The country songs played in heavy rotation on commercial radio often have too much in common, according to an aspiring Maine-based country singer who is trying to make a name for herself in Nashville.
Those mainstream songs feature trucks, tractors and good old boys who grew up in the deep south and who like to kick back at the end of the day with a pretty girl in cutoffs and a cold beer. While Sara Trunzo of Unity enjoys some of those songs, too, she believes there are other important stories to tell — and she wants to take her best shot at doing that.
“There are songwriters from everywhere in Nashville, but what bums me out is that some of them write like they’re Southern. The dirt’s not red here,” Trunzo said of the Pine Tree State. “So all those red, dirt-road songs don’t apply. We have frozen pipes and snowmobiles and dairy farms. We have a whole pile of stuff that’s a resource.”
And the 31-year-old songwriter is happy to dig deep into her Maine experiences for songwriting fodder. Trunzo may have spent her first 18 years in suburban New Jersey, but as soon as she came to Maine to attend Unity College, she knew that she belonged right here.
“I just fell in love with Maine,” she said. “The landscape, the people, the northern life. When I got to Unity, I fell in love with it … It felt like a place I could fit.”
Trunzo had dreamed a little of becoming a songwriter in high school but put that aside because she felt it wasn’t realistic. Instead, she immersed herself in the community both at the college and beyond. Trunzo, who majored in environmental writing, worked in the college’s sustainability department. After graduation, she stayed in Unity and got a job with the nonprofit Veggies For All. She eventually became the director of the food bank farm, working long, hard days in an effort to help solve the problem of food insecurity in Waldo County. That’s where she saw firsthand how small problems, such as a broken transmission in a car, or a medical bill, snowballed into crisis for families living on the margin.
“I feel the work I did was perfect training for a songwriter,” she said. “Living on the backstage of Waldo County, not just [experiencing] the summertime coastal beauty.”
Trunzo is proud of the work she and the others at Veggies For All were able to do. Currently, the organization feeds about 1,500 people a month through its vegetable donation program. But those long days eventually took a toll, she said.
“The approach that I took to hunger relief and community work was so aggressive,” she said. “It made me have no reserves of energy.”
Then, in 2015, something happened that caused Trunzo to re-evaluate her life. It was a painful breakup with her partner of a decade — almost the stuff of a country music song by itself — that knocked her off her feet.
“I had this big, big old heartbreak,” she said. “It woke me up to the fact that maybe I was not exactly living the life I wanted to.”
Over the next few months, as she put the pieces back together, she tried to pay attention to what was missing, and what she wanted from her life. At the end of the 2015 growing season, Trunzo took a six week sabbatical from her job directing Veggies For All, packed up her pickup truck and hit the road for a journey through the South. She didn’t have an itinerary, which was unusual for a Type A kind of person.
“As the director of Veggies For All, I had spreadsheets of strategic plans for three years out,” she said. “But I went into that trip very open-minded.”
One of the things she wanted to do was take in a show by singer-songwriter Darrell Scott, whose music she loves and who is based in Nashville. He didn’t have any shows on the calendar during her time frame, but he did have a songwriting workshop. Trunzo hadn’t written a song in five years and hadn’t played her guitar in so long that she lost all the callouses on her fingers. But she took a deep breath and signed up.
“It was not an easy decision. It was very intimidating,” she said.
At the beginning of class, the students gathered in a circle to play a song and introduce themselves. Among classmates that included seasoned songwriters who already had a few albums under their belts, Scott asked Trunzo to go first. She tried to accompany herself on guitar, but messed up the chords and ended up singing her years-old song acapella.
“I was scared and sick to my stomach,” she said, adding that she made a realization in that moment. “Being brave is mostly about being scared and doing it anyway.”
The workshop was well worth the moments of nervousness and nausea. She wrote a song, made some friends, and after her long drive home to Maine, she wrote six more songs in a hurry. Trunzo, home but still restless, wasn’t done with songwriting, and over the next few months worked out a plan to leave Veggies For All in a good place. By January 2017, she had sold her house, said goodbye to her Waldo County friends and aimed her truck south once again. Once again, she didn’t really have a plan, but she did have some hopes.
“I believe in my music,” she said. “I believe in it, and want to make sure it’s available to people.”
Trunzo’s jump resonated among friends and music fans back home in Maine. Meg Bailey Fournier, a co-founder of the Belfast Free Range Music Festival, recently spoke to her about her move and her music on WBFY, Belfast’s new community radio station.
“I just think Sara’s story is so interesting,” Fournier said. “I love people who take risks, and with her songs, there’s a sense of Waldo County in them. There’s a sense of place of Maine that’s absolutely there. The summer months here are beautiful and wonderful, but winter is coming. There’s a flip side to every community.”
Trunzo, whose voice has both twang and heart, describes her music as alternative country or Americana, and cites among her musical influences roots singers such as Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Stimpson. One of her songs, “Wishbone,” tells the story of a woman who is the victim of harassment by a man. The narrator, a tough woman, grapples with both the harassment and the fact that she is scared — which she doesn’t want to be. That song is one of five on her just-released EP, “ Thanks Birdie,” and it has started to get some positive attention. American singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier gave it a shout-out on her Facebook page in July, and Trunzo said that when she plays it live it’s not uncommon for women to come up to her afterward and share their own stories of harassment and stalking.
“It’s been cool to play it in Maine and have real Mainer women I admire enormously to say that song is real. That song is the truth,” Trunzo said.
She hopes to be busy playing it and her other tunes well into the future, with shows scheduled in Maine through September, including a gig at the Common Ground Fair in Unity. After that, she’ll head back to Nashville to keep on trying to make it in the music business. Trunzo, who said she is not expecting to have her songs played on beer commercials anytime soon, does have some big aspirations. She’d like to keep on writing songs that are real and substantial and have them picked up by a mainstream artist.
“I’m very open-minded about what comes next,” she said. “The dream for me is to crack that nut.”