Sunny Sweeney performs at the Des Moines Social Club on July 14.
Country music has always had its share of tough women, from Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn to modern-day performers such as Miranda Lambert, Margo Price, and Kasey Musgraves. These artists have told the hard truths of being female in a male-dominated world without whining or complaining. They just metaphorically kick it in the balls with smart lyrics and a direct delivery.
Sunny Sweeney is one of the best of the new breed. Her career has had its ups and downs, but instead of complaining about things, she uses life’s foibles as material for her songs. Her recording career began in 2006 when she was signed, along with Taylor Swift, to Big Machine Records. Later, she had hits with songs like “From a Table Away,” “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” and “Drink Myself Single” from her 2011 release Concrete that went to number seven on the U.S. country album charts.
Despite her love for traditional country music, she felt stifled by the major label industry. She left her record company and used the fan-sponsored Pledge Music program to record a new album in 2013 to much acclaim. This year she has released a new album, Trophy, to rave reviews.
“I don’t look at the past in a negative way,” Sweeney said over the phone from her Austin, Texas, home. “Everything happens for a reason. The things you wish you could change took place, and if they didn’t, you wouldn’t be the person you are today.” Despite her personal problems in the past—like drinking too much, an unhappy divorce, and other miseries—Sweeney declared she was happy with her life now. She wouldn’t change a thing.
Sweeney will perform at the Des Moines Social Club on Friday, July 14, as part of a grueling two-month-plus tour that will take her from New York to New Mexico, with plenty of stops in between. She’s performed in Iowa many times and has positive things to say about the state. However, she’s a proud Texan. One of the sweetest songs on Trophy is “There’s Nothing Wrong With Texas,” on which she boasts about the pleasures of small town life where friendships and smiles are easy to come by.
But Sweeney knows life is hard. Trophy contains tunes that range from the mournful to the celebratory, from the soft ones sung in hushed tones to honky-tonk shouters. “I write from personal experience. I feel it’s my job to get in touch with my soul and bare it before an audience,” Sweeney said. There are two songs in particular that convey heavy emotional truths: “Bottle By My Bed” reveals her longing for a child after a miscarriage, and “Unsaid” was written about a friend who committed suicide.
“I am not afraid to tell the truth,” Sweeney remarked. “Life and death are real things. The trouble I had when I was on a major record label was that they wanted me to sing about things I didn’t care about. I just couldn’t do that.”
Yet she’s no sob sister. Consider the rowdy “Better Bad Idea” that begins with the provocative lines: “Let’s wash our dirty minds / with a bottle of white wine / do some things that we can’t take back / get higher than a kite,” and gets even more suggestive as the song goes on.
Sweeney opened for Garth Brooks during his recent free show in Austin during South by Southwest. “I was so honored that he chose me,” Sweeney confessed. She has appeared before other stars at big arenas in her past, but this might have been her biggest audience. When she headlines, Sweeney’s shows are much smaller, but she enjoys them more because of greater intimacy with the crowd. You can count on her to staff the merchandise table after the show to sign CDs and chat with her fans. While the protagonists of her songs may sometimes be mean and nasty, she’s actually quite a cheery person.
“Sunny is my real name. My parents named me after my mom’s uncle Sonny,” she noted. She’s very close to her mother, who attends many of her shows. Sweeney has covered Iowa denizen Iris DeMent’s “Mama’s Opry” because it reminds Sweeney of her own childhood memories. The song is about listening to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry on the radio. “I just loved it the first time I heard it because that was me and my mom!” she said.
Sweeney has performed on the Grand Ole Opry stage 49 times and said she’s still absolutely thrilled every time. One of Sweeney’s most popular songs in concert is called “Whiskey Richard,” about a man with a small penis. She won’t record it. “My family would disown me if I did!” she remarked.
Sunny also has a dog named Doug that she takes everywhere—including on the road. She noted that it’s hard to stay sane and keep it together when traveling so much. Doug helps her wing it, a skill Sweeney said is necessary for a touring musician.
Since 2011, Sweeney has been married to Austin police sergeant Jeff Hellmer. She says the two of them are quite different, which has had the effect of making their marriage stronger. The song “Grow Old With Me” lovingly delineates their differences: “You’re the whiskey straight, I’m beer in a bottle / And you’re the rock, I’m more the rolling stone.”
She knows that many of the characters in her songs find themselves on the wrong side of the law, but Sweeney said the thought that their behavior might get them arrested by officers like her husband never crosses her mind.
The title song of “Trophy” gets its name from her husband’s ex-wife, who called Sweeney a trophy wife. The song concludes: “Yeah, he’s got a trophy now, for putting up with you.” The sass in her voice reveals her unwillingness to have someone define her. She is a tough woman, and if you cross her, you just might find yourself mocked in one of her songs.