Eighteen years and two divorces later, 45-year-old Houston-native Sunny Sweeney is fed up and free enough to begin the business of being an unencumbered country music superstar.
"Married Alone," her fifth studio album, finds her in a raw and slightly ashamed emotional state about ending up in a situation where she's chosen wrong in making one of life's most essential decisions. Songs like the album's title track duet with Vince Gill do well at removing what the performer felt was a potential "stigma" associated with her relationship to perceived failure in her existence.
After hearing a verse and chorus of the song "Married Alone," co-written by Hannah Blaylock, Autumn McEntire and Josh Morningstar, Sweeney says she fell dramatically to her knees as if she had been "hit between the eyes" by the line "there may be rings on our fingers, but we're married alone."
The song crystallizes an intrinsic piece of her life's journey. Along with songs co-written by Lori McKenna ("A Song Can't Fix Everything," "All I Don't Need," "Easy as Hello," and "Still Here") and Caitlyn Smith ("Want You to Miss Me"), plus Kendell Marvel and Waylon Payne's "Fool Like Me," Sweeney's album -- from a writing standpoint -- is a substantial body of work.
Notably, her collaboration with Gill ("He's a genius," she says) involves his vocal as a secondary harmony. Gill's talent as a session accompanist borne of five decades of excellence in the craft is highlighted. His ability to use the tenor of his voice to ground the passion of Sweeney's pained vocal truly bases the song not so much on powerful heartbreak but on a more profound, resolved angst.
Sweeney, a self-professed "hopeless romantic," holds no rosy, fairy tale visions of her life and career anymore. She is a perpetually touring artist who will likely be in a plane, train, automobile, or on a stage for 300 days a year for the rest of her life. At this point, she readily admits to feeling more engaged to the excitement attached to her full-time work as a country music artist than she could likely ever be betrothed to another human being.
That perspective profoundly impacts this release and how it affects both the creator and the listener.
Two decades into a career that has seen Sweeney achieve, endure and survive at all levels of country music's independent and mainstream industries and expectations, she feels hyper-aware of the standards and expectations set for her success moving forward.
Instead of being dependent on what she describes as the triumvirate of "talent, timing, and luck," she set forth on this record to create music that stands without a need for a platform provided by happenstance or industry machinations.
Thus calling Dallas-based Paul Cauthen to aid her in that process feels appropriate.
Cauthen is the artist behind "Cocaine Country Dancing" and other songs. With him behind the boards (aided by Beau Bedford and engineer Jeffrey Saenz), it becomes a defiantly raw and "wildly creative" project. Together, their work and the freedom to dive more authentically into her spirit than ever has made Sweeney resolve to never produce a record again with someone who is not a fellow artist at the helm.
"We didn't create a record to make money," Sweeney says. "We made magical art, instead."
To that end, "A Song Can't Fix Everything," co-written with McKenna, opens with a stunner of a line: "That song can't bring my mother back to life." The song chronicles how lyrics, melodies and rhythms can transport us to the past but can never fix it.
"It's about just trying to find those three minutes of happiness you get relating to something and taking yourself out of your everyday life," says Sweeney. "Letting yourself slip away, it can feel like it's going to be OK, even if, ultimately, it may not be."
Five albums in and having released her most honest-to-self and coherent work to date, she relates a story of what her work has already done for people. Sweeney was out on tour and met a fan who frequently emailed her who was a victim of spousal abuse.
"She was wearing these cool, tinted sunglasses – but I knew why – and when I asked her if there was anything I could do for her, she told me no, and added that I 'needed to keep doing what I was doing,' because she had decided to leave her (partner) 'for obvious reasons,' pointing at her eye."
The singer-songwriter notes that she's never written about abuse because she has no first-hand experience with it. However, the fact that her music can inspire people to make "healthy and healing" choices in their lives – even when dealing with harrowing situations – inspires her to keep doing a job that she loves.
Sweeney – now 20 years in and as much a thriver as a survivor – offers a powerfully positive note about her goals moving forward.
"I love music," she says. "It's the thing that I was meant to make and contribute to the planet. So I have no desire to do anything else. It's not that I want to prove people wrong. It's that I know that what I'm doing is right."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Sunny Sweeney talks about her fifth studio album, 'Married Alone'