The best part about Sunny Sweeney is she makes finding the positive in bad situations a fine art.
She proved she’s a master at her craft live on Wednesday (March 8) at Nashville’s release show for her fourth album, Trophy. The Texas native entertained for 90 minutes, delivering songs about things that just need to be said (“You Don’t Know Your Husband”), things that are better left unsaid (“Backhanded Compliment”) and songs she jokes that make her father real proud (“Bad Girl Phase”).
“If you get offended easily, you need to loosen up,” she warned.
Between selections, the band drank from commemorative golden trophies her husband bought specifically for the occasion. Will Hoge, Kree Harrison, Natalie Stovall, Shannon LaBrie and hit-maker Heather Morgan were among the artists spotted in the audience hanging on Sweeney’s every word. Diehard fans held their phones up high to record “Whiskey Richard,” which she says is definitely not about her husband, Jeff Hellmer.
“It’s about my friend Tara’s husband,” she said onstage. “She has nothing to do with the music business. She does something fancy with computers. She called me and said, ’I have a song idea for you.’ I ran as fast as I could to write this song.”
Then she lit into the waltz about a man who has trouble making love when he’s under the influence of alcohol. She sang, “Whiskey Richard, all things considered/You gave it all that you had/Whiskey Richard at least you’re a good kisser/I wish I had a bone to pick/I got the short-end of the stick.”
Trophy’s title track is a wry takedown of her husband’s ex-wife.
“He’s great,” Sweeney said onstage about her other half, “except he comes with 5-foot-2-worth of baggage. And I heard that the baggage was calling me his ’trophy’ wife. So I wrote a song about it. And everybody’s like, ’Are you going to let her hear it?’ I’m like, ’I’m going to hand-deliver it to her.'”
Produced with Dave Brainard, Trophy offers some of Sweeney’s most revealing music to date. The 10-song collection kicks off with the sounds of a pedal steel on “Pass the Pain,” a tear-in-my-beer weeper she wrote eight years ago about that one afternoon she spent drowning the pain of her first divorce in alcohol. She confronts a potential addict in “Pills” and taps into themes of love and belonging in “Grow Old With Me” and “Nothing Wrong With Texas.” In “Bottle by My Bed,” she shares her sadness and frustration of not having a child.
“Evidently there’s a lot of people that have gone through the things that I’ve gone through in the attempting to make a baby department,” Sweeney said over the phone during our CMT.com interview. “And nobody wants to talk about it. But you should see these emails that people have sent me since ’Bottle by My Bed’ came out. These people are standing in solidarity with me. I’ve been personal before, but this is another level of opening up myself. Maybe it’s going to help somebody.”
CMT.com: My favorite part about the music is the way you expose pain as an opportunity to grow.
Sweeney: You have to learn from everything. I guess you don’t have to. But I chose to. I mean, I’ve gone through some deep things in my life that I never I’d go through when I was 15 years old. I thought you grow up, you get married, you have kids, you have the perfect relationship with your husband, he loves your family, your friends, and you have a really cute house on a hill and you have a dog. Those are the things that I thought would happen.
That is not the way it turned out for me. I got divorced and I thought, “Oh, my God, I failed.” But because I met my first husband, we went to a bar that I would have never gone to in my life, which is where I ended up meeting my second husband who is everything. I hate saying everything happens for a reason, but it does. And then you just have to find out why in your mind that things happen and then learn from it.
Is there another underlying significance behind the title?
I love one word titles. I find them a lot easier to remember. “Trophy” is kind of the song that bridges what I feel people know me for in my past music — the snarky, smart ass-y kind of stuff. And that song, content-wise, bridges where I have been to hopefully where I’m going.
But so many men relate to that song, and I did not think that would be the case. I thought it would be something only women would relate to. But a lot of men have said, “You have written my life.”
Was “Pass the Pain” the hardest song to write?
Not really. Basically when I was going through the beginning stages of a divorce, I found myself at Loser’s in Nashville one day drinking by myself. And I thought, “This is embarrassing. What are you doing?” Like I had that talk with myself.
The reason I wanted to start the record with it is because of the steel intro. There’s not really a lot of steel in country right now. It’s just so country, and I just love it so much. I thought this may be the one chance to start a record with steel and maybe somebody has been longing for that. Maybe not. They might hate steel guitar. But I don’t know how you could hate steel guitar because it’s the most beautiful instrument on the entire planet.
Have you seen your audience grow because of a fan demand for this kind of music?
I have, and because I’m so open with my fans, I feel like a lot of times my fans are open with me. Whether they agree or disagree with what I’m saying, they are very passionate. And I encourage that because I’m like that. I want people to tell me how they feel. I want my husband to tell me how he feels and I want my friends to tell me how they feel because when you don’t, that’s when you get in weird situations.
All of my songwriting heroes have said, “Write what you know.” And so I write what I know, and all I know how to do is sing country music. I can’t sing other types of music. I never really tried, but I don’t know that I would like it as much. I’m sure a lot of it is personal, but that’s what I know. I’m not proud to have gone through a divorce, but I do know what it’s like to go through it. And there’s shit situations in life that you have to turn into a positive. I’m proud of the things I say, and I wouldn’t say them if I wasn’t.