A broken neck, autoimmune diseases and years of doctor’s appointments threatened Sunny Leigh Shipley’s dreams.
By Abby Hopkins
When Austin-based musician Sunny Leigh Shipley learned the diseases crippling her immune system couldn’t be stopped, she believed her dreams would be.
For about five years, doctor’s visits and antibiotics that never quite seemed to change anything epitomized Shipley’s life. But since last year, substantial healing brought life back to her bones and allowed her to release her first album and get pregnant, two things she deemed nearly impossible for years.
Before the sickness, life was good. Shipley graduated from Belmont University and landed a publishing deal immediately, where she wrote songs for three years. Plus, a reunion with a teenage boyfriend, former University of Texas football player Jordan Shipley, turned into a serious relationship and led to engagement.
However, as the wedding approached, the couple got into a car accident that broke Sunny Leigh Shipley’s neck. During the rehab process, her neck began to heal but her body started to deteriorate. She tested positive for Lyme disease, Epstein-Barr Virus and endometriosis. Doctors also told her she showed early symptoms of multiple autoimmune diseases, which would develop into full-blown diseases.
“My body just kind of shut down and I was honestly bedridden for about a year off and on,” Sunny Leigh Shipley says. “We had to move back to Texas so I could recover, and I honestly thought I was never going to be able to do [music] again because I didn’t have energy.”
About two and a half years ago, people advised Sunny Leigh Shipley to go to a holistic clinic. Although she questioned the idea at first, she was willing to try anything to heal, and it worked.
“Within the last year I started going, ‘Oh my gosh, the lights are coming back on again,’” she says. “I feel like a person again and started testing for the different things I tested positive for, and they weren’t there anymore. It’s pretty amazing, really.”
With renewed strength, Sunny Leigh Shipley started finally pursuing her lifelong passion for music. Growing up in Rotan, Texas, a small town with a population of around 1,500 people, Her entertainment came from the radio and her father’s records. Although growing up she sang in church and at school events, Sunny Leigh Shipley was not set on pursuing music right out of high school.
“I thought I really needed to do something ‘professional,’” she says. “So, I started at Texas Tech University and I did some pre-law courses. I just was miserable and figured out what was missing was I wasn’t in music anymore.”
With her parents’ support, Sunny Leigh Shipley went to South Plains College for its bluegrass and country music two-year program in Levelland, Texas. She discovered her passion for songwriting and moved to Nashville, Tennessee to study music business at Belmont University with hopes of landing an opportunity with a publishing company.
After landing the deal, the first song she released was “Don’t Let Me Sink,” a song she wrote with her husband for the Holden Uganda Foundation, now the John 4:14 Foundation, an organization that provides clean drinking water to African communities by building water wells.
After releasing that song, Sunny Leigh Shipley and her producer talked about recording a full album with songs she had in her back pocket. The process took years due to her illnesses, but she says this allowed them to take their time artistically and get her sound to match what she wanted.
Her country, Americana sound stems from her upbringing in a farming and ranching community, which influenced each song in the album. Out of the Sky was released June 21 of this year and left Sunny Leigh Shipley feeling like she was baring her soul, she says.
“It was bittersweet, honestly just because of everything I had dealt with and gone through over the years, and a lot of songs are super personal to me,” she says.
Sunny Leigh Shipley celebrated with an album release party at the 04 Center a few weeks later. Friends, family and fans surrounded and interacted with her as she shared the stories behind each song.
Looking forward, Shipley hopes to start performing again and says she is most excited to just live after reflecting on the struggles she faced after the car accident.
“I didn’t feel like I was [living] for so long,” Sunny Leigh Shipley says. “[I’m excited for] doing what I love, having a baby in April and carrying it along with us as we go. Letting it see that you can have a career and do what you love, and also fulfill the dream of having a family if you want one.”
As she begins living again, Sunny Leigh Shipley aspires for success, no matter what she faces.
“I think success is just being happy with what I’m doing,” she says. “Having joy no matter the circumstances, and I think as long as you work hard and do what you love, you’ll have those things.”