Sunny Sweeney

by Corey O'Flanagan

Sunny Sweeney chose a life in music for the most noble of reasons: She didn't want to get a real job. After graduating from Texas State University in 2001, she couldn't bear the thought of answering to a boss, so she became one, writing her own songs and leading her own band.

Her breakthrough single, "From a Table Away," came in 2010. It's one of those songs that hits you in the heart, and it was inspired by a true story, which Sunny explains in this episode. We also hear about some of her other big songs and how she's developed as a singer-songwriter. Her latest album is a live set called Recorded Live At The Machine Shop Recording Studio, part of a format that didn't exist a year ago: a live livestream recording.


Entertaining At A Young Age

I didn't want to get a job where I had to sit at a desk. My whole life, I've put shows on for my family. As a 4-year-old, I was always in tap shoes instead of regular shoes, just trying to get attention. There were a bunch of kids in my family so we all would fight for the attention, and the louder you were, the more attention you got, so I always tried to do that and was encouraged to do that. "You make a better door than a window, Sunny," that's what they would say.

So, yes, I've always been a "performer," but I didn't actually start doing this professionally until after college.

World Travels

I'm from East Texas, and a lot of the people there don't travel all over the world. I had a guitar player that was Norwegian for a while, and he hooked me up with some Norwegians, so I went to Norway - I honestly didn't even know where Norway was when I got on the plane to go there. I knew it was far away and I looked on a globe to see where it was and was kind of shocked at where we were going, but it really lit a fire in me to travel.

I've now been to 20 countries. My bass player is from Oklahoma, a small town near where I'm from, and we talk about that all the time. People where we're from don't normally get to do these things and it still shocks me. We went to Japan last year for a gig, and I'm not exaggerating, every day I think about Japan. I had the best time in Japan. I love Asia, and I love the mentality of everyone over there, and the food. And they loved country music - it completely blew my mind.

There was a welcome wagon in the middle of the night in Kumamoto Airport at like 1 in the morning. People standing there with signs welcoming us, and I'm like, Is this happening? We have photos of it. We were shocked, it was just amazing. I can't believe that I've gotten to travel the world doing something that I love.

I catch myself sometimes putting so much pressure on myself, but then I have kind of a reality check and go, "Stop it. You have played the Grand Ole Opry 50 times, you've been nominated for an award..." All of these things have exceeded any expectations I had. All I wanted to do was get paid in beer and burgers to play music for tips. I had no concept of what was possible in this business.

Her First Gig And First Songs

Two months before I graduated in 2001, my stepdad bought me a guitar because he and my uncles play guitar and they had offered to teach me when I was younger. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it because back then I thought that's what old people did.

When I graduated, I wanted to be an entertainment publicist and I would've been really good at that I think, but I would have had to work for someone else and I don't do that very well - I will find a way to not have a boss so fast.

I just did not want to get a job, so I called my stepdad and was like, "Hey, remember when you offered to teach me guitar when I was 11? Will you buy me a guitar and teach me?" I had to go with my tail between my legs and ask him to do that, and within two weeks I had a gig. Now, I use the term "gig" very lightly because it was at a very low-end venue. In Austin, there's a bunch of venues where you can cut your teeth and learn what exactly to do without a lot of people there except for my parents and my sister and my cousins. But you know, my parents, my mom especially, she'll remember that gig sometimes and be like, "Sunny, there was like five minutes in between songs sometimes because we were discussing what to do." We were basically having a rehearsal on stage, and I use the term "stage" also very loosely.

I was doing a lot of cover songs in those days because I had only written two songs, but the first song I ever wrote was "Slow Swinging Western Tunes," which was on my first album. I wrote that one maybe three days after I learned to play a couple of chords on the guitar. I played it for my stepdad and he was like, "Whoa, that's definitely not bad... wow."

I've written a bunch of shitty songs - everyone has - but I was fortunate that I wrote that song shortly after I learned to play guitar. It's not the greatest song of all time, but it's a decent song for a first song especially, enough to go onto an album, and I feel like it inspired me to try again.


Song Selection

I would never compare myself to any of the songwriters that I've covered because they are just so high on a pedestal for me. Jim Lauderdale for me is one of the best songwriters ever, and I think there were two or three of his songs on my first album. And then Thom Schuyler, who wrote "16th Avenue," he's one of the best songwriters of all time. But I've always been of the mindset that I don't really give two shits who wrote what song, I just want the best songs for the album, and I want them to tell a story. So, every record I do, there's always a couple on there that I didn't write. I don't care who wrote it, I just want the best song for the record.


"From A Table Away"

Many country songs are written from contrived scenarios, but Sunny's 2010 hit "From A Table Away" comes from real life. The song is about a guy who is on a dinner date with his wife when his mistress comes into the restaurant and sees that they still love each other. From a table away, she finds out he's been lying to her and is not about to leave his wife.
It definitely is autobiographical. I saw that situation go down with my own two eyes, and it's heartbreaking to see something like that happen, and I knew that's what was happening. That was on my birthday actually when that happened, and the next Monday I went in to write with a friend of mine, Karyn Rochelle, and she brought me in on the write with Bob DiPiero, who is an amazing songwriter. I told them the story and they were both like, "Oh my God, did that really happen?" and I said, "Yes, I saw it, I know that was what I was witnessing," and they were like, "Oh my God, you cannot make up country material like that."

So we wrote that and I turned it in to my label. We had already picked out another single that we were going to put out and they changed it to that one.


"Bad Girl Phase"

The producer that I used on that album, his name is Luke Wooten. I didn't write that song, but three girls that I know wrote that song, and it's a great song, I love it.

Luke sends me a text one day and he says, "I've got a song that I want you to listen to." He sends me the MP3 and I wrote him back within 10 seconds of the song starting and was just like, "I want it! That's for me."

And then I found out three girls I knew wrote it. It was Jessie Jo Dillon, Brandy Clark, and Shannon Wright, and I'm friends with all of them. For a minute I thought, Is this about me? Did they write this about me? Because I related to the song that much. I've made really bad choices in my life - I've been married twice to the wrong people. It's not anything I'm proud of but is part of who I am. I feel like that song came along at a time in my life when I was recovering from that stuff.

I never had a chance to go through a bad girl phase, and hell yeah, this is my time. I just really related to it and I absolutely love that song.

"Grow Old With Me"

I wrote that song with Lori McKenna probably two months before I filed for divorce. I wanted that relationship to work out but it didn't, so it actually took me about a year to even be able to sing that song live. It was out, it was on an album, and people would get pissed that I wouldn't play it, but I didn't want to.

There was one girl in Washington, DC, who had traveled from Philadelphia or something to be there and between every song she was screaming "Grow Old With Me"! After about six times, I leaned over to her and I said, "I'm not doing that song tonight, please stop asking for it." Afterward, we were all outside of the venue just hanging out, and this group of girls came up to me and this girl was being a little heavy-handed with it. She was like, "We drove all the way here to see you sing that song and you didn't sing that song." And I said, "I'm sorry but here's why I didn't sing that song."

It was really rough for me to actually verbalize it, to say I can't physically get through that song, and it shut her up. She was like, "Oh my God, I had no idea." But something about verbalizing that to her made me OK. Pretty soon after that, I was able to start singing it.

It was a rough time, but I thought my second marriage was THE marriage. I thought that was the one that was going to work, but it didn't. Certainly not proud of it, but again, it's part of who I am.

I was embarrassed that I had a song out that people loved that I couldn't sing, and I couldn't sing it because I didn't want to start crying in front of fans. Once I addressed it, it was like, "Oh it's really not that big of a deal, that marriage has been over now for two years and everything's good now." And the weirdest thing is that song has started getting a lot of spins on Spotify, and that's super random because that song is four years old.


What's Next For Sunny Sweeney

We have a new record done - we're just waiting to pick a release date for it. Paul Cauthen is producing it and I've been listening to a lot of Stevie Nicks and Neil Young and Tom Petty, so there's a couple of songs that are completely out-of-the-box for me but I'm so freaking stoked about them.


Twang or No Twang?

My voice is always going to be country-like no matter what I do, and there is some stone-cold country stuff on it, but there is some stuff that even shocks me when I re-listen to it, and I'm just so excited. I went and saw Stevie Nicks for the first time - I saw Fleetwood Mac - it was a gift from my manager. He bought me and my guitar player tickets to go see Fleetwood Mac in Boston at the end of 2019, and she's always been my hero as far as being so bad-ass and gypsy - the whole thing that I love about not being tied down to anything. She embodies that for me. She doesn't have kids and her music is her life and her music family is her family, and it's pretty inspiring.

But anyway, I went and saw them and something changed that night. I've always been obsessed with her, but that night just seeing her kill it on stage, I was very inspired, so there are some songs that were inspired by seeing her.

We did a live album that came out in November from a livestream that we did in May, and we have one of her songs on there called "After The Glitter Fades."

She's been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, but I think also she's a country songwriter even though she may not know it. She has some really country-leaning songs. There's one called "Storms" that kills me, I mean it kills me. She's so freaking cool.

March 31, 2021

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Sunny's website is sunnysweeney.com

Here's our chat with Sunny from 2013, and another episode you might like, Suzy Bogguss

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