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On The String: Sunny War’s Punk Rock Country Blues

Sunny War

Nashville can’t claim many national-scale, native-born musical stars. Second generation music legends don’t count. I’m talking about townies like Kitty Wells or Bobby Hebb. Yet with a move back to Tennessee during the pandemic, Sunny War joins the list. She’s back in the city where she was born and spent more than a decade with a huge story to tell and a new album that’s being celebrated nationally and in Europe. Anarchist Gospel is a one-of-a-kind record with the most imaginative textures and potently delivered lyrics of this new year in roots music. It’s a rock and roll record drawn from California punk and pop, mixed with a girlhood fascination with Chet Atkins and the blues.

Sunny War didn’t emerge from the Americana music apparatus or the song rounds of Nashville or the Berklee College of Music. There’s nothing wrong with any of those ecosystems, but when we talk about the value of uniqueness, authenticity and independent voices, we ought to hang a lantern on the cases that truly embody those values. Sunny War reminds me of those news stories when botanists discover not a new species but a new family of organisms - a self-made songwriter sui generis.

Born Sydney Ward, the now-32-year-old grew up in the West End. When she was transitioning from middle to high school, Sunny, with her stepdad and mother, moved to Detroit and then Los Angeles, around 8th grade. “That was the beginning of the end,” she says with a hard to discern smirk. What did she mean? “I just immediately started listening to punk rock and smoking weed and drinking and stuff,” she says, mostly wistfully. “I guess it was probably going to happen when I was a teenager no matter what, where I went. But I just got really crazy. I feel like I think LA gave me access to, like, just a lot of crazy culture. I was going out to shows when I was like 14 - going to punk shows and sneaking out. And I don't know if I would have had access to that” in some other places. (She doesn’t say like Nashville.)

Winding through these years, wayward though they’d get, was a serious purpose about music. Her stepdad and her uncle were working musicians, the latter an upright bass player. She talked her mom into getting her a guitar by age seven and “I was always playing,” she remembers. She took lessons from Nashville’s late blues stalwart James “Nick” Nixon. Country blues grabbed her, especially after checking a blues women anthology out of the public library. “And then when I heard Chet Atkins, I got obsessed with Chet Atkins. I was really trying to play everything that he played. I kind of thought I had a style, I don't know. I was trying to do something. I just liked fingerstyle guitar. I like how it sounds. And because I like banjo. And just even my uncle playing bass. The idea of strumming never made sense to me.”

She absolutely did come up with a sound - one that will be parsed and discussed among guitar nerds. In LA, school was close to the Venice boardwalk, a world-renown magnet for the creative and the peculiar, and that’s where she became Sunny War. She performed, accompanied by the Pacific surf, with a battery-powered amplifier that picked up her acoustic guitar and her vocal mic. She wrote and sang covers and got some attention and developed an attack with her bare fingers that has elements of Elizabeth Cotten, Jerry Reed and West African pop. On a series of indie albums starting with Worthless in 2014, she mingled socially provocative takes on a broken world with an ever-more-personal soundscape. Her 2021 album Simple Syrup was a breakthrough that earned evocations of Nina Simone.

She doesn’t fingerpick as prominently in the mix on Anarchist Gospel as on her prior records, but it’s there if you zoom in on it. Instead, the album feels like a new chapter in War’s journey as a producer and recording studio creative. She tells me she learned the Logic recording program and built more complex and layered demos than ever before. Then a bunch of stuff happened in rapid succession. A romantic breakup threw her badly, and she moved to Nashville mostly as a reset from that. And amid the sessions with Nashville’s in-demand Andrija Tokic at his analog studio The Bomb Shelter, her stepfather got woefully sick in Chattanooga. Tokic drove her there in a pinch, for which she’s grateful. Yet as chaotic and hard as the birth of the album was, it’s as good as everybody’s saying, a visionary statement from an artist who may yet prove that you can go home again.

Sunny War is set to play The Basement East on March 12 with Sarah Shook.

Sunny War

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org