Sunny Sweeney: You Had to Go and Prove Yourself
Sunny Sweeney is grinning, leaning across the conference table at her publicist’s Music Row office to display an image on her phone. She’s pulled up her website and navigated to a particular T-shirt she sells as merch. “There it is,” she declares. The photo shows a black tee screen-printed with the cartoon image of a smiling, blond waitress brandishing a sizable red tube of meat above the text “Sunny Sweeney: Breaking Up the Sausage Party,” exactly as she’d described it.
It’s a crudely funny slogan even without any context, but the punch line has a lot more punch when you know the backstory, which is this: Sweeney didn’t exactly have an easy time gaining a foothold in the Red Dirt music scene of her native Texas, what with its overwhelmingly male network of musicians.
“I mean, there’s girls,” she begins, “but there’s a lot of guys. If you get an opening slot, it’s usually with a guy. As a joke, I made up the shirt just completely to be like, ‘Ha ha. Here, guys.’ And I handed them out to my friends. There were tons of guys in these bands that were wearing ’em. Then fans started sending me pictures of these people wearing them on stage. They would be like, ‘Do you sell these? We want ’em.’”
It’s a source of satisfaction for the 37-year-old Sweeney that she not only toughed it out in the proving ground of Texas bars, but also spun her straight-talking take on the experience into an indelicate one-liner — and a slew of people have been walking around sporting it on their bodies since. She has a flair for frankness, which she’s channeled into each of her three albums to date, the latest, Provoked, above all. In the black-and-white close-up cover photo, her mouth is taped shut and her eyes seem to taunt the camera: “As if a little piece of tape is any match for this mouth.”
That stubbornness definitely comes through in her singing; in her vinegary directness and occasional bold-faced sarcasm; in her knowing, straight-on phrasing and how little use she has for flowery embellishment; in the undiluted, hardcore twang of her timbre and its resistance to the leaven of pop, rock, or R&B influence.
“This drunk guy at a bar one night goes, ‘Girl, you need to take that clothespin off your nose,’” she testifies. “And I said, ‘I borrowed it from Willie Nelson. It’s doing fine for him.’”
Real Life Isn’t Angelic
In the album’s first single, the riff-driven country-rocker “Bad Girl Phase” — one of only two songs on here that Sweeney didn’t have a hand in writing — she strikes a feisty pose, a prevalent performing posture for female country artists in the decade since Gretchen Wilson strutted into the spotlight with “Redneck Woman.” Sweeney’s clearly playing a character, a willfully misbehaving character with fiery red lipstick, a hankering for whiskey, and no interest in monogamy.
But there’s something about the third verse that sounds real and right coming from Sweeney in particular:
So you can throw stones
at my hell-bent heart
I’m just doing in the light
what you wanna do in the dark.
That justification could almost serve as her musical mission statement: Somebody might as well own up to the messes that others try so hard to keep behind closed doors. Further along on the album, in the Will Hoge duet “My Bed,” she gives voice to a reality lovers often can’t bring themselves to acknowledge — that the intimacy between them has hardened into strangeness. Then she spends two consecutive songs, the terrific “Uninvited” and “Sunday Dress,” bringing private moments of mortification out into the open.
Aware that she’s hardly the first to speak her mind this way or pull back the curtain on relatable, personal, and interpersonal tumult, Sweeney points to Loretta Lynn’s influence. She searches for a way to describe how Lynn’s expression has hit her, finally arriving at, “Brash — that’s the word I’m looking for. Where it’s ‘I’m going to say the things that I’m going to say. They may not be pretty, and they may not be what you wanna hear.’ …Think about ‘The Pill’ and ‘Rated X.’ There’s all kinds of crazy songs that she had. To me, she sets the bar songwriter-wise, where I think, ‘If she can do it, then I can do it.’”
While Lynn almost singlehandedly established the grounded country archetype of the woman prepared to knock out anybody putting moves on her man (see: “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Fist City”), Sweeney dares inhabit the vantage point of the other woman. The revelation of infidelity in her rip-roaring album opener “You Don’t Know Your Husband” initially comes off as flaunting. That’s before the mistress indicates her deeper motivation for running her mouth: she’s grown repulsed by the way the man in the middle is playing them both. “From a Table Away,” the most successful single from Sweeney’s previous album, Concrete, cast her as a girlfriend blindsided in a restaurant by the discovery that her married man’s been leading her on. And in the stone-country ballad “Amy,” she was the woman on the side, compelled to clear the air with the wife.
“God no, it’s not angelic,” she says of the subject matter. “That’s the thing, is that real life isn’t angelic either. There’s things that happen. I’ve got three sisters and five aunts and a mother and a stepmother and tons of female cousins. So just from the girl angle, I’ve got stories covered — you know, what’s happened to who. It’s not a flattering thing, but it’s true.”
When we spoke a couple of years ago for another publication, Sweeney explained her willingness to write herself into unflattering scenarios from an artistic perspective: “I do a lot of, ‘Well, why not?’ If you really have to question it too much, then it starts being like, ‘Oh, I might offend somebody. Oh no. Somebody’s gonna get offended.’ Well, you know what? Somebody’s gonna get offended if your song’s cheesy, too. At least those are like real situations. …Guy Clark’s not gonna write something that I’m ever gonna go, ‘That is so cheesy.’ … I don’t mind being cast into situations that I haven’t been in, just so that it’ll tell a story.”
Though she doesn’t limit her creativity to literal autobiography, Sweeney does use major events in her life to frame her output. Concrete, she specified in interviews, coincided with the dissolution of her first marriage. Part of the narrative she’s attached to Provoked is that many of the songs came as she moved on, found new love, and got hitched again. Sure, she wrote about relishing a fresh relationship, but what came out was far from blank-slate carefree. In “Second Guessing,” she wrestles with all the poor pairings that preceded the happy one. She’s fond of saying that “Used Cars” is the only love song she’s written to date; she savors the notion that she can’t be accused of portraying romance naively. That her sole love song revolves around an extended metaphor for adult emotional baggage — likening her second husband to a pre-owned sedan — begs for commentary.
“There was a bar I played called the Poodle Dog Lounge in Austin,” she offers. “I played there every Sunday for three or four years, from eight to 11. A couple doors down from it, there’s this crappy used car lot. But there was this one nice car, real shiny, nice car. And I thought, ‘Hmm, kinda like Jeff.’ …I mean, he’s totally been through a lot of shit. We all have. But he’s okay. He lived through it all.”
While Sweeney shares all this, her policeman husband Jeff Hellner reads a newspaper in the hallway, separated from the interview not even by a solid wall, but a heavy, corrugated curtain that encircles the perimeter of the publicist’s office. Which is why it seemed to make sense to wait until a follow-up phone interview with Sweeney, by then back home in Austin, to ask how Hellner took the whole used car comparison.
“He said, ‘It’s actually cool,’” she recalls with amusement. “‘It’s not like a sappy love song. I would be kinda worried about you if you wrote a sappy love song.’”
In hindsight, though, Sweeney probably wouldn’t have had any reservations about delving into potentially sensitive, second-marriage stuff with husband number two, who seems perfectly nice, in earshot. She would’ve gone there, no sweat.
“I’m not embarrassed of things that have happened to me,” she says at one point. “I’m actually proud of things that have happened to me, because any one little thing could change the course of your life.”
Same Bluntness in Any Company
Sweeney held the Nashville release party for Provoked at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, a bastion of country classicism on honky-tonk-lined, tourist-crowded Lower Broadway. The store stocks at least as many CDs and vinyl LPs by rootsy singer-songwriters, traditional bluegrass bands, and Opry old-timers as by current country chart-toppers. Near the front, a table was set up with pitchers of lemonade and plates of pimento cheese-stuffed pitas. The small stage in back was flanked with dusty artifacts, so that the guest of honor, her fleet-fingered flatpicker Jake Clayton, and her harmony-singing rhythm guitarist JoAnna Janet took their places with cardboard cutouts of Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline and mannequins dressed in Tubb’s double-breasted Western suits peering out from behind them.
Since her husband, mom, stepdad, dad, and stepmom — a very supportive bunch — had made the trip from Texas, Sweeney couldn’t resist urging the crowd to help her make her parents proud by raising imaginary beers and singing along with a song that contained ample repetitions of “Everybody else can kiss my ass.”
On the phone later, she concedes with a laugh that it wouldn’t be off base to call that acting out. “My dad always jokes and goes, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be at your gig tonight. So make sure you play all the ones that make me proud,’ she says. “He has his favorites. But the ones where there’s swearing or something like that, he’s always like, ‘I cannot believe my daughter has songs like this.’
“Some people that I know, they smoke cigarettes, but they don’t smoke in front of their parents. Or they drink, but they don’t drink in front of their parents. Or they curse, but they don’t curse in front of their parents. My family is so open, and I think that has been part of why I’ve turned out the way that I have, in the sense that I’m outspoken and say what’s on my mind. I’ve been like that my whole life.”
For Sweeney, consistency of character — bluntness most definitely included — is something to be proud of. The real target of the “kiss my ass” line in “Everybody Else” is a detestable, overbearing bossman. She never fails to dedicate the song to a detested former boss of her own, by name, which shocked an ex-co-worker who came to see her perform a while back.
Recalls Sweeney, “She’s like, ‘Holy shit, girl. You just called Tammy out on stage. … What if she sees your show?’ And I was like, ‘I will be glad to introduce the song the exact same way.’”
A Whole Different Business Ballgame
There was no more gracious shout-out during Sweeney’s set at Ernest Tubb’s than the one she gave to a fan named Marcy Sandusky. Between songs, Sweeney directed the crowd’s attention to “the blond in blue,” who beamed and gave a little wave to indicate that yes, she was indeed the person Sweeney was talking about. Sandusky had come all the way from Michigan to celebrate the album release she’d helped make possible as the biggest donor in the PledgeMusic campaign that bankrolled Provoked.
It’s become increasingly common over the past half-decade for acts to use various fan-funding websites to raise the cash to record a new project, or press vinyl, or acquire a tour van, or shoot a video. The model tends to work best for artists like Sweeney, who’ve built an engaged audience; they can seek investors among the already-invested.
As Sweeney’s PledgeMusic page testifies, the fan-funding effort was exactly 109% successful, and she released the resulting record on Thirty Tigers, a go-to partner for all manner of indie acts. With her previous album, Concrete, it was a whole different ballgame. That was one of the first albums put out by Republic Nashville, part of mainstream mover and shaker the Big Machine Label Group, otherwise known as The House That Taylor Swift Built.
In her Big Machine days, Sweeney eventually reached the point where she was opening arenas for Lady Antebellum and Brad Paisley when she wasn’t headlining her own club dates. But the acoustic trio she had at the record store is a harbinger of more intimate and attentive crowds in her future.
“I think it would be a great way to showcase the songs on this new record,” she says. “I mean, there’s some that are kickin’. But I think the song part of it would be showcased so much better, like, in listening rooms.”
Sweeney’s seen Lori McKenna, Darrell Scott, and other singer-songwriters she admires enthrall seated crowds. Plus, she says, “I’ve done dinner theaters before. There’s one in Beaumont that I love doing, and they feed you and everything. That is a place where I can be funny, where I have a captive audience. … It’s like people are strictly there to listen, and they want to be there. They’re not there just to get hammered and have a good time. They want to have a good time, but they also want to listen to the music.”
She’s played her share of bars, where “people are drunk before you even start.” She adds, “I’m drinkin’ right along with them and having a good time, you know, getting shots on stage and stuff like that. But in the middle of it, something I long for is to be able to play an acoustic song.”
Recently, Sweeney paused in the middle of a full-throttle, full-band show and sang a ruminative, unreleased tune that she and McKenna wrote together, just to see what would happen. “Totally didn’t go with our set,” reflects Sweeney. “But people still reacted to it. The whole bar got quiet.”
The unexpected song is as enticing to her on her stereo as it is in her set lists. Sweeney likes to point out that her iPod wouldn’t be the one to put on “shuffle” at a party, considering it’s perpetually stocked with songwriting heavyweights who can have a similar shushing effect on listeners. You’re liable to scroll down the list of artists and find Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert, and Loretta Lynn; Buddy and Julie Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Guy Clark; Merle Haggard, who inspired the “Mama Tried” tattoo on Sweeney’s wrist, and a slew of other revered roots voices — that and Britney Spears for trips to the gym. Sweeney is a longtime connoisseur of songwriting. Her mother, Dee Strickland, recognized it when her daughter was still just a kid — a kid who instinctively gravitated to the least kid-friendly songs on the eight-tracks they bought four-for-a-dollar at garage sales in Longview, Texas.
Says Strickland on the phone: “The first song I remember her singing — you’re gonna crack up when I tell you this — was ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.’ She knew every word to that. And my mother said, ‘You have to make her quit singing that song. She doesn’t know what it means.’”
True enough. Sweeney probably hadn’t grasped the feelings of emasculation, abandonment, and pent-up rage eating at the wounded veteran in that Kenny Rogers & the First Edition hit when she first pranced around singing it. But she shared with an Australian journalist clear recollections of obsessing over Jessi Colter’s wrenching ballad “I’m Not Lisa” when she wasn’t much older: “I’ve always listened to things differently than my friends. They would always say, ‘Why are you always analyzing everything so much?’ But that’s a deep song.”
It wasn’t like Sweeney was completely insulated from or immune to the wiles of late ’80s and early ’90s pop. As her mom recalls, “I think during her school years she got into some other stuff, because I know I took her to — who are those people that got caught lip syncing?”
I ask if she means Milli Vanilli.
“It was Milli Vanilli, yes. I remember taking her to a concert, thinking, ‘Oh, dear God. What have we done that she loves that?’ But she didn’t branch out to that kind of music for very long. I don’t think she really liked it. She always liked traditional country music.”
Sweeney’s own account of how her musical taste evolved omits any and all lip-synced Euro dance-pop. “Country music is my first love,” she emphasizes, “straight from the beginning of time — from the beginning of my time. Country music was all I knew, basically. I would hear [other] stuff from my dad, like Neil Young, Tom Petty, and those things. But hell, those are country now. Then as a 20-something, I started getting into Americana hardcore: ‘Wow, this is serious music.’”
At that point, she didn’t suddenly turn up her nose at music with mainstream appeal so much as enlarge her listening habits to encompass the good stuff further afield. Singer-songwriters especially had her respect. So it was majorly embarrassing to her to be called out early in her barroom career for erroneously introducing a song in her set as one Lucinda Williams had written. Since Sweeney actually seems to enjoy telling embarrassing stories on herself, it’s not hard to get this one out of her.
“This guy that I’ve never seen before came up to me,” she says, “and he was like, ‘Great show. I really loved the song that you did, ‘Can’t Let Go.’ And I said, ‘Oh man, Lucinda’s great. I just think she’s wonderful.’ And he was like, ‘Um, actually, I wrote that.’ And I was just so mortified. He goes, ‘Yeah, I’m Randy Weeks. I’m from California, and I just moved here. This is my girlfriend, Mary-Lyn. We thought you were great.’ He was just such a sweetheart. So from then on out, whenever I did that at shows, I would always get him to do it with me. We would do a duet, and I would always tell that story.”
After performing Weeks’s song, properly recognized, for years, Sweeney included it on Provoked alongside her originals. Three-quarters of the material on her first album, on the other hand, had come from outside sources. Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame contained well-chosen Iris Dement, Tim Carroll, and Audrey Auld covers, and, thanks to co-producer Tom Lewis — who’d played drums for Jim Lauderdale — a previously unrecorded Lauderdale tune. Sweeney had only been writing for a matter of months, and the first song she’d completed, “Slow Swinging Western Tunes,” was more of a rough outline than a fleshed-out narrative. Still, all the ingredients were there, and the album itself, a spunky, hard country set, was strikingly strong for a complete and total newbie.
She marvels, “I have plenty of friends that have threatened me within an inch of my life if I ever even tell anyone I’ve heard their first record. … The only thing I don’t like about my first record is that I hadn’t found my voice yet, so I don’t think I sound like myself now. But I’d only been singing for, I think it was, eight months or something.”
She self-released Heartbreaker’s Hall in 2006 and found herself nominated for the Americana Music Association’s New and Emerging Artist award the following year. Though the Avett Brothers walked away with the trophy, she got what she considered the next best thing — the chance to sing with Buddy Miller at an Americana Fest showcase.
The Mainstream Push
Sweeney may well be the only artist who’s ever been embraced as a rising, young talent in roots music while simultaneously being signed to a label that planned to try to break her into country radio down the road. Outside of Americana circles, Scott Borchetta, the shrewd and enterprising record exec who’d recently founded Big Machine, somehow heard her little album.
“He got my CD in a blank envelope,” Sweeney later told an Australian journalist, “and he doesn’t know how he got it.”
The only thing she can speak to with certainty is how Borchetta made contact. “I get a MySpace message,” she says with amusement, “a MySpace message from a little grey head, that said, ‘Hey, I own a record label in Nashville. I got a hold of your record, and I really like it. I’d really like to talk to you.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. I’m just down here playing for beer and burgers. But I’ll call him. Whatever.’ …I truly had no idea who he was.”
Borchetta quietly rereleased Heartbreaker’s Hall in the spring of ’07. Other than a dramatic improvement in the distribution of her album and a bit more press outside her home state, there wasn’t an obvious shift in the scale of Sweeney’s career for a while. First, she had to work toward single-worthy material.
Sometimes artists who’ve steeped in the proud self-sufficiency of the Texas singer-songwriter scene arrive in Nashville with a distrust of what they view as an assembly line approach to co-writing. Sweeney toted no such prejudices with her—only inexperience. She explains, “I didn’t understand: ‘Oh, you just like go in with somebody you don’t know?’ I didn’t know that that existed. Quite truthfully, I enjoy co-writing now. And I’ve made some of the closest, coolest relationships with people from co-writing.”
Making confidants of professional collaborators worked well for Sweeney. She gushes about Music Row writers like Jay Clementi, Monty Holmes, and Natalie Hemby, who’ve helped her buttress her melodic hooks, distill her clear-eyed emotional realism, tap into her saltiness, and put a finer point on already pointed sentiments. These new songs got a distinctly modern, hardcore country treatment in the studio with sleek vocal harmonies and a briskly burnished electric-and-steel attack. One of them, “From a Table Away,” reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart — an exceedingly difficult feat for any solo female country act for the past several years — but none of the other singles from Concrete came within striking distance.
In 2013, Sweeney received her first big award nomination since the Americana nod — for the Academy of Country Music’s Best New Female Vocalist. (In keeping with her sense of humor, she stumped for ACM fan votes with a DIY YouTube parody of an “SNL” parody of a ’90s R&B slow jam. She transformed Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg’s song about giving the gift of strategically packaged genitalia into a tune called “Click in the Box.”) The same year, she parted ways with Big Machine imprint Republic Nashville.
Now, just because that era’s behind her, you won’t hear her bad-mouth the folks at her former label. “I had a really great experience working with them,” she insists. “I know there’s people that haven’t, but I truly have no complaints. They did what they said they were gonna do, and it was a good experience for me. But there was also a ton of people trying to make one decision, as opposed to a few people trying to make one decision, which can tend to water the product down. That’s fine. I mean, I had a Top 10 single, and I’m proud of that. I loved every moment of it. But then there’s also the artist part of me that goes, ‘Man, now it’s just me and [producer] Luke [Wooten] and a couple people at Thirty Tigers talking about should we do this or that?’ … When there was 20 people making one decision, it was a lot harder.”
As for her current situation, she elaborates, “For me, the main difference is obviously resources and more legwork — way more legwork. Because you’re doing a lot of it yourself, and the amount of people working the project is smaller.”
From certain critical vantage points, the impression of what an artist’s about is tied to her positioning in the business, to whether she appears to be more invested in focus-grouped conventionality or fancy-free idiosyncrasy. This is not news to Sweeney. She confirms, “I know that there’s that ‘Oh, you did Nashville country? Well, never mind’ [attitude].”
Even so, she doesn’t feel any pressing need to reframe who she is and what she’s up to according to the available categories. Not when she’s cut a Texas indie record that was both embraced as Americana and picked up by a Music Row powerhouse, followed by a big-budget Nashville record that enlarged her audience without costing her credibility, then a fan-funded Nashville record, without any of it really cramping her style.
Giving as Good as She Gets
It makes all the difference in the world to Sweeney’s inclusive view of country-linked music that she identifies as a fan first and takes her cues from commercially unbounded, real-life listening habits.
“I grew up as a fan,” she points out. “I never even picked up a guitar until two weeks before my first show.”
By any standard, she got a late start. At 12, she’d rebuffed her stepdad’s offer to teach her guitar. As far as her parents knew, she was a music lover without musical ability or aspirations. Imagine their shock when toward the end of her senior year she invited them to come see her sing Dolly Parton’s country-disco anthem for working women, “9 to 5,” in the school talent show.
Her dad, Pat Sweeney, sets the scene on the phone: “These kids were really good. Some of ’em were awesome. And Sunny’s last, and she’s gonna do a Dolly Parton song. The closer it got to it, the more I sunk in my seat: ‘I don’t know if she can sing.’ … She came out and she had her big Dolly Parton wig on and had a bow around her neck, and she was just excellent. I went from being afraid that I was gonna be embarrassed to just as proud as I could be.”
A talent show coup is one thing. A music career is another. And it was far from obvious at the time that that was the type of performing his daughter would pursue.
Her mom concurs. “The kinds of things that she was most successful at had to do with having a microphone, whether it was acting and the mic was hanging from the top of the theater, or a comedy club with a microphone” Strickland says. “And of course, with music there was a microphone. She just likes to make people respond to her.”
For a time, Sweeney got responses with a “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”-style improv group called ComedySportz, who, she was excited to learn via Facebook recently, may soon have a reunion.
“My initial dream was, and still actually is, to be on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” she confesses with a chuckle. “That’s something that is ’til the day I die gonna be on my bucket list. I don’t think that the comedy stuff necessarily set me up for this gig, except for dealing with the drunks in some of the bars.”
It wasn’t until she was an upperclassman at Southwest Texas State University, now known as Texas State University — where breakout Red Dirt musician Randy Rogers was a classmate — that she pondered the potential perks of playing music. Enlisted by Chad Raney as a sort of talent scout for Lone Star Music, Sweeney hit the bars to find independent Texas acts whose CDs the web retailer could sell, with Raney footing the bill for gas, cover charges, and beer. In the middle of a show, she came to a realization. “I was like, ‘That guy on stage can get paid to do this?’” she remembers. “‘Well, shit, I can do that — maybe. I mean, I could tuck my tail between my legs, go back and ask my stepdad to teach me guitar.’”
The way she sees it, she dared herself to try a kind of performing she had up to that point known only from the listening side, but she had absorbed enough to form her own opinions about what was musically compelling and what wasn’t. She reckons the fans she has now are just as capable of engaging with and evaluating her music. So, as gutsy as her stuff tends to be, she never insists that her artistic intentions as songwriter and singer trump the meanings fans find in her songs.
“I mean, some of the ones that are obvious, I tell people what they’re about,” she offers. “But, like, ‘Uninvited,’ that can mean a million different things, and it means one thing for me — one specific, two-minute story in my life.”
“She doesn’t really share,” Strickland confirms. “I can even ask her, ‘Why did you write that?’ And she’ll just say, ‘Oh, it was something somebody said to me.’” As for “Uninvited,” she says, “I have no idea what that’s about. I’m dying to know, and I’m her mother and she won’t tell me.”
You don’t get the sense that Sweeney is trying to be willfully cryptic like Bob Dylan or to defend the seriousness of her self-expression by correcting misinterpretation of her lyrics. Sitting at her publicist’s conference table, eyes bright and hands fidgeting with the cap of her water bottle, she reflects: “People have come up to me after shows and been like, ‘Thank you so much for writing blah blah blah.’ Or ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe you sang about that. I’ve been through that exact thing.’ They don’t know what the song is about from my angle, but they know it’s about for them. And to me, the bottom line with songs is that emotion is what needs to happen. If [a song] brings something up, then you’ve done your job. That’s the way I look at it.”
Ultimately, the feedback she got from fans in person or online factored into selecting the 13 songs for Provoked: “I always lean heavily on my fans’ opinions. That’s why I ask them. I mean, I’m not asking just to ask ’em. I’m asking because I want to know.” And her fans are pretty free with their opinions, complimentary or otherwise.
There was the time when she’d bleached her hair to an East Texas shade of platinum blond — everything’s bigger and blonder in Texas, mind you — so many times in a row that it was falling out. Her stylist insisted she give her fried hair a break and be a brunette for a while. “So the first gig I go to,” says Sweeney, “this chick, she comes up to me at the merch table. … She was like, ‘Umm, I mean, it’s cute, but I liked you better as a blonde.’ …They’re honest like that, which I appreciate.”
Big of Sweeney to say so, as infuriating as the blond jab must’ve been in the moment. She found a good use for it as a smart-assed line in a song full of them, the jazzy, hooky, honky-tonky tune “Backhanded Compliment.” One way or another, Sweeney usually gives as good as she gets.
In the early days, she handled her own booking, calling up clubs and posing as “Elizabeth Mason,” so that the hard-bitten proprietors wouldn’t know they were actually speaking with the artist seeking the gig. One day “Elizabeth” dialed an especially ornery bar owner. “He said, ‘What am I gonna do with a female singer?’” remembers Sweeney. “I said, ‘The same thing you’re gonna do with a male singer — you let ’em come in and sing.’
“So I go do this gig,” she continues, “and he stands there during soundcheck, and he’s like, ‘Do you know this song, and this song, and this song? Do you know any Tanya Tucker? Do you know any Loretta Lynn?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, and I also know boys’ songs. I don’t just sing girls’ songs.’
“By the end of it, he was like, ‘Well, you ain’t too shabby.’ He liked me after that. But you had to go and prove yourself.”
She’s been there, done that, and made the “Breaking Up the Sausage Party” T-shirt, which really nails it, considering that she stuck to T-shirts and jeans and avoided anything that would read frilly or feminine while she was paying her performing dues.
Says Sweeney, “Most of the guys were like, ‘Well, it’s probably easier being a girl [when] you call these bar owners.’ And I’m like, ‘No! It is not easier.’ Dressing down as opposed to dressing up, I felt like, played a big part in it, because then they can’t say you used your woman powers to get the gig. I mean, I went in with my music and hoped and prayed that they would let me come back again.”
Photos courtesy Thirty Tigers and Sunny Sweeney.