The Austin Chronicle

Sunny Sweeney: Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass

Who Provoked country heartbreaker Sunny Sweeney?

By Jim Caligiuri, December 12, 2014, Music

Only one Austin-area musician who started with a Sunday night residency at the Poodle Dog Lounge ended up onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. The beer dive on Burnet Road recently shuttered and reopened drastically revamped under another name. Meanwhile, Sunny Sweeney has now appeared on "The Show That Made Country Music Famous" 42 times and counting.

While rarely performing locally, the singer has called Central Texas home since the mid-Nineties while pursuing music full time since 2004. She's just issued her third album, Provoked (revisit "Texas Platters," Oct. 31), a blend of influences including Loretta Lynn and Kasey Chambers, two exceptional storytellers who bend to the needs of the song. Sweeney's classic country twang and sharp wit take you from rock bottom to glorious self-determination with the in-your-face "You Don't Know Your Husband" ("like I do"), pained relationship requiem "My Bed," and Texas-sized stomp "Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass."

"I haven't played in Austin in so long," she admits. "I've only played here three or four times because I've been on the road a lot. I'd play Austin every day if I could."

Lead single "Bad Girl Phase," co-written by chart-topping songwriter Brandy Clark – one of two songs on Provoked Sweeney didn't write – recently crowned the Texas Music Chart. That makes her the first solo female artist to reach No. 1 on the radio survey in over a decade. The glass ceiling of bro-country betrays a crack.

Nashville, where Provoked was recorded, currently enjoys an influx of female talent much like Austin (see "The Big Picture," Nov. 28). There, Sweeney fits right in with the likes of relative newcomers like Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, and Angaleena Presley. At the head of that class you'll find Miranda Lambert, who invited Sweeney to open a few shows next spring.

Originally from the northeast Texas town of Longview, Sweeney moved here two decades ago to attend what was then Southwest Texas State (now Texas State). In college, she interned for Chad Raney's, at the time a prime destination for the burgeoning "Texas Music" scene. For graduation, her parents asked about job prospects.

"I was thinking about anything I could do to not get a job," she laughs. "So Chad hired me full time. I was running his website, but because he's in a wheelchair, he'd send me to bars to get music to put on his website, which I loved because he was basically paying me to go out. One night, I saw a very interesting situation going on onstage.

"I thought, 'If that guy can get people to pay him to do this, then so can I.' So I tucked my tail between my legs and called my step-dad, who had offered to teach me the guitar hundreds of times. He showed me some chords."

That was August 2004. A quick learner, Sweeney played her first gig at the Carousel Lounge on Sept. 24. Her following began that night with freshly-composed tunes of her own mixed with classic country from the likes of Merle Haggard, whose song title "Mama Tried" is tattooed on her right wrist and for whom she opened shows this summer.

"I was a nervous wreck. He's my hero of all heroes, him and Loretta."

With expert recall of dates, she needs little prompting on her debut at the East Austin BYOB famous for its elephantine accents.

"I played the Carousel and people started to come see me who weren't my family," she says. "Then I got a weekly residency at the Poodle Dog. I played there for three years, every Sunday from 8 to 11pm. I'd go to Ginny's on Sunday afternoons for Dale Watson and Chicken Shit Bingo, which is actually where I met my husband.

"I'd get a little sauced up there and recruit people to come over to my gig. Pretty soon the Poodle Dog started being a happening place on Sunday nights. Then we'd go over to the Continental Club to see Heybale!

"Honestly, I did this because I wanted free food and free beer. I didn't look at the big picture. I was thinking I need to maintain this and not get a real job. That was my main goal."

Her popularity at the Poodle Dog led to demand for an album, so after some cajoling she took out a loan. With the help of country/roots music vets Tommy Detamore and Tom Lewis, she produced Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame, spunky with East Texas charm and covering stalwarts Jim Lauderdale and Iris DeMent. What happened next remains one of those Nashville stories that occurs occasionally and mystifies everybody: Heartbreaker ended up on the desk of major label headhunter Scott Borchetta, who'd just signed a 14-year-old Taylor Swift to his new imprint Big Machine.

"I didn't go looking for a record deal," shrugs Sweeney. "He contacted me on MySpace. I went up there, showcased, and two months later I had a deal. I was like the second or third artist they signed. What was really a boost for me was they only changed the font and the color of my name on the artwork and re-released my record.

"There was no remixing, remastering. It was the record I made."

After that, 2006, there was a lot of waiting. Although she made her Opry debut on Texas Independence Day of the following year, Concrete, her second disc, wasn't released until 2011.

"I think that's exactly how it was supposed to happen," she offers. "I went through a divorce and I might not have been ready emotionally or physically to go out and work a record. I don't think I would have made the record I ended up with had I not had to go through that period of my life. I might have been writing different songs and it might not have been that good a record."

A lot of positives came in the wake of Concrete. She remarried, to Austin Police Sgt. Jeff Hellmer, two months after its release. A single from the album, "From a Table Away," reached the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot Country chart, and she was nominated for the Academy of Country Music's Best New Female Vocalist in 2013. Eventually, Sweeney left Big Machine and made Provoked on her own.

"Everything runs its course," she nods. "I think we were both at that point. There was no hard feelings. They did exactly what they said they were going to do. I had two Top 40 songs on Billboard. I had a grand amount of exposure and made some amazing friends that I would have never met without the label.

"Everybody wants the dirt, but nothing really happened."

Like so many musicians making albums independently these days, Sweeney turned to crowdfunding to assist with Provoked. While she was hesitant at first to ask her fans for money, like the rest of her story, the effort proved an over-the-top success. She reached 109% of her goal.

"With this record I own all the masters. As an artist, that's the ultimate goal. Then I had fans thanking me for letting them be part of the record. That's awesome."

The tape over her mouth on the new album cover echoes the recent "No H8" ad campaign, and Sweeney claims the songs inside revolve around her urges to stir things up, something she's obviously unafraid of doing. That strength comes with a bit of regret, and that she's able to display a range of universal emotion unfiltered in song makes her talent rare.

"Yes, I've been through the wringer," she concludes. "I'm not afraid to say I stir the pot sometimes, because sometimes I do. You don't mean to, but people make mistakes. I think that's the kind of music I sell the best."

Sunny Sweeney plays the Saxon Pub Saturday, Dec. 13, 8pm.

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