the reality of divorce, calling it the “worse ever shit.” It's something she wouldn't wish on anyone although she laughs about its silver lining--saying at the time it helped make her twenty pounds lighter.
The perspective of experience and time has taught Sweeney that marriage is the hardest job in the world. “I made damn sure that this was the person I was supposed to marry,” she said of her second husband, a police officer in Austin. “I didn't want to go through that again.”
Sweeney plays out her own life story in song like a reporter from the front lines. On the way to a writing session during the making of the album Provoked, she and her husband had a huge fight. He left the call by saying, “Honey, we gotta stop second guessing” unknowingly helping to inspire one of her most autobiographical songs.
"Came from a broken home
Listened to bad advice
I took too many pills
Married the wrong, the wrong guy
But then I helped him leave
Struck out on my own
Until I met you
I made excuses for the damage done"
When asked about the reference to using pills, Sweeney uses the word medicating to describe how she got through her divorce.
“I think I was probably being a smart ass," she admits about the line of helping her ex to leave. But she’s quick to make a point. “By not helping them stay is helping them leave. If you're not helping your relationship, it's work. It's the hardest job I've ever done. It's the most gratifying job too if you can make it work.”
Sweeney's mother divorced when Sunny was just four. Sometimes she will talk with her daughter about what might have been had the couple been able to work things out. But as Sweeney points out, staying together for childrens' sake might have been worse. Both of her parents have been happily remarried for over thirty years.
“You can't second guess it,” she reflects about life's choices. “That's what the song is about. 'What if, what if..'. Why what if if you can't do anything about it? For all intents and purposes I have four parents. I don't know what I'd do without any of them. I love them all equally."
“This Is The Business We've Chosen”
As Sweeney finishes her last song at Hill Country and steps offstage, there's no dressing room to go to. Instead she heads straight to the merchandise table a few feet away where a swarm of fans await.
Long before the advent of merchandise tables, Loretta Lynn would stay and sign every last autograph. Barely coming up for air after seventeen songs, the first thing Sweeney does is to open her red purse and reach for a square charge sandwiched in between a lot of bills. She plugs it into her phone and is open for business, soon multitasking--opening cds, signing her name and posing for a few selfies with fans.
Sweeney still can't believe people want to buy items with her name on it. But when you're on the road, table sales are essential. As she will tell you, ticket sales just won't do it. Sweeney ran up $300 in tolls driving from New York to D.C.
“I said ‘I just paid one ten minutes ago,’” she recalled of a toll booth stop, “and he said ‘And that’ll be $36 more.'”
The rewards of touring come in small victories like the night Sweeney successfully parallel parked her band’s van on city streets. Or the night she talked a desk clerk into letting her park the band's van in front of the hotel. Eating healthy remains a challenge.
Sweeney's friends back home in Texas express dismay at her life. She still gets asked, “How can you spend so many nights away from your husband?” There's also an undercurrent of sexism about being a woman fronting a band. Sweeney has a close friend who travels constantly and says no one knows when she's gone. The visibility of Sweeney’s career makes her absence more known.
“My friends say 'How can you live out of a suitcase?' I say, 'How you cannot?'" Sweeney counters. “It's kind of what we signed up for. It's my job. I didn't have a choice,” Sweeney attests, reminding me of the famous line in the film The Godfather Part 2 when Hyman Roth tells Michael Corleone “This is the business we've chosen.”
Sweeney thought at one time she'd go into entertainment public relations. She proudly tells the Hill Country audience that the only jobs she's ever had were waitressing and singing. When I bring that up, she says there was one other but it doesn't really count. She worked in an office cubicle for twenty-one days and was hated by her boss. “I called a friend and said, ‘Meet me in the bar. Now know what Johnny Paycheck meant.’”
Born in Longview, Sweeney grew up in Houston hailing from the land she brought to life in the roadhouse swagger of “East Texas Pines.” That fervor in which she channels her inner Wanda Jackson, comes back to life in the song “Pills,” written by best friend Brannon Leigh and Noel McKay. The song casts Sweeney as if she was the Nancy Sinatra of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” come back to sing an anti-drug "Life In The Fast Lane" for an opioid 21st century.
Sweeney said she tried to move away from Texas a few times but it never worked out. She went to New York City for a time during college. She tried moving to Nashville but found she wasn't disciplined with her work and tended to procrastinate. Now she lives in Texas and views Nashville as a place to work. She has developed a routine going there once a month for meetings, writing sessions and seeing many of her friends. The song “Nothing Wrong With Texas” reflects her connection to her family and love of her adopted hometown of the Lone Star state capital.
While Sweeney travels, she writes notes for songs on her phone. Life on the road is sometimes spent fretting about the safety of her husband. She’ll wait on texts in the middle of the night that he is safe, avoiding the fear of waking up and not having heard from him.
Sweeney is still singing Iris Dement’s “My Mama’s Opry,” a fan favorite and something her mother particularly likes. The first time her daughter appeared at the Opry Sweeney brought fifty-one people to Nashville, most of whom were from Texas. She picked a fast song “If I Could” and became an emotional mess. She was so nervous she only could sing the first verse and ended dancing and moving about as the band played on.
Much to her surprise, Pete Martin came up and said “Honey, I'll try and get you two songs next time.” Sweeney who thought she'd never be invited back, started crying uncontrollably. That was forty-eight Opry appearances ago, a banner of pride for Sweeney who has a picture of Porter Wagoner introducing her in his purple suit Sweeney describes as looking pretty badass. When I asked her if she feels like part of the Opry community, Sweeney is both humble and still star-struck.
“I've listened to them and have known who they are for my entire life,” she reflects.
And then in disbelief she adds, “I mean Jeannie Seely knows me...she's like my friend and calls and texts me.
"The fact that any of them know who I am freaks me out completely still.”