Sunny Sweeney, a genre-bending, songwriting spitfire who has spent equal time in the rich musical traditions of Texas and Tennessee, returns with Married Alone, the celebrated singer-songwriter’s fifth studio album and the follow-up to 2017’s critically acclaimed Trophy. Co-produced by beloved Texas musician and larger-than-life personality Paul Cauthen and the Texas Gentlemen’s multi-hyphenate Beau Bedford, Married Alone is Sweeney’s finest work yet, bringing together confessional songwriting, image-rich narratives and no shortage of sonic surprises for a loosely conceptual album about loss and healing.
Married Alone began as most of Sweeney’s projects do: with a visit to her deep vault of unreleased songs. Since debuting with Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame in 2006, Sweeney has been a prolific writer, writing whatever is on her heart rather than with a particular project in mind. That habit afforded her a rich well of material for Married Alone, some of which is over a decade old.
“I have a lot of older songs that still make the cut of like, ‘Am I gonna put this on a record?’ And I always start with those songs, songs that have been important to me for whatever reason. And then I try to build around that. It doesn't necessarily have to be around a theme, but sometimes it turns out to be that there is one.”
Opener “Tie Me Up” declares that, despite its loose theme, Married Alone is not a somber record, with Sweeney in full spitfire mode and cheekily declaring to a would-be suitor, “You can tie me up, but baby you can’t tie me down.” Cauthen’s and Bedford’s production especially shines on the track, which would sound at home at a roadside juke joint or in front of thousands of fans at a festival.
Cauthen joins Sweeney on “A Song Can’t Fix Everything,” one of the album’s rawer moments. “That song can’t bring my mother back to life,” Sweeney sings at the song’s start, before recounting the many ways that music may be able to transport us to the past but can never fix it. “Want You to Miss Me” is an honest take on the complexities of a difficult breakup, with Sweeney’s nimble vocal wavering between defiance and doubt. “Easy as Hello” is Sweeney’s writing at its finest, channeling the heartache that comes with the end of a treasured relationship, for a track that recalls — vocally and lyrically — the work of Stevie Nicks.
“Someday You’ll Call My Name” reads as a break-up kiss-off — and it’s a great one, at that — but the song, pulled from Sweeney’s vault, was originally inspired by her early days as a musician, longing to be recognized by major country institutions like the Grand Ole Opry. She and co-writer Brennen Leigh reworked their 10-year-old version of the track to better fit Married Alone, and that session helped set the tone for what would become the full album.
The full potential of the album really revealed itself, though, when a friend sent Sweeney a demo of what would become its title track, “Married Alone.” Though she wasn’t a co-writer on the track, Sweeney felt her own story reflected in its lyrics. The song, which features a particularly emotional guest vocal from living country legend Vince Gill, charts the painful moments sometimes experienced in marriages that have run their course.
“There may be rings on our fingers, but we’re married alone,” she and Gill sing, over weeping pedal steel and reverbed guitar.
“My jaw hit the floor when I heard that song, because I had just gone through my second divorce, which is also cliche of a country singer,” Sweeney says, with a laugh. “I was still pretty raw about my divorce, but also very candid and trying to find levity in the situation. You have to be able to laugh at yourself at some point and not let it just totally get you down.”
A few months after securing the song and mining her own vault for a track list, Sweeney traveled to Dallas, TX, to record — alongside Cauthen and Bedford — what would become Married Alone.
Sweeney and team planned for Jeff Saenz to mix the album, but in the summer of 2021 — a few days before mixing would start — the widely loved, Dallas-based producer was electrocuted in a freak accident that left him without use of his arms. The group put the album on hold until they had word Saenz would pull through. While Sweeney was anxious to get her new music out, Saenz’s accident shifted her priorities.
“Jeff lost his arms,” she says. “His arms. Jeff’s never going to hold his fiancée’s hand again, never going to hold his baby again. I had a major, major turning point with his accident, personally, as did most of our friends that know him.”
About eight months later, Bedford had a surprise for Sweeney. When she arrived at the studio for one of their final mixing sessions, Bedford had brought Saenz along. Saenz was able to help the group finish up the album, a full-circle moment that was especially emotional for Sweeney.
“It was exactly how it should have been,” she says. “And it was really, really emotional. Jeff definitely is a part of this album; I really wanted him to be a part of the album. And Beau knew that. So, Beau went and he made that happen.”
In addition to releasing Married Alone, Sweeney is marking a new chapter in her professional life with a brand-new team by her side, most of whom are women. While it wasn’t a conscious choice, Sweeney says, she feels like she’s surrounded by the right group of people, who just happen to be “badass women.”
Like the narrator of “Someday You’ll Call My Name,” Sweeney is not the kind of artist you come across then forget. With Married Alone, she further cements her status as one of country music’s finest storytellers.