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Sunny Sweeney - As Cool, Country And Current As Ever

Jody Domingue

The story of Sunny Sweeney finding her way as a new artist is full of moments as charming and disarming as the person you know today, assuming you’re as aware as you should be of one of the finest traditional country singer-songwriters working in America. One of my favorite stories is when, after being pressured into recording and releasing her first independent album by her fans and friends in Austin, she gets on the phone with the duplication service and the woman asks her how many she wants.

“I said I need 100. And she laughed,” Sweeney remembers.

“You know, that's gonna be way more expensive for you to only get 100. You should get 1,000,” the woman told her. “And I was like, ‘I'm not getting 1,000 CDs. That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard!’ So anyway, she talked me into getting 1,000, and I had to take out more money from a loan. I literally had no money, and I paid like 1,200 bucks to get these CDs printed. I thought I'm never gonna get rid of these. And within a month, they were gone.”

There’s still an element of ‘who, me?’ in Sweeney’s whole vibe as an artist, but it’s woven tightly with a strain of ‘damn right.’ She’s a veteran now at 46, with five acclaimed albums to her credit and hundreds of thousands of miles under her wheels as a hard-charging touring artist. Just a few weeks ago, Sweeney was part of the opening of the newest American Currents exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which celebrates important artists setting the pace for country music in the here and now.

Sweeney achieved all this after going through the major label wringer and coming out the other end as a self-made indie artist who partners with Thirty Tigers. She’s played the Grand Ole Opry 60 times, though the first time was not without its own poignant drama, which is another self-effacing story she shares in Episode 239 of The String. The thing I learned, my biggest surprise, was that as a country artist, Sunny was a seriously late bloomer.

“I never even touched a guitar ‘til pretty much my last year of college. I graduated in 2001. I had one gig in 2002. And then I didn't have another gig till 2004,” she says. “And then I just kind of committed. I was like, I don't know if I'm good or not. But I'm not going to not try, because anything I've ever tried, I've always put my mind to it, and it's usually worked out some way.”

That first CD that Sunny made in 2006, called Heartbreakers Hall of Fame, came from the songs she’d accumulated or written and the reputation she’d made playing live in and around Austin. It got the attention of Nashville’s Scott Borchetta, who was then on top of the world having discovered Taylor Swift for his suddenly huge Big Machine Records. While she acknowledges that the executive came through for her in a number of ways, his business relationship with its sibling major label Universal Republic led to an ugly classic clash of art and commerce. Her creativity was put in limbo during a long delay. She made a second album that the A&R folks dismissed as too country for country radio. And yet after she fought to have her singles released and did the endless radio tour thing, her poignant cheating song “From A Table Away” reached the country top 10. It would be a fleeting victory on ground hardly worth fighting for, and you can hear an artist far more confident about her reality as an indie artist now that she’s free and indeed self-managed.

“I've just done what's on my heart,” she says. “And that's really all you can ask for. I've realized now that I'm older, like I don't make records for anyone else anymore.”

Not to contradict an artist, but Sweeney’s newest, Married Alone feels like we country music fans figured into the process somehow, or it might not have been so good. Or so effective. The album dropped last September, and it’s been in the top ten of the Americana radio chart for 20 weeks. The title track is an emotionally overwhelming glimpse into a bad marriage, one with almost too much real-life resonance for the artist who was in fact going through a second divorce when her then-manager found it for her. Vince Gill sings harmony, and it slays. My favorite track is one Sweeney co-wrote with Lori McKenna called “A Song Can’t Fix Everything” about the temporary anesthesia a good song can offer and the emotional reckoning when it’s over. Here the harmony voice comes from Texas artist Paul Cauthen who elevated the album overall as its producer. We talk about all of these factors and stories, and I think you’ll be as enthralled as I was.

Sunny also told me that she had a rough year in 2022 between the divorce and the trials of the music business feeling rougher than usual. Her mom had to talk her down from quitting and urged her to pray for a sign that she was on the right path. And soon after that came the call about being included in the American Currents display. “Up to the point where I literally took them my things to put in the exhibit, (I asked them) are you positive that you meant this for me?” she said. “Because it is that bizarre. And it was that big of an undeniable sign that I was supposed to continue doing this, right?” I’d say yes, absolutely.

A Song Can't Fix Everything (feat. Paul Cauthen) [Official Visualizer]

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>