Starter Kit: Sara Evans

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!

“Shame About That” from the 1997 album Three Chords and the Truth

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.

“No Place That Far” from the 1998 album No Place That Far

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.

“I Thought I’d See Your Face Again” from the 1998 album No Place That Far

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.

“I Keep Looking” from the 2000 album Born To Fly

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…”

“Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” from the 2003 album Restless

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.

“Perfect” from the 2003 album Restless

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.

“Suds in the Bucket” from the 2003 album Restless

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.

“Rockin’ Horse” from the 2003 album Restless

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.”

“‘A Real Fine Place to Startfrom the 2005 album Real Fine Place

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.

“Cheatin'” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place

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.

“Coalmine” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place

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.

“Low” from the 2008  soundtrack album Billy – The Early Years

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.

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18 Comments

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18 Responses to Starter Kit: Sara Evans

  1. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    “Rockin’ Horse” is one of my favorites, too. I love that the record actually sounds like the sort of intense lightning storm that made the tree fall and prompted the song. You sense both the fear and the empowerment without even knowing what the lyrics say.

  2. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    It’s a good one. Evans is one of those artists that I could almost do a FSBFA for, but not quite. I left off about 7 songs that I also love.

  3. I’d have to insist on “The Great Unknown.” It’s a very descriptive song that captures the optimism that only young love has; being willing to just take off with nothing more than each other.

  4. I’d include Unopened and The Knot Comes Untied – both truly great vocals.

  5. I love this list, I am surprised that you didn’t include “Fool, I’m A Woman,” since I know how much you like that song.

    I think you did a great list, and I think Evans isn’t as far in her career where you could do a FSBFA list but this kind of list fits better. =]

  6. KNo Gravatar

    Although I’m not a huge Sara Evans, I do like a lot of her material. I think she’s one of the artists in the current industry that does tarditional country music better than when she tries to adopt the pop style.

    I think her best material was early on in her career with songs of substance that actually sounded like authentic country music. “No Place That Far,” “Saints and Angels,” “Coalmine, “Born To Fly,” and “A Little Bit Stronger” feel like songs that fit her style and range better than most of the radio fodder she’s recorded in the past several years.

    I know every artist wants a hit song, but the pop style doesn’t work well for her; it’s always seemed a bit too fabricated for my tastes. She’s been around for quite a few years and has obviously done enough to continue making albums. So I remain confused as to why she still seems like she’s trying way too hard to be someone she isn’t.

  7. Michael A.No Gravatar

    Hard to argue with this list. Great write ups, as always, Kevin. One of my favorites not represented in this handful is the Lori McKenna penned “Bible Song”.

  8. ScottNo Gravatar

    I’ve always liked her very first single, “The Cryin Game”

  9. I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard “Real Fine Place to Start”. While I don’t think it’s a country classic, I do think it’s one of the best country-pop songs of the past 10 years. If there’s one song I would add to this list, it would be “Saints and Angels”, but that’s more from a personal standpoint rather than a quality view.

  10. Hard TimesNo Gravatar

    I still recall how Simon Cowell reacted when Kellie Pickler sang “Suds in the Bucket” on “American Idol.”

    “There are thousands and thousands of songs to choose from and you choose [a] gimmicky, rodeoey, lassoing, whatever song,” he said.

    I love the song, but Cowell’s comment reminded me how country music baffles non-fans.

  11. Cory DeSteinNo Gravatar

    i like her-but her live performance voice is just terrible.

  12. I loved this post. Sara is one of my favorites. What a fantastic voice with so much nuance and emotion. Glad to see my fave “Suds In the Bucket” on this list,” though I was a bit surprised that “Born to Fly” wasn’t on the list. But it is great to see some of her great lesser-known album cuts included as well. I also love “Rockin’ Horse” and “Shame About That.”

  13. JaneNo Gravatar

    Great list! Many of the songs you named are my favourites. I’d add “Tonight”, and “Unopened”, but apart from that, you nailed a lot of the best songs from Sara.

  14. AMRNo Gravatar

    Thanks, for this. Sara is extremely under-rated and overly criticized by some reviewers, who don’t get it. I’ve seen her several times live and she is a very polished performer with a tight band and set list. There have been inconsistencies in her live performances on TV, but I attribute that to nerves. I completely agree with you on Rocking Horse, Real Fine Place, Bible Song, Great Unknown and Fool I’m a Woman. While her recorded music has had some missteps, she is one of the most talented vocalists in both the pop and country genres and a very good songwriter. She should have received all the country Female Vocalist awards in 2004, 2005 and 2006. She got one award, so I can’t complain too much. Today, unfortunately, her music is being overshadowed by less talented performers, but that is the biz.

  15. Pingback: Martina McBride Joins Republic Nashville; Hillary Scott Named SESAC’s Songwriter of the Year; Stream Reba McEntire | The 9513

  16. SusanNo Gravatar

    “I Learned that from You” from Born to Fly. That one is just amazing. I also agree with Michael on “Bible Song”. Those are my two favorites.

  17. Rodney in South CarolinaNo Gravatar

    YES! YES! YES!!! Could not agree with you more on all of your selections, esp. “Rocking Horse” and “Shame About That.” So many singles that should have been #1 hits.

  18. Karl BenjaminNo Gravatar

    I agree with most of these picks, especially your number 1, but some of the songs I believe you missed are:

    Tell Me
    I Learned that From You
    Tonight
    and The Week the River Raged. Simply awesome.