Merle Haggard Is Pretty Much Sunny Sweeney’s Hero
For Sunny Sweeney, being a country music artist comes with some baggage… the good kind.
Sweeney clearly believes that she holds a responsibility to the sound and music that inspired her as a child. Names such as Haggard, Lynn, and Parton are names she owes her own brief legacy to and wherever that career may go, names that will chart her course. At her father’s side next to his turntable was the place she fell in love with classic country. At the Grand Ole Opry beside some of the greatest stars country has ever known is where she falls in love again with each guest performance.
While her debut radio release, “From a Table Away” has spent well over half a year on the charts, country music traditionalists recognize her name from her years on the Texas circuit in addition to her critically acclaimed debut, Heartbreakers Hall of Fame.
It is impossible to read the interview below and do Sweeney’s enthusiasm any justice. With eyes wide open and an unbridled passion for what she’s doing, she is clearly having the time of her life. She sat down just after her new EP was released with The 9513 and talked about that, her upcoming full album and a side project with Jessi Colter.
You call yourself a country music history buff. How much of that comes out in your music?
I think quite a bit. There are some songs that are way more traditional than others. There are a couple that are really really country. I’m super proud of that because that’s just what I grew up on. And that’s actually one of my biggest pet peeves–when people say I’m a huge country music fan and then you listen to their music and it’s synthesizers and stuff like that. I would like say there’s tons of history in my stuff. On my new record, we have some great old guitar work and lots of space musically. You just don’t hear much of that anymore. My producers allowed me to have tons of input on this record and it made me feel so good because I know with every ounce of my being that I can go to bed with my musical integrity every night. I’m really proud of that. Not many people can say that–I’m really proud of this record. I really am.
What artists and what songs had the biggest influence on your sound thus far in your career?
Merle Haggard is pretty much my hero. He’s been that way my whole life. He’s just so cool. When I was a kid, I would sit down with my dad and he would listen to him when I was very little. I was probably seven or eight sitting Indian-style in front of the record player one day. I was watching the record going around on the needle and I was listening to the intro to one of his songs. It was a Merle song. And granted I was little, but I was saying to myself the equivalent of thinking, “Man, that’s worth a shit.” I didn’t say that, but I remember having that thought. That was just so cool. And it was so different. I was probably seven when it happened. Any kind of music I listen to now isn’t quite the same. When I work out, I listen to artists like Britney Spears, but I’m not listening to that to provoke thought. I’m just listening to that for something to sweat to. But whenever I’m needing inspiration, I listen to Merle or even Loretta. Loretta is one of the best songwriters on the planet. Dolly Parton is another. There are so many.
All the Opry stars are more. The fact that I’ve got to play the Opry as often as I have and have gotten to know these people is amazing. Marty Stuart told me the other day that he liked my work. I almost fell out. I said to myself, “What? This is crazy! Marty Stuart just told me that he likes my work!”
There’s a conglomeration of people that have inspired me, but it’s usually old country and classic country and the people that sing it.
With your sound geared more classical than what we’re hearing on the radio these days, does it ever feel like you’re swimming upstream ever?
Not really. For me, I’ve always just tried to be different. This is just another example of not trying to be different, just being different. My attitude is just you are going to like it or not. I like it. And I go to bed with my integrity every night. And I’m proud as hell of my record. I don’t think it’s upstream. I think that it’s in a very big pool, but not upstream. It’s easy to get lost in music. A lot of people kind of come into country music and fade into the crowd. But I don’t like that. I was never like that. I’m just glad that people have been as accepting as they have of my music–especially this first song. It’s pretty country, even by my standards. People tell me, “It’s so country.” And I always reply, “Yes, imagine that. Country music on country radio.” I’m so flattered by that.
I’ve had nothing but good experiences thus far. I learn something new every single day. I learn that this is like this, or this is like that. I just wrote this song a year ago November. And it’s been on the charts thirty-something weeks. It’s crazy. All I’ve ever done up until now is play in bars and sell records off of my website and done everything myself up until a couple years ago. This is just a totally different deal. It’s pretty exciting that little ole me is getting a chance to try and make this work nationally. I’m very proud. Very proud.
There are five additional songs. It’s all done, it’s been done for a little while. A couple of the songs are very personal. I went through a divorce recently and a lot of the songs are about the sadness of a relationship going downhill and kind of going like a snowball. When it gets going, you can’t stop it sometimes. And it’s sad. Yes, it’s hard to sing those songs. But I had a show recently and a girl came up to me afterwards and said, “Girl, I am in the same spot.” Tears were in her eyes. And here I am just singing songs about my life and this girl is this affected by it. For me, that is humongous flattery. There really isn’t anything better. Well, except if my mom says she likes my songs. If momma don’t like them, nobody going to like them.
There are songs like that and there are a couple of more up-tempo kind of songs. There is one that is one of my favorite songs ever. It’s a cool effort. Even by my standards, it’s country. And I’m very very proud of it.
Is there a scheduled release date for it yet?
No, we’re just doing the EP right now and whenever this single is done, we’ll release the second single and then probably within a month or two after that, we’ll release the full album.
Have you and your team decided on single number two yet?
We haven’t. We’ve actually pushed back the release date of it a couple of times because this song is still going. We were planning on doing it sooner than later, but this song keeps growing a leg or two each month. Woo Hoo!
You ride that wave as long as it’ll go, right?
Absolutely. Why not?
I wanted to ask you about your experience singing with Jessi Colter on “Good Hearted Woman” on the latest Waylon Jennings tribute album as well.
Okay. Okay. Check this out. There are three records and I happen to be on the first one. I just got to go back to Nashville and shoot this live acoustic performance for Yahoo with Jessi. I got to sing live with Jessi. Awesome. Oh my God. I was so freaking out. I was sitting there singing a song with Jessi Colter that her husband sang about her. It was just nuts. She is amazing. Without sounding all tree-huggery and all granola, she has this energy about her. She walks in the room and you know Jessi is there. She’s beautiful inside and out. She’s just so inspirational. She’s one of my huge influences growing up. The fact that I’m friends with her is crazy. She text messages me. Is that the weirdest thing ever?
My dad told me the other day, “Child, I’ve never been jealous of you in my life, but I’m slightly jealous of you right now.” The reality is that I’m jealous of me. I just can’t believe that she’s texting me. That’s just crazy. She’s Jessi Colter! I used to listen to “I’m Not Lisa” as a kid. 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. And now I’m sitting next to her and she’s playing piano and I’m playing guitar. To Waylon. Reggie Young, who made all those sounds, is sitting right next to me. It’s just a life experience that’s crazy.
Your enthusiasm is very infectious, Sunny.
Why thank you. I love my job. I have the best job in the entire world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything at all.
What is country music to Sunny Sweeney?
It’s a great song which consists of great lyrics and tells a story with an infectious melody. That is what sets it apart from other genres–it tells stories. It is why I like my record because it tells stories. That’s what I grew up listing to and that’s what I relate to. I relate to listening to Merle talking about his happenings and Loretta talking about her happenings. You can’t make that shit up. It is just a good story, basically. A good story set to music.
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