I didn’t first hear Sunny Sweeney on the radio. I first heard Sunny Sweeney at The Carousel Lounge in the fall of 2004, just a couple months into her career. My friends and I weren’t looking for music that day, just a dive that wasn’t too tough on IDs and had beer we could afford. What we found in that little bar east of I-35 was a country band fronted by someone who was much more than just a catchy name and an East Texas accent.
Admittedly, I wasn’t into the honky tonk scene at the time, but that afternoon, Sunny Sweeney’s Texas twang and soulful renditions of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” and Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn” made me a believer in the power of Country. She also made me laugh. “I wrote this song to play at my ex-boyfriend’s wedding,” Sweeney joked to set up her next song. “But he didn’t invite me.”
Sunny Sweeney used her raw talent and no-bullshit charisma to build a small, very loyal, local following for her weekly gig at The Poodle Dog Lounge. I, barely 21 at the time, would sit with weathered regulars and bartenders every Sunday night soaking in Sweeney’s unique brand of classic country and original tunes. With her raw vocals and the whine of a country guitar, she connected us to Music Past, breathing new life into the sounds of Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.
It didn’t take long for Sweeney to become a staple inside Austin honky tonks. Her gig at The Pood, as it was affectionately called, became the mid-point in the Sunday Circuit, after Dale Watson’s standing show at Ginny’s Little Longhorn and before Heybale’s late night appearance at The Continental Club.
While her sound was filling the Circuit, Sweeney was busy working on her first album. “Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame,” the first original Sunny Sweeney tune we ever heard (the one about her ex-boyfriend), became its title track. Released independently in 2006, Heartbreakers Hall of Fame was discovered and re-released, unchanged, by Big Machine (the Nashville power house responsible for the wildly successful career of Taylor Swift) in 2007.
Since the release of Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, Sweeney has traded Sunday nights at The Poodle Dog Lounge for national tours, appearances at The Grand Ole Opry, a stint living in Nashville and a number one hit. Today, Sweeney is preparing for the release of her second full-length album, Concrete, which drops this Tuesday, August 23.
The last time she left home, her bags were packed for 41 days on the road with country giant Brad Paisley, but a surprise two-day reprieve led her back to Austin. While she was home, I got the chance to catch up with her about the new album and life after The Poodle Dog Lounge.
“I’m just so proud of it,” says Sweeney about Concrete. “I’m glad I didn’t push to make a record sooner, because I wouldn’t have had these songs. Because most of them have come from the last two and a half years from my personal experiences.”
Those experiences led to a ten-song album, seven of which Sweeney wrote with an impressive list of co-writers including Radney Foster and Monte Holmes. She tackles relationships and doesn’t paint anything as picture perfect.
“It’s [Concrete] all story songs, so, you know, it can be about happy times in relationships, sad times in relationships, lying in relationships, getting even in relationships. It’s relationship centered, but not ‘oh life is so wonderful’ kind of relationships,” Sweeney says.
The two singles from Concrete shed light on the darker side of intimacy. “From A Table Away” (Sweeney’s number one single) is an account of adultery and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” is an autobiographical tune about Sweeney’s marriage.
“That song is personal to me… it’s about my marriage falling apart,” she says. “And unfortunately, that happens sometimes. When two people try to make it work and try to make it work and try to make it work, sometimes the revelation is that you have to end a relationship to be able to move forward with your life.”
While there are some emotional heavy hitters on Concrete, in true Sunny Sweeney fashion, there’s plenty of rocking country to go around, too. “I listened to a ton of Lucinda [Williams] before I recorded this record. So there’s a lot of rockin’ stuff,” Sweeney says. “'Drink Myself Single' is on there, which is my favorite still,” she laughs.
Evident on Concrete is a new level of maturity in Sweeney’s sound and writing. “Whenever we first started, I was mostly doing cover songs, and we just had a five piece country band, which is where my heart is musically. And I still have five pieces, I’ve just added a fiddle to it, too and then a lap steel guitar in addition to a steel guitar," Sweeney says. "Your sound evolves anyway as an artist. But I think that the record sounds like my band sounds now.”
It’s been a few years since Sunny Sweeney had a standing weekly gig in Austin, but you can still catch her here on occassion. This Wednesday, August 24, Sweeney headlines the KVET Free Texas Music Series at Nutty Brown Café, which will double as her CD release party. And while it’s no three hour show at The Poodle Dog Lounge, being back where it all started seems like the most apropos way to celebrate Concrete, an album years in the making.
Sweeney will be back on the road by Thursday in support of Concrete, but even with the hectic touring schedule, she doesn’t seem to miss her old Sunday Circuit routine. “I’m doing the same thing, I’m just doing more of it. I’m still playing, still writing, still travelling, still doing all that. That’s what I signed up for.”
Sunny Sweeney plays the KVET Free Texas Music Series at Nutty Brown Cafe this Wednesday, August 24. The music starts at 6:30pm, Sweeney hits the stage at 8pm. You can order Concrete online, or pick it up at the show.