Safe at Home After Nashville Return, Sara Evans Still Plays to Win With 'Copy That'
Country music's Sara Evans knows the music business remains a perilous journey after navigating some rough roads to success, but she's speaking frankly while enjoying a wild, unpredictable ride with her first solo studio album in three years.
Born to Fly Records
15 May 2020
One of country music's top female performers over the past 25 years, Sara Evans is singing a totally different tune these days. At least in terms of what her strong and loyal fan base have listened to since she churned out number one country singles like "No Place That Far"," "A Real Fine Place to Start", and "Born to Fly" during a prolific recording career that began with her debut album Three Chords and the Truth in 1997.
Evans is itching to get back on the road to promote her ninth studio solo album called Copy That, a popping fresh collection of 13 cover songs that showcase her powerful pipes and broad musical tastes established while she was a child singer from New Franklin, Missouri, playing four-hour shows in her family band.
Ahead of the May 15 release of Copy That, with stay-at-home orders starting to lift during the coronavirus pandemic, Evans was happy to settle for a little fun in the sun with her loved ones on a 10-day stay along the Florida Gulf Coast beaches capped by a Mother's Day celebration. It's a blended family that includes her three children from a previous marriage and second husband Jay Barker's four kids — including Andrew, Braxton, and 18-year-old boy/girl twins Harrison and Sarah Ashlee — gifted Evans on Sunday. There were flowers, several coffee mugs, and "some really sweet notes" including one "written on a paper towel, so that was really cute", she was saying on the phone while gassing up for a Monday afternoon drive back to her Nashville home.
Nothing comes easy during these treacherous times, but an unfazed Evans kept her cool while dealing with chatty teens, highway "pitfalls", erratic cellphone reception, and frustrating disconnections. Along with discussing her adventurous album that includes startling treats ranging from upbeat cult classics to sweet slices of emotion, she reveals whether blondes have more fun, the "best [live] performance of my life", a love-hate relationship with country radio and contempt for a Nashville industry that went from developing an "amazing" genre to making music that "just makes me gag".
Copy That, Evans' first solo studio album since 2017's Words (The Barker Family Band EP in 2019 features her son Avery, 20, on guitar and oldest daughter Olivia, 17, on vocals), is a passion project that she's wanted to do for a long time.
After Evans and Barker started splitting time between Nashville and Birmingham, Alabama, last August, she became obsessed with Ruston Kelly's album Dying Star. She soon reached out to that album's producer Jarrad Kritzstein (aka Jarrad K) to discuss a possible project. "We absolutely clicked. We had all the same opinions and ideas about music," said Evans, who decided a covers album could come together quicker than a new record of bluegrass originals that's still on her wish list.
One of her first cover choices was "6th Avenue Heartache" from the Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse. Evans remembers loving the rhythms of the 1996 release so much that she went through Born to Fly co-producer Paul Worley to recruit Matt Chamberlain, the Wallflowers' session drummer, for a series of studio albums, beginning with her double-platinum, career-making record in 2000.
Songs recorded by Patsy Cline ("She's Got You") and written and performed by Hank Williams ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") were Copy That naturals for Evans, who started crooning country from the age of four with the Evans Family Band that worked on their tobacco farm during the week and played bars and clubs over the weekend. Their repertoire changed over the years, thanks to the lead singer. "We would just always like be a cool cover band and not just do, you know, [Lynyrd Skynyrd's] 'Gimme Three Steps' or 'Sweet Home Alabama'," Evans shares with a laugh.
The oldest girl of seven children in the family, Evans joined two of her brothers in the band while mother Patricia began serving as "kind of our manager". "My mom would just tell me like, 'Learn this Crystal Gayle song' or 'Learn this Tammy Wynette song.' And she would buy the records and just play them over and over and over until we had them learned," Evans recalls. "But we would be practicing constantly. And as I got a little bit older, I branched out and started really getting into different artists like Heart ("These Dreams" was a set-list standard) or Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles. I loved REO Speedwagon. Everybody in New Franklin, Missouri, loved REO Speedwagon and the Charlie Daniels Band."
Belinda Carlisle's "Circle in the Sand" was another pick during a diverse set that often went from 9:00 pm to 1:00 am, but most of those early favorites were left off Copy That. To avoid getting "burned out" on previous covers she has recorded or performed live, Evans limited that choice to one very familiar song — Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry". "Because we've had it as [part of] our encore for like two years now, the fans have been begging me to record that," Evans explains. "Like, 'Please, when are you gonna put that on an album?' So if I did a covers album and I didn't put that on, they would have been so mad."
Family members on group texts also got to weigh in on selections for the album, which includes contributions from son Avery (guitar on 11 songs) and daughters Olivia and Audrey, 15, on background vocals. As co-producers, Evans and Jarrad K explored SiriusXM channels like '70s on 7 and '80s on 8.
The Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why" and current material like "Hard Place" by H.E.R. were also considered, then ultimately rejected. But "Take on Me" by a-ha was a throwback Evans heard "after the fact" that she really liked, even if the Norwegian trio made numerous "one-hit wonder" lists. "I wanted to do songs that would surprise people … that would sound authentic to me but that would also be like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe she chose this,'" Evans offers, mentioning kitschy yet crowd-pleasing rockers by the Knack ("My Sharona") and Dexys Midnight Runners ("Come on Eileen)".
"Those are songs that are way out of leftfield, and everybody has been super-surprised, but happily surprised."
With "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", Evans credits her manager
Craig Dunn for suggesting to bring in Old Crow Medicine Show after he saw frontman Ketch Secor on Ken Burns' Country Music documentary miniseries.
"It's just one of those songs that's like if you don't do something special with it, it really could just be kind of boring because it's just a three-chord standard country song," Evans says. "I didn't really know that much about them except for 'Wagon Wheel'. So it was the absolute perfect choice because they made it sound so authentic and so old-fashioned. It was my idea to have them start the song with their vocals and have it be sort of like a barbershop-quartet sound. So I'm super happy with that."
Photo: Courtesy of the artist
She's Got the Look
To go with songs as far back as seven decades, Evans wanted to change her appearance for the album cover. After rewatchingMad Men, the popular TV series that nostalgically peeked into the lives of New York ad executives and their families in the 1960s, Evans found her role model — blonde Betty Draper, Don Draper's forlorn wife played by January Jones. "Oh my God, I just love her look," Evans swoons. "That's just like the epitome of the '60s look and, you know, musically with this album and these songs, I really just wanted to show everybody what I can do.
"Just like bragging rights to be able to say like, 'You know, you really have no idea what I can sing. And what all I can do besides what you've heard of me on the radio.' And the same with the photo shoot. I just wanted to express like, 'There's so many different sides to me and so much about me that you don't know.' "
Asked if she kept the look, a playful Evans responds, "Well, I kept the wig." That led to the question: Do blondes have more fun? "Well, yeah, that one did the day of the photo shoot. I named her Patricia because that's my mother's name. I'm like, 'This is so what my Mom would've been if she hadn't gotten married right out of high school. Instead of having babies and becoming a farmer, this was the other side of my Mom," Evans says, laughing.
Push Comes to Shove
Since seeing her on a Crook & Chase television appearance on the Nashville Network, I've found Evans to be a confident, easygoing and spirited entertainer. Always fun to watch, she competed valiantly on Dancing With the Stars, displayed her versatility with Maroon 5 and REO Speedwagon on CMT Crossroads and captivated a rain-drenched Denver crowd on the Fourth of July in 2009 with a flirtatious cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me".
That she followed capably in the footsteps of country-pop forerunners Shania Twain and Faith Hill should be no surprise, but Evans did admit there was a moment of trepidation before she burst on the scene in the mid-'90s. "Oh my gosh. It was really scary because there was so much competition, and I knew there were only so many slots on the charts," Evans remembers. "But I also knew that … I was already a seasoned pro performer. And I just thought I could out-sing and out-perform anybody who was already a signed artist in Nashville. But I did come in when there were so many females that were being played, like Trisha [Yearwood], Martina [McBride], Faith, Shania, Lee Ann Womack, the Judds, Patty Loveless, Reba [McEntire]. Like it was jam-packed with females. So I definitely had to shove my way in there."
Evans' career got a major boost when she signed a seven-album deal with RCA Nashville in 1996 after her demo of Buck Owens' "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" made an impression on Harlan Howard, the tune's legendary songwriter.
Then her love/hate relationship with country radio began.
Sara Evans with her son Avery (left) and daughter Olivia (right), who both perform on her new album Copy That. (Photo: David McClister / Courtesy of Monarch Publicity)
"They definitely made me a star, but they always made me work for it. Like painstakingly so," states Evans, who went to Los Angeles to record Three Chords and the Truth with Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam's producer at the time. "So I was shocked how easy it was to get a record deal, and I was signed to the biggest record deal that had ever been given to any artist in years. And I was shocked at hard it was to get played on the radio after you get the record deal. So that was always the big, like, thorn in my side — I would have a humongous hit at country radio, and then they wouldn't play the next one. And every time … they just never gave me that automatic add that they do to people like Kenny Chesney or George Strait. … I always, always had to go see them and have dinner and sing for them and do free shows and … just, you know. But once they did add the record and the fans heard it, then it would just take off like wildfire."
A study detailing gender representation on country format radio that was written by Jada E. Watson and published in April 2019 stated that Evans ranked fifth among the genre's top female artists based on total record spins between 2000-18, behind only No. 1 Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, and McBride.
That was the good news. The bad news was that top male Chesney almost doubled the total spins by Underwood, who trailed the 10th-place male, Dierks Bentley, by more than 168,000 plays. The male-female artist ratio of total spins over that period was 5.5-to-1, according to the study.
Early 2020 reports in Billboard ("Is the Tide Finally Turning For Women at Country Radio?") and Variety ("Country Radio Has Three Solo Women in Top 10 for First Time in Seven Years") seemingly painted a more optimistic picture for female artists before the pandemic struck, but Evans scoffs at the notion that it was changing for the better.
"Oh God, no. It's so much worse than it's ever been. They don't play women at all," exclaims Evans, who believes that youngsters like her kids avoid radio play entirely while turning to YouTube, Instagram, and other social media sites. "… And now the music itself is so narrow with the bro-country sound that it just makes me gag. Country music used to be amazing. During the time I broke in, I think was one of the most amazing times of all.
"The 2000s were incredible. You had so much great music, and you had a broad range. You could have like Joe Diffie, who was very country, and then the Dixie Chicks, who were like more rootsy, bluegrassy, and then me, who was somewhere in the middle, and then like Faith Hill or Shania, who was really pop. But the music was incredible. Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban. But now it's just like so narrow. There's just way too much consulting and testing. Like just let people choose what they like."
Still Spreading Her Wings
Despite women struggling to get their voices heard on country radio around the turn of the century, Evans continued to flourish in the studio with hit records like No Place That Far, Born to Fly, Restless and Real Fine Place from 1998-2005.
Her career eventually took a hit with the highly publicized divorce proceedings involving first husband Craig Schelske. The drama began with Evans' premature departure from Dancing with the Stars in October 2006, and the nasty he said/she said battle of the exes was settled almost a year later. Evans bounced back with her 2008 marriage to Barker, raising their own family of seven children in the Birmingham suburbs until last year, and she released her sixth studio album, appropriately titled Stronger, in 2011.
Flash-forwarding to the present while heading north on Interstate 65 to Nashville, where she first arrived in 1991 at the age of 20, Evans was preparing for a return to quarantine with Barker, her two daughters, and their two "super-ornery, super-untrained, and really cute" pet doggies, a Maltipoo and Goldendoodle. The coast isn't exactly clear, with Evans fretting over canceled shows and her band and crew out of work, but she has other reasons this week to celebrate besides Mother's Day and Copy That.
Now that 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of Born to Fly, bolstered by the chart-topping title cut and multiple Country Music Association award nominations, Evans is getting a chance all year to look back on a real fine place to start a career.
"I thank God every day for 'Born to Fly' and the fact that I was able to write that song with Marcus Hummon and Darrell Scott," Evans says. "Everything about that record, I think, was blessed by God. And it's still one of, I think, the best-sounding records, and it holds up today. And that's always been my goal with all of my music is to have it just be timeless."
She's also ready to take the plunge into one fascinating life with the publication of her memoir, also titled Born to Fly. Set to come out 8 September, Evans will share stories about keeping the faith despite some near-death experiences, the divorce, and her parents' split (her dad Jack now lives in Dallas). "It's not a full-blown autobiography because I just felt like I was too young for that," the 49-year-old Evans contends. "But I did want to tell sort of where I am right now. The book has been four years in the making. It was a lot harder [to write] than I thought it was going to be. But there are some amazing stories in there that people are just going to be shocked at, some things that have happened to me.
"There are parts that will make you cry and that are very serious, but then overall it's a light read. And, hopefully, inspiring."
As with her latest record, rest assured that Evans will continue to cover a lot of ground.
ENCORE: SARA EVANS HAS A BLAST WITH HER MUSICAL PAST
The first record you bought with your own money?
Sara Evans: (laughs) I'm going to guess that it was like the Judds because that was kind of around the age I would have been, you know, kind of having my own money with a job and stuff. So I'm going to say it was the Judds' "Mama He's Crazy" [released in 1984, when Evans was 13].
The first concert you attended without your parents?
Evans: That's gotta be Hank Williams Jr., like in 1989. Amazing. He always came to the Missouri State Fair [in Sedalia] when he was in his heyday. I think we would skip the first day of school to go to his concert like everybody did. And we stood in line forever because it was like open seating. And then they would open the doors and everyone would run.
The first cover song you wanted to record?
Evans: "Every Little Kiss" by Bruce Hornsby [on Born to Fly]. I love Bruce Hornsby. God, his music is so amazing. "Mandolin Rain", just incredible. So not only did I get to record that, but Bruce came in and played piano on it. So that was a dream. I just love his music and always loved "Every Little Kiss". It reminded me of my senior year in high school. That song was so popular, you know. And you'd just like relate certain songs back to really fun times in your life.
The cover song you never get tired of singing?
Evans: That's a good question. It's probably [Chicago's] "Hard to Say I'm Sorry". I look forward to it every night [on tour]. That's part of our encore.
What three singer-songwriters from the past or present would you want at your best-guest dinner party?
Evans: John Mayer [whose "All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye" she covers], James Taylor; wow, I've gotta make this next one good. Gosh, that's such a hard question. Probably Don Henley. Three of the best ever.
What songs do your children listen to when they're not listening to you?
Evans: (laughs) They never listen to me. They love my music, but they're so used to it. They all grew up on the [tour] bus. They stopped watching my shows like years ago. (laughs) My kids love John Mayer, they love the Eagles, the Avett Brothers, Ruston Kelly, the Brummies, Jay-Z, Ariana Grande, oh, Harry Styles, and [to her daughter] what did you say, baby? Yeah, they like H.E.R. She's amazing. Maroon 5, too many to name.
Finally, who leads your wish list of dream collaborators?
Evans: I would say probably any of the three that I named for my prestigious dinner. Or Dwight Yoakam. I would love to do a duet with Dwight. I've done a lot of duets, like on shows. Like the best duet performance I've ever given, possibly the best performance of my life, was with Marc Anthony when we did "Endless Love" for the Lionel Richie tribute [ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends in Concert, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2012]. I would say that's the best performance of my life, live performance. It's just amazing. We just, we killed it. You must YouTube it right when we hang up. (laughs)