November 7, 2010
Sara Evans was one of the most successful female artists from the earlier part of the last decade, which was not a particularly good era for women as a whole. Her ease with both pop-flavored and purely traditional country allowed her to adapt to quickly changing trends in the genre.
This makes her catalog a fascinating one to sample. In compiling this Starter Kit, it would be easy to just list the hits. But I’ve left off some of her more overexposed tracks in favor of some gems that either didn’t quite dominate the charts or weren’t sent to radio at all. I think her crossover numbers haven’t aged that well, anyway.
Be sure to let me know what I missed in the comment threads!
The title track got all of the love, and the most airplay of the three low-charting singles from Evans’ debut album. But I think that this is the coolest little record, with Evans sounding like the female heir to Buck Owens as she can’t even feign sympathy for the ex who is now regretting his departure.
Vince Gill provided the harmony vocal on this soaring ballad of devotion. After a slow and steady ascension, it became the first of four number one singles for Evans, powering her sophomore set to gold status. The record still holds up today, perhaps because it was one of the last great nineties records that allowed a new artist to break through on the back of a solid song.
One of those wonderful could’ve been hits, had the label only released it as a single. This is one of the finest moments in Evans’ early years. It’s a multi-layered exploration of the finality of goodbyes. She’s fully aware that ending the relationship meant that the quiet nights together were gone, but she can’t get her head around the fact that she may never even see him again for the rest of her life.
Evans reached her sales peak with her third album, powered to double platinum status by both the hit title track and her cover of the pop song “I Could Not Ask For More.” But the finest single from that set was “I Keep Looking,” which is a smart and funny take on what it’s like to always want what you don’t have. “Just as soon as I get what I want, I get unsatisfied. Good is good but could be better…”
In the grand tradition of Dolly Parton classics like “Down From Dover” and “Just Because I’m a Woman”, Evans finds the heroine inside a woman who has been shunned by her community. The setup makes you believe for a minute that this unwed soon-t0-be mother is going to fall in love with a man on this bus ride, but it’s a thing of beauty when she falls in love with her newly born daughter instead.
Perfection is an impossible standard, of course. But here is a wonderful love song that embraces the imperfections as being what actually does make their loving marriage perfect. Plenty of great details here, my personal favorite being how in every wedding picture, her daddy looks annoyed.
When Evans first debuted, she was celebrated by critics for resurrecting a traditional country sound that recalled pre-Nashville Sound country music. She didn’t break through commercially until she left that style behind, but in one of those moments of pure serendipity, she revisited that style as a goofy end to her very pop-flavored fourth album. The label sent it to radio, and it became her signature hit, not to mention her third #1 single.
If I was going to make a list of the best country songs of the 21st century, this one would be in the upper echelon. Simply put, I think it’s brilliant. Perennial optimist that I am, I’m always looking for the opportunities created by the challenges that confront me. I’ve never heard a better metaphor for this point of view than the one Evans constructs here.
The framework she uses is that a tree struck by lightning when she was a child almost hit her house, terrifying her at the time. Her father took the fallen tree and used it to build her a rocking horse, which she deems “something magic out of something frightening.” This becomes a symbol for her approach to life: “When it’s pouring down on me, in my mind I see the rocking horse inside the tree.”
You really can’t go wrong by covering Radney Foster. His original version was great, but a soaring vocal by Evans lifted an already great song into the stratosphere.
Her fourth and final #1 hit, it helped her win the ACM Award for Female Vocalist, a perhaps overdue acknowledgment made possible by the very short window between Gretchen Wilson’s breakthrough and Carrie Underwood’s.
Reba McEntire was the most dominant female in country music for a longer time period than any woman since Kitty Wells, so it always amazes me just how little her influence can be heard in the music of the women who came after her.
“Cheatin’” is a glorious exception, as Evans twists and turns and trills her voice as if she’s the second coming of late eighties McEntire. Granted, Reba never showed anywhere near this much backbone when her man was running around, but it’s great to hear someone singing the way she used to back in her heyday.
A coal mining disaster limited this song from reaching its full potential, as it was horribly tacky to have playing on the radio in the wake of so many miners having died. But it’s still a great little number.
Sure, it’s a blatant attempt to capture the “Suds in a Bucket” lightning twice, but I wouldn’t mind Evans revisiting that sound on every album she releases for the rest of her career.
It’s been five years since Evans released a studio album, perhaps because the songs that she’s attempted to launch a new set with have underwhelmed both critics and country radio. But she has released a real gem during the same period, which is her uplifting contribution to the soundtrack for Billy Graham biopic.
“Low” asserts that her faith will always give her the strength to rise above those who would keep her down. In an era when most songs of faith are little more than Hallmark cards with a sprinkling of spirituality along the edges, “Low” actually engages the gospel and applies it to everyday life.