Once Sara Evans found her sound, everything fell into place.
The RCA Records artist's 2000 album Born to Fly was a dazzling listening experience, full of unexpected textures, inventive percussion and acoustic instrumentation. Its blend of rootsy rhythms and production polish placed her heart-in-throat vocals and vivid lyrics in audio settings that were a leap ahead of what everybody else on Music Row was creating. Now approaching Double Platinum status, that record made her a star.
She follows it this year with Restless, a collection of songs that takes Sara Evans up yet another notch. Again co-producing with Paul Worley, she has co-written some of the finest songs of her career and paired them with challenging and innovative works by other writers.
"I look at this record now that it's done and see that I have put all kinds of wonderful 'messages' in here," Evans reflects. "With Born to Fly, I grew a lot. Going into the studio again, I just kind of felt like I was on top of the world. And I think that had a lot to do with my confidence to try these new sounds. I wanted to co-produce... it's my record. I've got to be there because if I'm not then it's my own fault if I don't like it. I guess I may be somewhat a control freak when it comes to my music but now that I have one platinum record I want five of them."
"Backseat of a Greyhound Bus," the album's lead-off single, is a celebration of life from the point of view of an unwed mom who finds true love holding her new baby girl. "To Be Happy" is a wish for universal good will. "Rocking Horse," featuring harmony vocals by Vince Gill, teaches us to see something magical even when things seem the most frightening. "Suds in the Bucket" is a down-home country romp that twangs a humorous tale of impulsive teenage love.
Delightful audio touches are sprinkled throughout the selections. "Restless" is embellished with tin whistle and Irish drums. "Big Cry" has a jazzy melody and "old school" r&b horns and backup vocals. The uptempo "Feel It Comin' On" features prominent mandolin chops. An organ is in the mix on "Perfect," while bongo drums and uniquely "processed" backing vocals buoy her performance on "Otis Redding."
Some soaring ballads remind us of her distinctive power as a vocalist. "Need to Be Next to You" and "I Give In" swoon with romantic yearning. The echoey, lustrous "Tonight" is another album highlight, and "Niagara Falls" just might be the strongest melodic performance of her career to date.
That career goes back further than most country fans realize. Raised on a farm in Missouri, Sara Evans was singing every weekend in her family's band at age 5. She was already a recording veteran at age 11. Believing that singing was to be her life's work, she arrived in Nashville in the summer of 1991. She met musician Craig Schelske, with whom she migrated to Oregon a year later. They formed both a professional and personal partnership there, marrying in 1993. After three years of performing together, they returned to Music City in the fall of 1995.
Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Harlan Howard and his wife Melanie were quick to see the seasoned performer's potential. After Sara Evans recorded a new version of Harlan's classic "I've Got a Tiger By the Tail," he urged RCA to listen. Sadly, Harlan Howard died March 3, 2002, just as she was becoming the big star he'd always believed she would be.
"That tugged at my heart," she says softly. "He was really the reason I got my record deal. He really did call RCA and say, 'You've got to meet with this girl.' I really don't know that I would be here if it weren't for him and Melanie."
Even so, she had a steep hill to climb before the awards and parties came her way. The distinctive Sara Evans sound was awhile in coming.
"All I'd ever done my whole life was sing hardcore country and bluegrass. I knew that I wanted to be a singer, and that was my life's destiny. But I really didn't have a handle on who I was. When I did 'Tiger By the Tail,' everybody in the studio just freaked out about how 'country' I was. So I just went with that, thinking, 'Obviously, this is my niche.'"
When she released Three Chords and the Truth as her debut CD in 1997, it wound up on many critics' "best of" lists for the year. But radio stations didn't embrace her back-to-basics country sound. She solved that problem with 1998's Gold-selling No Place That Far. Its title tune became her first No. 1 record. Then came Born to Fly.
"I thought, 'This is my make-it-or-break-it record. I have GOT to recruit somebody to help me home in on who I am as an artist. Because I know I can write songs; I know I can sing; I know I can perform.' That's when I called Paul Worley. And he totally understood."
"And then, thank God, we got a call from Marcus Hummon. He said, 'I'd really like to write with Sara because "Three Chords and the Truth" is one of my favorite songs, and I really think we could write well together.' I'd never met him. He and Darrell Scott drove out to my house, and we just started talking about my life and where I was from. Marcus started playing this little tune. And that's how 'Born to Fly' came to be.
"Once 'Born to Fly' was written, I had such inspiration. I wrote 'I Keep Looking' after that. And that's when I realize that something great was unfolding."
"Born to Fly" shot to No. 1 as 2000 drew to a close. The album's ballad "I Could Not Ask for More" followed it to the top in the spring of 2001. Then "Saints and Angels" emerged as the collection's third hit. In 2002, the album yielded "I Keep Looking" as her fourth consecutive smash.
Sara Evans was the most nominated artist at the 2001 Country Music Association Awards, and took home her first such trophy when "Born to Fly" won Video of the Year. She toured with superstars Alan Jackson, George Strait and Kenny Chesney. In addition, she participated in the landmark "Girls Night Out" tour of 2001 with Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Carolyn Dawn Johnson and Jamie O'Neal.
"That was the most fun time of my life. Every night we would come out and do this big encore with Reba. And when we were off stage, all we did was gossip and talk about clothes. It was a blast. It was during that tour that they presented me with the Platinum Record Award for Born to Fly. It was just so unbelievable to me that I cried."
The period between Born to Fly and Restless has seen dramatic changes in her life. She had just had son Avery (born 8/21/99) when she made the former album and was pregnant with daughter Olivia (born 1/22/03) when she recorded the latter. In the meantime, Sara's husband of ten years, Craig Schelske, commenced a political career in Oregon.
"Craig and I are both perfectionists and both idealists. We have high expectations of each other. I want to be successful, but I also love being a mom. I believe I was born to sing AND have a family. I really have the best of both worlds."
--- from the official Sara Evans website