With ‘Words,’ Sara Evans Finds the Album of Her Lifetime
Sara Evans is a country mainstay, but she has "mixed feelings" about the way the genre operates. Taste of Country met with her in June to talk about her album Words (due July 21 via Born to Fly), contemporary country music's gender divide, and why she doesn’t particularly care for organized religion.
Sara Evans has a new album out this week, but don't you dare say she's "back." She never left.
Evans is in the middle of a full day of press and running slightly behind when she meets us at a converted cinema in Nashville. Her inner circle is near entirely female except for her road manager and her longtime manager, Craig Dunn, and it’s clear everyone looks to Evans for the final word. She's less a boss than a ringleader of a fiercely loyal clique, dispensing equal parts creative direction and personal asides as the team navigates a quick succession of wardrobe changes. In our conversation, she drops unexpectedly candid observations about aging, women in country music and how she sees herself in the new realities of the business. Later that night, she continues that thread at Change the Conversation, an advocacy group for women in country music.
Evans made her debut in 1997 and spent nearly two decades as one of the mainstay country acts at Sony Music Nashville, notching five No. 1 singles including "No Place That Far," "Born to Fly," "Suds in the Bucket" and "A Real Fine Place to Start," and placing four more in the Top 10. She emerged at a time when female artists including Shania Twain, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, Lorrie Morgan, Lee Ann Womack, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless ran the country music charts. A part of that contingent, Evans last reached No. 1 in 2011 with "A Little Bit Stronger."
Then the gravy train stalled. Her seventh album for Sony, 2014's Slow Me Down, sold just a fraction of her others, its lead single topping out at No. 17 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart and its followup, "Put My Heart Down," missing the Top 40 altogether. (Evans attributes this to a shift away from female artists on country radio.) She and Sony parted ways in February of 2016, and in August she announced a new deal with Sugar Hill. No recordings ever emerged from that partnership, and in April of 2017 she revealed plans to release her eighth studio album via her new indie label, Born to Fly Records, named for her signature hit.
Musically, Words forges a path different than what she is known for and what you hear over the airwaves today. (The 46-year-old singer admits she's so frustrated with country radio that she's given up listening to it, and she can't identify any of the younger artists who’ve emerged in the past few years.) The album draws from a vast array of diverse and surprising influences, from groovy reggae and driving bluegrass to acoustic pop in the vein of Hot 100 hitmaker Ed Sheeran. It is also a family affair, featuring turns and contributions from her husband (former University of Alabama football star Jay Barker), their blended family of seven kids, and Evans' sisters and brother.
Faithful to her oeuvre, Words is a showcase of Evans’ signature heavy vibrato and expansive vocal range. Just don't tell her she sounds just as good as ever.
"Serena Williams is a better tennis player than she was," Evans tells us. "I'm a better artist than I used to be."
Your last album, Slow Me Down, didn't sell anywhere near as well as any of the other records you made at Sony. Was that why you left, and was it your decision or theirs?
It was very mutual. Country radio had gotten to a place where they're just not playing females, so it was really no one's fault. The label wasn't mad at me, I wasn't mad at them. It was just so disappointing, like, I can't believe it's come to this. And why won't they play females? Someone told me earlier there are only four females in the Top 40 right now. I want different songs and different artists as I listen to the radio. There's just hardly any variety.
What prompted you to start your own label?
I've always thought about someday producing other artists or developing other artists. I love being in the studio so much, and I love to write songs, so it just seemed like we might as well do it now. Now is the perfect time.
Had it been in your mind for a while that one day you might have your own label?
No, not really. I got signed to RCA when I was so young and made seven albums with them, plus a greatest hits album. I always kinda felt like that was totally the norm, and the only thing I had known in terms of being a signed artist. So it's just in the past year or so that we started talking about having my own label.
When you do the photo shoot for the album and you're on a label, I would get a call from management saying, "This is the picture the label wants for the cover." And it might not even be anything that I liked or the direction that I think we should go. There were times when I hadn't even seen the photo shoot yet and the label wants this photo. And I like to be very hands-on in the studio and with my imaging.
After you parted with Sony, you announced a deal with Sugar Hill. What happened to that?
I signed with them and there were certain people in place as a part of their team, and then they left. Then it wasn't the same deal for me, because I had an expectation of certain people being there, like Tracy Gershon. She was my A&R for this album, and I wanted to keep working with her. It really solidified our decision that this is what we needed to do.
Does it keep you up at night to contemplate the changes in the business itself? There are a lot of those variables that you can't control even if you make all of the right decisions.
That's been keeping me up at night for years. [Laughs]. Just because as an artist, your career sort of depends on whether or not radio will play your music, and you think, 'What if just one day it all went away? No one plays my music, I'm not getting any shows ... what will I do?' I think about that all the time.
Do you listen to everything that's sent to you, or how do you winnow out what you are going to personally listen to and make decisions about?
Tracy was very good at weeding them out. And then my manager, Craig Dunn, also has been with me for so many years and he knows me so well, and then I just think that anyone who's working in this industry knows a crappy song, and they know that I would be annoyed if they sent me a crappy song — like a really, really bad song.
Also the publishers. I feel like this time around especially they sent me their best, and there were a lot of songs available because everything that most of the male artists are taking are kind of limited subjects, so there was a lot out there to choose from. Really, really great songs ... and maybe some song that an incredible writer wrote five years ago before they realized they had to start writing a specific type of song, that never got cut that I was lucky enough to come across.
Did you have a picture in your head of what you wanted to accomplish musically, or did you let the songs that you found dictate that?
Both. You have an idea of what you think it's gonna be, and then sometimes you're surprised at a couple of the songs that you ended up putting on there, you had no idea that that was gonna be there. Like "Long Way Down." Tracy sent us that, the SteelDrivers sang it, and it was a really manly song and really bluegrass-y. But I knew that I could take that and put that in that category, that one category that I always have on each album that has a really country, bluegrass-y, mountain-y way of singing.
So I love when that happens. I never imagined "Long Way Down" would be on there. The other thing that I'm so proud of is the music on it. I feel like my music is always a lot more badass and masculine than a lot of girls'. It's just like, whoa! So I decided to make that the first song on the record, so that people would go, "Oh my god, she's back."
You've cut songs from a lot of female writers on this album, but you didn't know who had written each song as you were listening.
I really don't like to know who wrote them because I don't want to have any kind of a bias in any way. Just don't tell me anything about it. Just send me the song and let me experience it with no information. Then we realized when were done that it had 14 female writers, myself included, and that was really cool.
You're doing some work with Change the Conversation. Is it important to you to be seen as a symbol of women moving forward in country music?
It's important for me to be respected and to be thought of as authentic and true to myself. So even if country music won't play my music, I'm not gonna go and record a party song or a truck song just to try to get spins. I have to be authentic to myself.
How does the conversation need to change and what do you see as your role in that?
That's such a tough question, because my entire career and life for the past 20-plus years has been dictated by country radio, so I have a lot of mixed feelings about that. There may be even a little bit of bitterness at times, because I don't understand why I'm not considered to be someone that, 'Oh yeah, of course we're going to play the new Sara Evans record.' Because I've busted my ass, I've done everything that I've been asked to do.
It's just a simple sentence: Play more females and broaden the genre. I don't know why it has to be so narrow. So it's a very touchy subject with me. And also you don't want to be too critical. That makes it worse. So there's really nothing to do, other than get my music out on all other outlets, every other way that people can find my music.
Are you going to work radio for this record as aggressively as you have in the past?
[Softly, shaking head.] Mm-mm. No. I mean, I can't. I can't do that anymore. I can't be that mom that is willing to go and do 40 free radio shows and be gone that much and kill myself, because the worst is when you do that and it still doesn't work. It's awesome when you have a No. 1 record, or a two- or three-week No. 1 record. But it's just not the same anymore. It's very hard. People always talk about, 'Sara Evans is back with a new record!' Well, I never went anywhere! I've still been working, I've been touring. I've been doing my career. It's just that people haven't heard me on country radio, because they're not playing my music right now.
Your daughter sings on "Marquee Sign." Was that nerve-wracking for you, putting the mic in front of her and hoping for the best?
Not at all, because I live with her and I hear her sing all the time. I know she's fabulous. Olivia's better than me in some ways. I really would have had Livy sing on it more if we had had more time. I got really sick for four weeks, [and then] Olivia and I came up to Nashville, and I realized that I forgot to put those "oohs" on the end of "Marquee Sign." But I wasn't feeling great and I was tired, and I was like, "Livy, go up there and put those 'oohs' on." And she was like, "But Mama ...," and I go, "Just go do it!" Like, "Get your laundry done!" or "Do the dishes!" It was one of those, "Just go! Hurry! I want to get home!" I wasn't nervous at all for her. I just knew she could do it.
Your sisters and brother are on the record, and of course your brother is your band leader and bass player. How do you keep a professional disagreement from turning personal and bringing it to Thanksgiving?
We were raised to have respect for each other. We really weren't allowed to fight, and I really don't allow my kids to fight, either. Matt is older than me, and I think that's what works, because I respect him as my older brother but then I'm his boss, and he respects me immensely anyway in music. He has never taken his job for granted. He works really, really hard.
We have done things to help us not to fight. For one thing, Matt and I have never ridden on the bus together. I think we would fight if we were together all of the time on the road and then rode on the bus. And there are times when I will go through other people to get Matt to do something that I think might be a rub, and I think maybe we're gonna disagree. We've definitely figured out how to work together, but I can honestly say that we've never had anything major. [Pauses]. He just does what I say, like he should do!
There's a song called "Letting You Go" that was written for your son. What inspired that?
Victoria Banks and Emily Shackelton came down to my house. We had no idea what we were gonna write about. We started talking about our kids, and I was telling them that I can't believe Avery is going to be a senior, that he's 17 and I don't know where the time went. It's just devastating. We just decided to write about that, and what it's like to be in this phase of life when your oldest child is getting ready to go off to college. And we sobbed. We literally sobbed, and we were dying laughing at ourselves at the same time. I kept going, "I'm so sorry." I don't know why, but I couldn't stop crying.
I had the idea, I was like, "What about this? Let's put, 'You were also born to fly away.' And we were in tears, like, 'Oh my gosh, that is so painful.' Because it's his turn now.
Would you encourage your kids to get into the business?
Absolutely. I'm anticipating it fully. My son is considering going to Berklee or USC or somewhere with an awesome music program, and then Olivia definitely wants to pursue music. I'm not sure that either of them would go the country route, because I think they both tend to lean more pop. I would definitely support them in any way.
Does it give you pause at all to see how the revenue is plummeting for everyone, to think, 'What if they get in the business and it's way harder?'
I'm not afraid of things being hard for my kids. There's a planned course for their lives already, so if it's meant to be, it'll be. As far as their love for music and wanting to pursue it as their passion, it's kind of the only thing they're interested in. I think it's fine if it's tough and they have to work really hard and make things happen for themselves.
What are your hopes and fears for them as they move into the next stage of life?
I hope the same thing that every parent hopes for their kids. My kids were all raised on the road from the time they were born, as soon as I was recovered from having a baby we would hit the road, and they would be out there with me. They've been everywhere, they've been raised around the music industry. They're just really cool kids, and my whole style of parenting has always been to make them really self-aware and teach them how to be funny and cool and have humor and be kind to other people.
I've never been a yelling mom or a real nagging mother. I expect my kids to work really hard. I hate laziness. I think that's a huge sin and mistake and terrible way to go through life, is being lazy and entitled and expecting things given to you.
The fears I have for them ... it's kind of a crazy world right now, and if they're going out and having certain types of college experiences or whatever where they really get confused, and they're being indoctrinated in ways that I didn't raise them. I just want them to be really hard-working, good people.
You've talked about your faith over the years. How does that provide a bedrock for your family?
To me it's just really common sense. We are a Christian family, but we don't go to church very much at all because we're always traveling on the weekends. And I don't really love organized religion, but I love the Lord. I love the Bible and what the Bible teaches, what God teaches us through his word. But I don't love organized religion because I think so often the point is missed. The real point is to try to live by the Ten Commandments as much as we can, and just think that through. I feel like we've lost a lot of that common sense in life today ... Old-fashioned values.
But I definitely don't believe that going to church makes you a Christian, or not going to church makes you not a Christian.
Words is extremely diverse. What do you see as the unifying theme?
I think every song is kinda sad. It seems like there's a little bit of a sad theme running through it. I didn't really mean for that to happen, but with "All the Love You Left Me," "Make Room at the Bottom" and "Words" ...
I think the main thing is that these songs go deep lyrically. I think the musicians brought their A game, and they gave me an album that is, I keep calling it the album of my lifetime. I think it's one of my best of all of them. It's like there was a vibe in the studio that these musicians were like, 'Oh, thank God.' This has been such a great record to make, and they really enjoyed it.
What do you want listeners to take away from Words?
Just that I've gotten better as a singer and as a songwriter and as an artist. You know, I hate this notion that people say, 'You still sound great.' I'm like ... [silently raises her middle finger with a huge smile]. Because I'm better than I was. I'm on the road all the time. I'm constantly learning more about myself as a vocalist and an entertainer and a writer and a producer. So I take great offense when people say, 'You still sound great,' or 'You still look great.' The takeaway is that I'm in the prime of my creativity, vocally and all of that. I didn't go anywhere. This is just my next record.
What do you see as your legacy, and what do you hope other people will see as your legacy?
I want to be classy. I've always tried to be classy and have grace and poise and cool style. I want my music to always be thought of as top-notch, high-quality music. I feel like I've had a really high-quality career. I'm a perfectionist.
For my legacy, I love the fact that my kids may go into the music and entertainment industry. It makes me really proud for people to say, "That's Sara Evans' daughter." I feel like that's the most important thing you can do in this whole world, to raise great children and put great human beings out into the world. I think my legacy will really be in my kids.
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