True to her Texas honky-tonk roots, Sunny Sweeney has never been a singer of what you’d call “soft” country songs — the kind you might turn to for easy comfort and or quiet Sunday afternoons with the family. Hell, you can tell just by the titles of her first two albums — Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame and Concrete — that she reaches straight for the hard stuff. So when this woman sees fit to name her third album Provoked, you better believe she’s not about to start playing coy now. No, this is where the real hurtin’ starts, and Sweeney’s showing no mercy … least of all to herself.
“I’ve been through a lot in the last few years, good and bad, and this record is me for the first time actually coming to grips with the mistakes that I’ve made,” says Sweeney. “And I have made a lot of mistakes. I was hell-bent that this album was going to tell that story.”
The recurring themes in that story should be familiar to anyone well versed in the classic country cannon: temptation, cheating, adultery, divorce, broken hearts, and — sometimes — carrying on despite all of the above. On Provoked—produced by Luke Wooten—Sweeney’s singing it all from first-hand experience, and she’s not always singing from the perspective of an innocent victim, either. But as her song “Second Guessing” makes clear early on in the album’s storyline, she’s done making excuses, both for the damage done and for holding herself back from embracing a second chance at love and happiness. The end result may surprise listeners as much as it did Sweeney herself.
“I went from being in such a dark place, feeling like nothing positive could ever happen again, to being in an incredibly positive place,” marvels Sweeney, who has not only moved on but also re-married. “I was so happy that I even wrote a love song, ‘Used Cars,’ which I’d never actually done before.”
The uncompromising and seemingly fearless creative spirit that drives Provoked has been a constant throughout Sunny Sweeney’s musical life. The Houston-born, Longview-raised Texas native may not have always known she wanted to sing and write country music for a living, but she grew up listening to it with her parents, and, throughout her college years, she began mixing her serious Merle Haggard addiction with a keen awareness of the booming regional Texas music scene. She graduated with a degree in public relations and spent the first few years of early adulthood trying to find her place in the “regular” working world, only to one day chuck caution to the wind, pick up her first guitar and decide — literally as over-night as one can commit to such life-changing personal dares — to try her hand at performing and songwriting. From that fateful moment, it was just a quick hop, skip and 10 years of busting her ass before she found herself in the Top 10 on the national country music charts and nominated for Best New Female Vocalist at the 2013 Academy of Country Music Awards.
“I started doing this whole ‘music thing’ for tips — and free beer and burgers,” explains a sincerely bewildered Sweeney, alluding to the years she spent playing any joint in Texas — from dive to dancehall — that would book her. That it wasn’t too long before she was landing multiple gigs a week and building a dedicated following speaks volumes about both her determination and her refusal to play into stereotypes. “It was hard being a girl in the male-driven Texas scene, but when I found a little crack to slip into, I wanted to make sure I didn’t let any of the fans I was gaining or myself down. I wasn’t singing the kind of bullshit songs that I think a lot of people sometimes expect from a girl. I was singing about real things: marriage, divorce, dying, and most importantly, living. My biggest compliment is when someone says, ‘Man, I hate chick singers, but I love me some Sunny Sweeney.’”
There was plenty of that real stuff to love on her debut disc, Hearbreaker’s Hall of Fame, which she initially released on her own in 2006. Within a year it was picked up for national distribution, after fortuitously (albeit mysteriously) finding its way onto the desk of Big Machine Records President Scott Borchetta. “I didn’t go looking for a record deal,” Sweeney insists. “It literally just fell into my lap. After that it was a very big adjustment at first, but I learned a lot, and I learned fast.”
The album produced a trio of regional hits — “If I Could,” “Ten Years Pass” and “East Texas Pines” — and allowed her to begin touring outside of Texas, throughout the United States and in Europe. She also made her debut performance on the legendary Grand Ole Opry — the hallowed stage she’s since played more than 40 times. Meanwhile, she was already beginning work on her second album, which country music fans across the country got their first taste of in the fall of 2010 with the single “From a Table Away.” The song — co-written by Sweeney herself — proved a long-distance runner, lasting 36 weeks on the Billboard country chart and climbing all the way to No. 10 the following spring (making it, at the time, the highest-charting Billboard debut single from a female country artist in four years). That success set the stage for the summer 2011 release (on Republic Nashville) of Sweeney’s acclaimed Concrete, which went on to spawn the subsequent hits “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving” and “Drink Myself Single.”
For 18 whirlwind months of hit singles, award nominations, Opry appearances, glitzy music videos, countless glossy magazine write-ups and even arena tours supporting some of the biggest names in the industry, Sweeney was “living the dream” — at least to outside appearances. For better or worse, though, that dream didn’t really change her reality. “I was living my dream, but it didn’t change me,” she explains. “The whole time I was pretty much broke and going through the end of a marriage.”
Caught in the middle between playing the part of the fortune-charmed, fast-rising country star and facing the cold, hard facts of her personal life, Sweeney might have crumpled under the pressure completely or meekly surrendered to the keep-on-smiling-and-fake-your-way-through-it path of pretend happiness to fame. Instead, she chose a third option: pushed to her breaking point, she dug in and made the most emotionally honest record of her career to date.
“All of the emotions I’ve been through over the last two or three years are on this album, and it’s exactly the record I wanted to make,” Sweeney says of the aptly titled Provoked, which marks her first release for Thirty Tigers. “The truth is, I’m a human being, and I’ve gone through a bunch of shit in my life that I’m not always proud of, but writing songs is the best way I know to work through that stuff, try to get past it and hopefully move to a better place. And what you hear on this record is me trying to figure it all out.”
The album embodies the same mix of toughness and vulnerability that appealed to so many fans of Sweeney’s first two albums, but with an added level of tested-by-fire resilience that deepens the music’s emotional resonance. The songs range from the heart-on-sleeve honesty of “My Bed,” “Uninvited” and “Sunday Dress” to the raucous barroom rave-ups of “You Don’t Know Your Husband” and “Everybody Else Can,” and follow Sweeney’s turbulent and unabashedly personal roller coaster ride from reckless abandon (“Bad Girl Phase”; co-written by Brandy Clark) to yearning (“Find Me”) to candid self-reflection (“Second Guessing”) to the bittersweet defeat (“Carolina on the Line”) to, finally, the healing embrace of happiness (“Used Cars”).
From the get-go, the Thirty Tigers’ trust-the-artist approach meshed perfectly with Sweeney’s independent Texas spirit: during the curation of the album, the label was instrumental in acting as a conduit aiding Sweeney with the overall arc of the record. She wrote or co-wrote 11 of the album’s 13 songs, hand-picked the two she didn’t write (including Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go”), and road-tested many of them before ever laying down a track in the studio — both to test her own resolve and commitment to singing songs so close to the bone, and to affirm her conviction that her audiences would respond to such honesty, just as they had in her earliest days of performing.
“My fans recognize that this is something different, and they recognize that I’m writing about the truth,” she says. “They’ve been through a lot with me, and they’ve seen me in both good places and bad, and the feedback I’m getting from them now is that they feel like this is the real me again.
“I think I’m back to just being me, and not trying to second-guess what people will like or what people expect from me,” she continues. “The album is a journey from nearly hitting bottom and losing everything personally to regaining my footing and being able to find not only my true self again, but real happiness. Because the fact is, all the mistakes I’ve made have not only made me who I am today, but they also led me to my (new) husband, who is my best friend and soul mate and who inspires me every single day. How I lived without him in the first place is still beyond me.”
But lived she did, and lived to sing the story, scars and all. The proof is all right there on Provoked.