Sunny Sweeney’s Married Alone rolls from pistoning honky tonk to chest-swelling balladry, turning at intervals toward twangy, dreamy pop that challenges attempts to corral the native Texan behind a single brand– a cultivated and welcome approach that sure-footedly blends accessibility with attitude.
Delayed more than threatened by a pandemic and the tragedies of love and fate, Sweeney’s fifth studio effort draws from her seemingly inexhaustible well of songs penned with longtime pals (Brennen Leigh and Lori McKenna among them) and her ability to remain compelled, crafting the album’s personal narrative with the filigree of further heart punches from Kendall Marvel and Waylon Payne (“Fool Like Me”) as well as Hannah Blaylock, Autumn McEntire, and Josh Morningstar, the trio of pens behind the title track.
Subtle guest shots from Vince Gill and co-producer Paul Cauthen lend weight without shadow and other highlights include guitarist Harley Husbands and the return to Dallas’s Modern Electric Sound by producer/engineer Jeff Saenz, who endured the loss of both arms after mistakenly coming into contact with a downed powerline in June of ’21.
Standout songs include the stoic “Still Here”, the old-friend blues of “How’d I End Up Lonely Again”, the mountain lightning and defiance of “Someday You’ll Call My Name”, and the modern crush of “Leaving Is My Middle Name”, a track further emboldened by the soaring harmonies of Regina McCrary and Joanna Janet.
Married Alone benefits from its special appearances, independent charm, and Music City pacing, but in the end, the real allure is Sweeney’s fierce wit and style, foils of an ever-present ache that never really leaves, presumably because it hasn’t been invited elsewhere.
Sunny Sweeney makes her Grant’s Lounge debut on Thursday, October 6th! Tickets are available now!
AI- The album deals heavily with relationships and loss but also rising above all of those things. I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I’m wrestling with something on the inside, I just start talkin’ and usually end up answering my own questions. I feel that’s how Married Alone plays out as a narrative.
SS- I feel like there’s obviously a lot of relationship stuff in there, but you’ve known me long enough to know I find humor if I can or levity in some way, shape, or form to address the heavy undertone. ‘Cause everybody does have to go through bad stuff but it’s all in how you deal with it.
Was it just time to make an album or was there something particular that instigated it?
No, it’d been five years since my last record– over five years now– and honestly, we were already in pre-production pickin’ out songs before stupid COVID. It took forever! It’s fine, everything has a time and I know all that, but it sure was a long wait (laughs)!
The album opens with “Tie Me Up”, provocative and really in a lot of ways antithetical to a great deal of country music norms. I know you’re a big Kitty Wells fan, and I think that song stands with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and if that was an answer to “Wild Side Of Life”, I wondered what “Tie Me Up” was answering?
It’s not an answer to anything specifically, I think it’s just the lay of the land right now– really always. I’m not the kind of female, as you know, that is going to just proverbially lay down and be walked on. I’m not necessarily sayin’ that’s me in the song, but I think it’s okay for a woman to be forward, and I think it’s okay for a woman to sing about things [like that]. I have plenty of fans that I know relate to those kinds of songs. So I’m gonna keep doing it (laughs)!
You’ve got Vince Gill along for the ride on the title track, and you were attracted to that tune immediately. It’s one of those brutally honest country songs that George and Tammy could’ve killed with…
That’s exactly what I thought too!
And it came along for you at a perfect time… Well, perfect may not be the right word but certainly a notable time in your life.
No, it was perfect! I was comin’ out o’ my second divorce and my friend Arthur sent it to me and he was like, “Okay, you need to listen to this song but make sure you’re by yourself ’cause you’re probably gonna lose your shit!” I got through one verse and one chorus and was sobbing and I called him and was like, “Uh, whose song is this and how do I get to record it?” And he’s like, “It’s yours if you want it.” I’ve had that song on hold since April of 2019!
The other song that you didn’t have a hand in writing on the album, “Fool Like Me” from Kendall Marvel and Waylon Payne, that song feels to me like either the flipside or part two to “Married Alone”. What it is that you look for in a song to record and make your own?
You know, I’ve been asked that question. I don’t know. It’s I guess the same answer as “what makes you like a song when you hear it on the radio?” Sometimes you just relate to ’em and sometimes you don’t. I do write songs and so typically that’s what I go for as far as like I know what we’ve come up with to record, but then you hear somethin’ like “Married Alone” or “Fool Like Me” and you’re like, “Oh shit! I wish I’da written that!” It’s usually that sentiment, I guess– I wish I would have written it! And then you have to call the people that wrote it, be like, “Can I record that? Please?” (Laughs)
The majority of these songs, they’ve been simmering or waiting for a while. Revisiting them, I feel like you almost have to revisit who you were when you originally wrote them.
That’s a good way to put it, yeah. Brennen Leigh and I have been friends almost twenty years and we’ve written songs as long– maybe like eighteen years– and we wrote [“Someday You’ll Call My Name”]… I mean, I bet you we wrote that fifteen years ago! Initially, we wrote it about me wanting to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry someday like, “Someday you’ll call my name to be a member.” And then I realized, “Eh…” During COVID, I was goin’ through songs for the record, what to record, and I came across that one. I called [Brennen] and was like, “We need to rewrite this as a relationship song.” She said okay and we did that over ZOOM. As soon as we finished with it, I was like, “Cool! This is goin’ on my record! This is badass!” The record [wasn’t] even out yet, and that song got put into a movie [Vengeance] in July. I was like, “How does that happen and it’s not even out?” But it’s very cool!
Did you play “Someday You’ll Call My Name” at the Opry?
No, I’ve never played it at the Opry. I’ve never even actually played it live. We’re doin’ it on our record release shows starting next week.
“How’d I End Up Lonely Again”– what a song. That one came from a real place. Tell me who you wrote that with. And I believe at least one other person in the equation was dealing with something similar, right?
Yeah. I wrote it with Josh Morningstar and Channing Wilson. We were all just talkin’ about like, “I’m getting divorced twice before the age of forty? How does that happen?” (Laughs) They’re both just such good writers and friends so it’s easy to be vulnerable and talk about crap with them.
You come back around to that from a different perspective with “Still Here”. You’ve called that the saddest, most real song you’ve ever been a part of and it juxtaposes amazingly against the idea you’ve espoused of some folks seeing marriage in this day and age as a disposable institution, that, “Oh, you know, if it doesn’t go this way…”
Then we can end it. Yes, exactly. Honestly, I was not raised to get divorced. That’s not the kind of house I was brought up in. I came from a divorced home, but the morals I had instilled in me were, “Marry the right man, wait for the right one, blah, blah, blah…” Clearly, I didn’t twice but also, I think there’s two sides to that. I think that you should try to stick it out and you should try to fix it and you should try to overcome all your problems, but you also shouldn’t stay in a relationship that you know isn’t healthy.
Things change, people change, but that song, man… I loved that song the minute I left that write. It was with Lori McKenna and she’s ridiculous! I don’t even have words for how great she is! She’s been married a really long time and she’s kinda like a beacon to me. She just has all the things goin’– she has kids and a family– and she’s so great to aspire to be like, you know what I mean? I’m sure she has problems– of course, everyone has things goin’ on in their life– but I look at her and she’s just so sweet writing songs with whoever just about shit fallin’ apart all around ’em! Which is typically my relationships (laughs)!
Do you see that kinda life bein’ somethin’ that you want to embrace?
No. Not anymore. I kinda came and went with all that. I’m very, very happy with my dog as my child and he’s a handful enough. He’s very, very small and he travels well and he doesn’t talk back and he doesn’t eat a lot (laughs) and he doesn’t need me to cook and he doesn’t need me to do laundry! He’s just a great little roommate and a great little boyfriend! Five pounds of fury!
Speaking of Lori McKenna– who you have several cowrites with on this record– you two also wrote “A Song Can’t Fix Everything”, another punch to the heart and gut. Paul Cauthen appears on that track. Also, he’s your co-producer. Tell me how you came to have Paul and Beau Bedford as producers on this record.
I always feel like the artist should be in charge of all things creative, and I was at a company where that was not the MO. It was just like pulling teeth tryin’ to figure out who was gonna produce my record and it was the first person that we could all agree on. Long story short, we agreed on Paul and he did a great job. That song, we were in the studio recording it and we were talkin’ about putting a male harmony on it, and Paul just started singing it. I was like, “Well, obviously, you’re doing it. Why am I hiring someone else when you’re literally doing it right now?” (Laughs) He just left that vocal and that was that! His voice is so haunting! I love him!
I was pleasantly surprised to see in the liner notes Jeff Saenz bein’ a part of the project. I actually followed Jeff’s accident pretty closely when it happened.
He was supposed to be mixing our album six days after his accident. A lot of different things happened that put a pause on this project, but that was like a couple months pause ’cause I was like, “Reality check here! This is just a record. Calm down. This is nothing. Let’s figure out what is happening with this wonderful human being that has had the most tragic accident of anyone I’ve ever known.”
Beau stepped up to mix it. Jeff was still in the hospital and about to come back home, and Beau went back in and recorded two more songs for us and was gonna mix the album, and then on the last day of mixing Beau surprised us and brought Jeff back in! So it ended like it should’ve, you know? It was really great. Beau’s so awesome!
“Want You To Miss Me”, that one’s got a different sound, a much more pop sound, but the notion, that need for our happiness away from another person to be felt by that person– that’s probably about the most human thing on this album. I don’t know why we do that. And it feels like the other perspective from “Easy As Hello” and that dynamic between two people. Why do we do that?
My ex-husband is not a bad guy– we just didn’t need to be together– and that was honestly just like, “You know what? I don’t really want you back, but I do want every single time someone says my name to you for you to just go like, ‘Doh!'” (Laughs) But there’s zero hard feelings, it’s like a joke, honestly! I think that’s like the general consensus– I have so many friends that have gone through relationship problems. The older we get and the more serious relationships get– ech, I hate it!
One o’ my girlfriends, the other day, she even said that. She’s like, “I don’t even really wanna get back with him. I just want him to know what he’s missing!” (Laughs) I was like, “Yeah, that too…” But I’m sure it’s vice versa. I don’t get nervous to see an ex– I don’t care about stuff like that– but one of my girlfriends physically got sick the other day when we ran into her ex. I don’t do that. I just take it as, “Yeah, look at me– it’s all good!” (Laughs)
Now, you did comedy and improv– how does that contribute to your songwriting?
It doesn’t really contribute to my songwriting. It’s more just in the live shows talkin’ to people and talking from stage. I don’t get nervous. I wish I did– that would probably help me (laughs) if I had any nerves whatsoever! But I don’t. I wish I did!
What about in the studio? Is the perfect take literally the perfect take or is it the one that has the most real-time emotion even if it’s not necessarily the cleanest cut?
I think it depends on the song. Some, we’ll go back in and redo a couple o’ lines in a song or somethin’ but mostly, I do think that when you have a good take on a basic track, you know if that’s it or not.
You say country music is “leavin’, lyin’, cheatin’, and drinkin’.” Chris Knight would probably add “murder” to that list, but those things totally inform “Leaving Is My Middle Name”, a song that could’ve possibly ended the record had you so chosen. But a perfect country & western song!
Well, thank you! That is one of the songs that’s sticking out already, that people are really commenting on. I wrote that with two guys that I always write with, Buddy [Owens] and Galen [Griffin]. We had a writing appointment– we always do, certain days o’ the week we’ll just go over there and write– and they happened to have a friend over that day named Scotch [Taylor]. We were all like, “Are we even gonna write or are we just gonna hang out and drink beer?” We just started writing and it happened really quickly! And then I forgot about that song! I literally forgot about it!
My computer crashed and I didn’t have any of the songs on my hard drive. I called Buddy two years later to send me a work tape of another song, and I was like, “Just send me everything you have. My computer crashed anyway– I don’t have any of my songs!” He sent me thirty or forty songs that we’d written and that was one of them! I was like, “Oh shit! I forgot about this one! Let’s put that on the record!” It turned out really cool, I thought.