“I wrote a song the first week I had a guitar,” Sunny Sweeney tells Chris Shiflett during this week’s episode of Walking the Floor. “It ended up on my first record, and I still like it! There were a bunch of shitters after that, of course.”
Now touring behind the newly released Trophy, Sweeney has blazed her unique trail for more than 15 years, ignoring the trends of mainstream country radio – as well as the expectations of Texas’ songwriting community – along the way. She talks to Shiflett about that singular career, dishing out anecdotes about cowriter Lori McKenna, producer Dave Brainard and other collaborators. Here’s five things we learned from the podcast, streaming in full below.
Sweeney didn’t grow up playing music.
“I grew up with it,” she clarifies, after admitting that she turned down her stepfather’s offer to buy her a guitar during her teenage years. Later, after graduating from college with a degree in public relations, she changed her tune. “With my tail between my legs, I went back to Paul — that’s my stepdad — and said, ‘Will you teach me guitar?'” she says. “And he said, ‘I’m sorry, what? Can you say it louder, so everybody can hear you?'” She started a band that week and landed her first gig two weeks later. “It was horrible,” she insists. “There was, like, eight minutes between each song. We were kind of rehearsing onstage.” Needless to say, things improved from there.
The now-irrelevant social networking website MySpace played a role in securing her first record deal.
“I wasn’t looking for a record deal,” she insists. “I wasn’t doing that whole thing.” Instead, Sweeney was enjoying her career as an independent artist when she heard from Nashville’s Big Machine Label Group in 2005. “The Nashville people wrote me a MySpace message and said, ‘I like your record. I got it. I’d like to hear you play.'” When a tour brought her through Nashville, Sweeney wound up playing to those label reps, who signed her to a record deal one week later.
Those early days as an indie artist served her well.
“Some people are told what to sing, and that doesn’t really go over very well with me,” says Sweeney, who self-released her first album in 2005 and continues to proudly steer her own ship. “I have a lot of opinions, musically, because I have done this from the barrooms up to the clubs. [I’ve] loaded my own gear in. I still drive my own van. I would like help, but I also like keeping it small. The smaller you keep it, the less overhead you have. I know how to do all that. I can run my own soundboard. I can set up my own speakers on a stick. I don’t know if that helped me or hurt me, but I know it made me opinionated, because I know what I want.”
One of her favorite collaborators is Lori McKenna.
“Back when I was being pitched songs…one of the very first songs I put on hold was a song called ‘The Old Me,'” Sweeney remembers, referencing the Lori McKenna/Mark Sanders tune that appeared on her first album. “I’m a voice stickler. I want somebody that sounds like themselves…[and when I heard McKenna sing], I couldn’t even concentrate on the song anymore, because the voice was so cool.” Sweeney wound up recording “The Old Me,” striking up a friendship with McKenna in the process. They’ve worked together often during the following years, even co-writing material for this year’s Trophy. “One of the things I love about her the most,” she says, “is when I have a song idea, and she just starts playing, and before I’m even finished talking about what the song idea is, she’s already spit out a verse. And I’m like, ‘I hate you but I love you.’ She’s got a very special gift.”
Sweeney isn’t trying to make a statement about what “real” country music should sound like.
During a recent interview, a journalist asked Sweeney is she was purposely pushing back against the glossy, pop-influenced sound of contemporary country. “I’m just doing what I do,” she clarifies to Shiflett. “It happens to be pushing against what the majority of modern country is, but I’m doing what I do. I’m not doing it with an intent. . .I’m from East Texas. When I wanted to be a singer and write songs, and I opened my mouth, this is what happened.”