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Sunny Sweeney enters "Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame"

By Dawn Pomento, November 2006

Sunny Sweeney sounds like a throwback to pre-music video country music of the 1970s on her debut CD, "Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame." She has a twangy voice that could never be mistaken for a pop singer. Her voice has an honest and raw quality that shines through the polished studio treatment.

On a cell phone call while in Nashville to write songs for her next CD, even though "Heartbreaker's" just dropped, Sweeney comes across as unpretentious and immediately likeable.

The two words that pop up most in her stories and explanations are "dude" and "fun." Her enthusiasm is evident in every unguarded tale she tells.

Sweeney is a relative newcomer to the music business, and she landed in it by default. Sweeney claims she couldn't hold a steady job for a few years, starting with college.

She says, "I mean I tried to have a regular job, eight to five, but I wasn't very successful at it. I had 14 W-2s one year."

Sweeney, originally from Longview Texas, also tried her hand at comedy improv in Austin and then in New York City. She even performed standup comedy, which she says was easier than improv because she could rehearse before going on stage.

But she ended up back in Texas, once again trying to find the right job.

"I was talking to my friend Richard on instant message one night, and it was like two in the morning, and I said, 'I think I'm gonna start a band.'"

Her friend encouraged her to just do it. She says, "Then seriously two weeks later, I had a gig and had to put a band together. That was kind of odd and awkward, and now looking backward, I'm surprised people came and even said it was great."

That first show was Sept. 24, 2004. By her own account, Sweeney played 200 shows her first year. She says playing so much helped her figure out what she wanted to do.

Living in a music-centric city like Austin also made it possible to develop as an artist quickly.

Sweeney explains that was "because there are so many wonderful musicians that live there and always kind of had an eye out for me and put me under their wing all the time and saw that I was busting my ass trying to get everything done. They were like 'You're doing this wrong, but this is how you fix it.' I got a lot of corners shaved off of for me by some really fantastic people because I live there."

Sweeney's family also had an influence on her new career. "I learned to play guitar maybe three years ago. My step dad tried to teach me when I was little, and I didn't really have any interest in it. And he overheard me talking one day saying that I wanted a guitar. Then he bought it for me at Christmas. I basically picked it up pretty fast. I'm not good at it, but I can get by. I just started to doing it."

In the beginning, Sweeney said she and her band played a lot of covers by Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, two of her heroes.

Sweeney says of Lynn, "I think that vocally she has the best country voice out of any human being that ever lived. It's so true. There's nothing that she can't do. She kind of paved the way for every female in one way or another. She carved out a way and said it's all right."

"You can be a girl and rebel against the system in your own way. One time I heard her on an interview, and she said, 'I got famous cause I didn't think I couldn't.' That's why she sticks out in my head as being such a role model for me. And her writing, all of her songs are so true. They're about the things that she's lived. You just can't fake that."

Sweeney has modest goals for her own songs and claims only one similarity between her songs and those of her idol, Lynn.

"The things I write, I just go with the things I've lived. I hope that aspect of it comes across, that I'm singing about stuff that I know about, and I'm not trying to pretend to be different than I am. I'm just writing about stuff that happens, which is what she does, which I think is her best quality."

Sweeney wrote two of the songs on the CD, including the title track about a womanizing ex and co-wrote another.

On her own songs, Sweeney's voice reveals more nuances and subtleties than on the covers. She says some people question her decision to feature so many covers on her first CD, but while she's proud of her own songs, she's unapologetic about the covers.

"I have enough songs to make probably 10 CDs, but I don't want to put filler songs just because I wrote them. I'd rather have the best songs that I can possibly pick. My husband said one time that good cover songs are better than bad originals. Why would I want to put a bad song on there just because it's mine?"

Sweeney sings songs penned by the likes of Iris Dement, Thom Schuyler, Keith Sykes and Audrey Auld Mezera.

Another songwriter Sweeney covers is Jim Lauderdale. She also scored a duet with Lauderdale on "Lavender Blue," which brings out a different side of her voice. The duet is another example of Sweeney's good fortune.

Sweeney explains how Tom Lewis, the drummer and a producer on the CD along with Tommy Detamore and Sweeney, arranged for Lauderdale to be part of the duet.

"We were sitting in the studio. I said 'Who are we going to get to sing this duet?' Tom said, 'Hold on. Let me make a call,' and he said, 'Jim's gonna do it.'" Sweeney said, "Jim who?"

And then couldn't believe her good luck at the answer.

Modern technology facilitated the arrangement. Sweeney explains, "They e-mailed it to Jim. He recorded it up in Nashville up in Jay Weaver's studio and then sent it back. It sounded like we were in the same room. I got to sing with him right after that when I came up to Nashville, so that was the first time I got to meet him."

"Now he's like one of my favorite people. He is hysterical. He's probably the funniest person I've ever met - and I've met some really really funny people in my life. He's always on. You never know if he's kidding. He keeps such a straight face, and he says some of the funniest things you've ever heard come out of somebody's mouth."

Sweeney categorizes the Lauderdale connection as "one of those lucky moments when you actually get to meet somebody that you've been a huge fan of, and they turn out to be cool." Another example was unexpectedly meeting Dwight Yoakam while opening for him at a festival in Norway. There's a picture on her web site to prove it.

Sweeney knows she's been lucky; it's part of her unpretentious charm. "I have plenty of people in my life that live in Austin that do the exact same thing who do the same thing I do who say 'It's so hard.'"

"I guess for me, I've tried every other job, and this is actually the most fun I've had at a job."

"It's a hard, hard job. I'm not gonna lie. But it's so much fun. I love it. I love every minute of it. I wake up, and I'm like 'God, I get to do this for a living?!"