Sara Evans is a study in contrasts: a smooth-skinned looker hailed by People magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful people, yet one who still embraces the values of her small town Missouri upbringing. The Academy of Country Music’s reining Top Female Vocalist and a Platinum-selling recording artist who is a deeply spiritual woman with an occasionally bawdy sense of humor.
Accompanying her personal dichotomies, Evans’ recording career has traveled a wide course: She was hailed as a country traditionalist when she made her recording debut in 1997 but freely explored pop and rock influences in her ensuing albums. She clearly knew what she was doing: Her Born To Fly CD earned an Album of the Year nomination from the Country Music Association, and her Restless project garnered a similar nod from the Academy of Country Music.
With Real Fine Place, she assimilates the components of her multi-faceted personality and musical influences in a package that still manages an impressive consistency. She turned to several pop and rock figures—picking up a song from Sheryl Crow and nabbing the drummer and bass player who appeared on John Mayer’s pop albums—but tackles some of the countriest sounds of her career with the quirky “Coalmine” and the sassy “Cheatin’.” Thematically, she recognizes the attraction of the spotlight in “Roll Me Back” and “These Four Walls” while celebrating the detail of ordinary existence in “Missing Missouri” and “New Hometown.” And she explores independence in the brassy “Momma’s Night Out” while embracing intimacy in the communicative “Tell Me” and the sexual “Secrets That We Keep.”
It’s a complex account of 21st century womanhood held together by the ultra-feminine—and ultra-confident—voice of Sara Evans.
“This album really takes me back to my roots,” Evans beams. “When I listen to it, it makes me happier than anything I’ve done in a long time.”
Coming from many performers that might sound like the latest round of self-promotion. But Evans is a unique combination of dogged perfectionism and surprising frankness—she wouldn’t say it if she didn’t truly mean it.
Real Fine Place ’s initial impact only underscores her heightened self-assessment. The album’s first single, the infectious title track, has risen faster than any other hit in her career, skyrocketing to the tops of the country singles charts, and several of the songs began receiving standing ovations in concert from audiences that were only hearing them for the first time.
Evans actually had plenty of time to test the songs out on her fans while she worked on the album, since she spent a solid seven months on the project. “I have to take my time on a record,” she observes. “It’s just like doing a painting, you know, an artist just can’t go in to paint and be done with the process in two hours.”
Spurred by the success of the last album’s “Suds In The Bucket,” Evans was inspired to dig just a little more into her traditional roots on Real Fine Place, pursuing small-town themes and blue-collar sonics.
Yet it still sounds refreshingly modern, and it most certainly uses a modern creative approach. Where country historically employed males to makes the decisions for “girl singers,” Evans took full command of her album, co-producing the project with Mark Bright and co-writing six of its 13 tracks. Even when her tour schedule kept her on the road, she was heavily involved in all of the nuances that helped shape its ultimate sound, from the choice of musicians to the depth of the harmonies to the addition of complicated background vocals on the opening “Coalmine.”
“I’m really, really, really opinionated when it comes to my music,” she insists. “Nobody’s going to do anything on one of my songs or one of my albums that I do not want.”
Not that Evans is a tyrant. She laughingly admits that she gave in on recording “Cheatin’” only after those around her insisted—quite rightly, as it turns out—that it had all the hallmarks of a great Sara Evans song. And she notes that Bright’s decision to bring in guitarist Tom Bukovac significantly changed the color of the album.
“Mark made some fantastic calls that would not have been made if Tom hadn’t been there,” she says.
In addition, she relied heavily on the advice of her brother, Matt Evans, who plays bass in her road band and knows as well as anyone how to challenge her.
“The biggest thing that he contributed to this record was helping me stretch myself vocally,” she says. “He’s a great singer, and he’ll challenge me, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ There’s a song on the CD called ‘New Hometown,’ which he and I wrote, and there are all these different ways that I sing each chorus. That was because Matt told me, ‘Do this. Now do that.’ I’d say, ‘I can’t do that!’ But he would fire back, ‘Yes, you can, you big sissy.’ So he just pushed me.”
Real Fine Place, in fact, became a huge family affair. Matt added background vocals on four songs, sisters Lesley Evans Lyons and Ashley Evans Simpson appeared on five, father Jack Evans added harmonies to “You’ll Always Be My Baby,” and mother Patricia, contributed to the supporting chorus on “In These Four Walls.”
The heavy involvement of her relatives is appropriate for Evans, for whom family is not just a cultural buzzword, but a way of life. She was born the third of seven children and grew up in a Missouri farming community, where she sang in a family band by the age of five. In 1991, she moved to Nashville, returning to stay in 1995, and finding a champion in songwriting legend Harlan Howard, who guided Evans toward receptive ears at RCA.
Her first album, Three Chords And The Truth, produced by Dwight Yoakam’s then-guitarist Pete Anderson, earned her critical acclaim and even the praises of Country Music Hall of Famer George Jones. But its retro-leaning sound didn’t quite catch the ears of mainstream country radio.
It did catch the ears of her contemporaries, though. As a result, her sophomore album, No Place That Far, featured guest appearances by Vince Gill, Martina McBride, George Jones, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and former O’Kanes member Jamie O’Hara. The title track also brought her first legitimate hit.
Her third album, Born To Fly, took some creative risks, but paid off handsomely, garnering four hit singles, her first double-platinum album and a bevy of awards nominations. It also demonstrated a bit of independent savvy. She insisted on hiring Seattle-based rock drummer Matt Chamberlain (The Wallflowers, Edie Brickell), who brought a slightly different sound to her music.
“I was always fascinated by drums—I’m still fascinated by drums and drummers,” she observes. “I think it’s the most amazing instrument, because I am all about feel and rhythm.”
Again, she knew what she was doing: Chamberlain has since been enlisted for major country albums by Keith Urban, Faith Hill and Carolyn Dawn Johnson.
Born To Fly was nominated for CMA Album of the Year in 2001, and her follow-up, Restless, received an ACM nomination in the spring of 2005, while Evans was working on Real Fine Place, which brought yet another non-Nashville musician to the core of her studio band. When Glenn Worf, the A-list bass player on the session, picked up a road gig with Mark Knopfler, she placed a call to David LaBruyere, who’d worked with Chamberlain on John Mayer’s most recent album. The result is a CD that stretches country’s conventions a bit, allowing Evans to further establish her own unique sound.
“It is so amazing when you bring in a pop drummer or a pop bass player, to hear what they will do on a country record,” she enthuses. “It’s phenomenal. They do not play the typical country stuff. They think differently. I mean, 4/4 time is 4/4 time. A waltz is a waltz. So you don’t have to be a Nashville drummer to be able to play country music, but it’s just so interesting to me to hear the spin they put on it.”
Evans certainly supplied them a variety of emotional textures in which to work. Real Fine Place contains dark story songs peopled with white-trash characters, highly sexualized love songs and affirmations of bedrock rural families.
“I felt like I wrote better this time than I’ve ever written before,” she observes.
As Evans tours behind Real Fine Place, she lives out those contrasts that are so much a part of Sara Evans’ existence: the homebody who chews up mileage on a tour bus, the devoted mom who’s also a glamorous award-winner.
“I separate things so easily in my mind,” she laughs. “I can literally, literally change a diaper or discipline Avery and then walk on stage. I’m such a multi-tasker you would not even believe. If I just had a few more arms, there’s no telling what I could do. I think that’s the trademark of a true woman.”