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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Sara Evans

I was in my early teens when I first discovered Sara Evans… and I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  The rich, throaty texture of her distinct voice reeled me in, and her entertaining mixture of traditional and contemporary influences had me thoroughly hooked.  Now that I’ve also become familiar with the likes of Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Emmylou Harris, my view of Sara is a little more in-perspective these days, but I do still consider myself a big fan, and she holds a special distinction as one of the first female country artists I really got into.

Radio passed on her when she first emerged as a neotraditionalist in the late nineties, but with future efforts, Sara went on to become a star, thanks to her ability to adapt to changing times while still staying true to herself.  She was one of the dominant female country voices on the radio dial in the early years of the twenty-first century, and after enduring a bit of a dry spell for a few years, she has recently experienced a commercial resurgence.

Though she maintained a fairly consistent quality standard for the better part of her career, recent years have seen that standard slipping thanks to subpar pop-country cuts in the vein of “Feels Just Like a Love Song.”  Nonetheless, Sara still deserves credit for having a solid body of work behind her that’s well worth remembering.  If we’re fortunate, perhaps we may one day see Sara make a return to form, or even delve back into her traditional country and bluegrass roots.

The following list includes many of the songs that best exemplify the qualities that drew me to the music of Sara Evans in the first place.  It’s not meant to be a strict listing of the songs that unquestionably rank as Sara’s “best;” (which would be pretty subjective anyway) It’s merely a list of my own personal favorites.  Let it be an enjoyable look back on some of Sara’s finest moments.  If you would like to share any of your own favorites in the comments section, please feel free to do so.

#25

“A Little Bit Stronger”

Stronger, 2011

Somehow, Sara’s comeback hit finds a way to hit my sweet spot for power ballads. (Yes, I actually do have a sweet spot for power ballads, though few have been able to hit it) What was it about this song that won me over?  Maybe it was the subtle strains of mandolin and steel.  Maybe it’s the build-up nature of the song – the way the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing is mirrored by the production and by Sara’s vocal delivery.  At any rate, the ingredients come together to form a record greater than the sum of its parts.

#24

“New Hometown”

Real Fine Place, 2005

It’s not just a song about how cool small-town life is.  Stylistically, the song even ranks as one of Sara’s most pop-friendly album tracks.  As Sara’s character expresses her desire to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, the song becomes a plea for a return to the simple things in life.  Though not all of us intend to make a big old move to a small town, no doubt many among us harbor a similar deep-down yearning just to “find a little earth to stand on.”

#23

“Perfect”

Restless, 2003

The catchy guitar hook is an instant attention-getter, but this number-two hit from Sara’s Restless album has a heart and a simple message at its core:  “Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect.”  Add in a few quirky and clever lines such as “If in every wedding picture my daddy looks annoyed, it’s all right,” as well as the fitting conclusion that “All the fairy tales tell a lie,” and you’ve got a real beauty.

#22

“Momma’s Night Out” 

Real Fine Place, 2005

I love this song mainly because it’s a side of Sara that we haven’t seen very often.  She’s rarely been one to record party songs.  But on this track, Sara takes on the role of an overworked mother who throws in the towel, leaves the kids with daddy, and hits the town with the girls.  Sara’s sassy vocal finds her as loose as she’s ever been, while the funky horn-infused production makes it an unforgettable track

#21

“Cupid”

No Place That Far, 1999

The distinct voice of George Jones, even when coming in the form of background vocals, has the ability to make a great song even greater (see Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”).  In this shamelessly twangy steel-infused country rave-up from No Place That Far, the Possum joins Sara in delivering the unshakable hook of “Tell Cupid not to point that thing at me!”

#20

“Restless”

Restless, 2003

I have a bit of a weakness for country music that borrows from Irish and Celtic influences as this track does.  The gorgeous Celtic-harp-laced arrangement makes “Restless” a highlight of one of Sara’s most stylistically-diverse albums.  The lyrics are every bit as beautiful, poetically telling of a restless soul learning to make peace with the fact that she will be a wanderer until the day she dies.

#19

“Low”

Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008

Sara’s contribution to the Billy soundtrack is nothing short of a pure joy, replete with the sounds of pure country and bluegrass instrumentation.  Though the lyrics invoke religious elements, they don’t sound preachy at all.  It’s not a “You should live your life this way” kind of song;  It’s an “I’m going to live my life this way” kind of song.  It’s a proactive anthem of strength, resolve, and determination – more uplifting than a million Martina McBride power ballads combined.

#18

“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Fact:  Sara sounds best when singing traditional country music.  Going back and listening to Sara’s shamelessly neotraditional debut album is a joy for any fan of stone cold country.  Here she pays tribute to the vintage Bakersfield sound with a cover of a Buck Owens hit co-written by Harlan Howard.  Besides being a highlight of the Three Chords and the Truth album, this song was instrumental in helping Sara get the chance to snag a record deal and become a star.  It was when the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard himself heard Sara’s performance of his classic song that he threw all his efforts into helping the young talent get discovered.

#17

“Fool, I’m a Woman”

No Place That Far, 1999

This deliciously snarky tune has Matraca Berg’s fingerprints all over it.  In a composition by one of country’s finest songwriters, Sara plays off the age-old stereotype of a woman’s continual habit of changing her mind.  She scoffs at old romantic clichés as she pointedly tells off her soon-to-be-ex-lover – “You used to tell me so many nights/ You don’t deserve me/ Well maybe you were right.”  Ouch!

#16

“A Real Fine Place to Start”

Real Fine Place, 2005

I have a major affinity for songs that can effectively channel the excitement of a newfound romance, and this Radney Foster-penned number-one hit from 2005 squarely hits that target.  Thanks in large part to Sara’s soaring vocal performance, “A Real Fine Place to Start” is a fun, breezy record that bubbles over with energy and exuberance, and begs to be blasted out one’s car windows.  A shining example of pop-country done well.

#15

“Why Should I Care”

Born to Fly, 2000

A sparse pop-country ballad in which a woman struggles to make sense of the feelings of guilt and jealousy that suddenly surface when she finds out that her former lover has found someone new.

#14

“Imagine That”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Sara’s take on this Patsy Cline torch ballad ranks as arguably one of the finest displays of Sara’s vocal talents that can be found on any of her studio albums.

#13

“Bible Song”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This melancholy Lori McKenna song was one of the best tracks on Real Fine Place.  While so many country stars have gleefully sang the praises of small-town living, “Bible Song” echoes the message that life in such idealistic small towns is not always what it’s cracked up to be.  The pace of life may be slower, but this tragic story of a young man’s drug-induced death shows that even small town residents at times fall prey to their own inner demons.

#12

“Rockin’ Horse”

Restless, 2003

A genuine nugget of wisdom is wrapped up in this blazing fiddle-shredder.  The narrator recounts a frightening childhood experience in which a tree falls near her family’s house after being struck by lightning.  Then her father carves the tree’s wood into a rocking horse that becomes one of her most treasured toys.   By showing how this experience shapes the narrator’s outlook on life, “Rockin’ Horse” becomes a colorful testament to the power of positive thinking, with its message summed up in the memorable hook “When it’s pouring down on me/ In my life I see the rockin’ horse inside the tree.”

#11

“As If”

Greatest Hits, 2007

Four new tracks were included on Sara’s 2007 Greatest Hits package, and this almost-Top 10 hit was by far the best.  With cheeky, humorous lyrics, Sara satirically poked fun at the human tendency toward infatuation that blinds one to all a person’s shortcomings.  The catchy melody and energetic performance made for an earworm of a record that was truly unforgettable.

#10

“What That Drink Cost Me”

Stronger, 2011

The new album could have benefited greatly from more songs like this.  This restrained steel guitar weeper is the stuff of a country classic – a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of alcohol.  Though the Stronger album as a whole found Sara saddled with an excess of disposable material, the fact that it also included one of the best songs she had written in years is an encouraging sign.  Besides that, “What That Drink Cost Me” is yet another example of one of the qualities that I’ve always appreciated about Sara’s music:  Even after she went in a more pop-flavored musical direction, her traditional country influences were never fully snuffed out.

#9

“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This loose, flirty, upbeat little ditty was co-written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery.  Though the cheeky lyrics can put an instant smile on one’s face, the record’s most endearing trait is Sara’s raw, expressive vocal delivery.  Though Sara’s Missouri twang is toned back on some of her more pop-oriented material, this record allows that twang to stand front and center.

#8

“Unopened”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This was the only original song on Sara’s debut album on which she did not share writing credits, originating from the pen of Leslie Satcher.  As the song’s narrator discovers evidence of a secret love from her man’s past, she views his willingness to leave it behind as evidence of his genuine love for her.  She resolves to return that love by trusting in her man, and allowing his secret to remain a secret.

#7

“No Place That Far”

No Place That Far, 1999

Vince Gill is one of country music’s favorite harmony vocalists (besides being an A-list legend in his own right), and he adds something particularly special to the hauntingly beautiful love song that was Sara’s breakthrough chart-topper.  The song reaches a crescendo in the final chorus as Sara sings “If I had to run, if I had to crawl…” and is answered each time by that distinctive tenor.  It’s as if we’re listening to two lovers singing to one another from afar off, pledging their unwavering determination to be reunited.  Though it’s a great lyric in its own right, the chemistry of the two performers gives the story an extra layer that can’t be seen just by looking at the lyrics on paper.

#6

“I Learned That from You”

Born to Fly, 2000

Though found on one of Sara’s most pop-oriented albums, “I Learned from You” was one of the finest and most country tracks on Sara’s breakthrough album Born to Fly.  A heavy-hearted reflection on the difficult leassons learned from a first love that didn’t last, while also an appreciative recollection of all the happy memories that were made at the time.

#5

“Coalmine”

Real Fine Place, 2005

The timing was unfortunate for the release of this underplayed gem that offered a glimpse of Sara’s mountain bluegrass influences.  A flirty, playful lyric and performance added up to a song that was loads of fun as Sara fawned over her man “walking out of that coalmine, covered with dust, T-shirt tight, all muscled up.”  This is one Sara Evans single that is definitely deserving of a re-release.

#4

“Three Chords and the Truth”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

The title track of Sara’s debut is a testament to the power of country music in dredging up deeply held emotions in a listener – emotions that we might have ignored in the past.  It’s the kind of song that always reminds me why I love country music so much.  Sara’s character hears a country song on the radio for the first time, and it not only brings back the emotions, but it moves her to action.  It motivates her to turn the car around and reconcile with the lover she had intended to leave far behind.  “Three Chords” is a beautifully constructed story that effectively pays tribute to country music at its best, demonstrating that there’s so much more to this unique and special genre than what the ugly stereotypes would lead some to believe.

#3

“Suds In the Bucket”

Restless, 2003

Besides being an excellent singalong driving jam, this fiddle-and-steel-laden hit is a humorous glimpse at tongue-wagging small-town culture, sans the chest-pounding backwoods clichés that are common on country radio today.  Fun, playful, and full of personality, this country rave-up was the song that first got me into Sara Evans, and it’s remained a personal favorite of mine ever since.  It never fails to make me feel happy.

#2

“Cheatin’”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This Top Ten hit takes a classic country music theme – infidelity – and puts a distinct and memorable spin on it.  After having parted ways with an unfaithful spouse, Sara’s character gloats over the unpleasant living situation her ex has since found himself in.  But as the lyric progresses, she reveals that she has been genuinely hurt by his actions, and she unashamedly drops the bomb of “Yes, I’ll be glad to take you back just as soon as I stop breathing.”  Amusingly spiteful and achingly emotional at the same time, “Cheatin’” exemplifies the layered organic storytelling that makes for a killer country song, while the traditional-styled arrangement acts as the perfect sonic backdrop to Sara’s bitterly nuanced performance.

#1

“Born to Fly”

Born to Fly, 2000

Sara’s career record remains one of her most enduring and effortlessly charming hits, and with it’s distinctive drumbeat intro and bluegrass-tinged instrumentation, it’s definitely one of her most recognizeable.  “Born to Fly” is an endearing coming-of-age tale of a young woman exploring her potential in life, and seeking to find her place in the world.  It manages to perfect the magic formula of possessing a unique identity of its own, while still being universal such that a wide array of individuals can relate to the feelings it expresses.  Who among us has never gone through this period of life as a young person?  We’ve all been at that crossroads point in life, and felt what it’s like to be “starin’ down the road, just lookin’ for my one chance to run.”

In a way, the song could also be seen as symbolic of the point Sara was at in her career when she recorded it.  Would her third album improve on the moderate success of No Place That Far, or would it be ignored like the commercially-underappreciated Three Chords and the Truth?  It was with this album and single that Sara struck platinum with a style that was just slick enough to be commercially friendly without sacrificing the heart of her earlier work.  The result?  Her career ‘soared away like a blackbird.’

In a career that has included many memorable singles, “Born to Fly” is one of the very finest.

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Searching for Gary Harrison

Written by Bob Losche (Music & More)

Google “Gary Harrison songwriter” and you won’t find a website or MySpace. There’s not even a Wikipedia article. Don’t know where he’s from, how he got into songwriting or what he likes to eat for dinner.

As far as I know, he has never made an album. When he co-writes a song, does he write the music or the lyrics or a little of both? Don’t know. He’s a Grammy nominated songwriter as co-writer of “Strawberry Wine”, the 1997 CMA Song of the Year, and has penned many BMI Award-Winning Songs. It appears that his first big hit was “Lying in Love with You”, written with Dean Dillon for Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius. The duet went to #2 in 1979.

Since there is so little data to draw from, a chronological treatment of his illustrious career would be difficult. I’ve decided instead to begin with the collaboration Gary is best known for, his work with Matraca Berg, and then continue with his other significant songwriting collaborations.

In his excellent Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters article on Matraca Berg, Kevin gave us his favorite 25 songs written by Berg. Gary Harrison has frequently collaborated with Matraca. On Kevin’s list the following 9 songs are written by Berg/Harrison:

  • #25 Wild Angels – Martina McBride
  • #22 Give Me Some Wheels – Suzy Bogguss
  • #20 Demolition Angel – Pam Tillis
  • #19 Everybody Knows – Trisha Yearwood
  • #10 Strawberry Wine – Deana Carter
  • #7 Wrong Side of Memphis – Trisha Yearwood
  • #5 Diamonds and Tears – Suzy Bogguss
  • #4 Dreaming Fields – Trisha Yearwood
  • #3 My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again – Patty Loveless

Give a read to Kevin’s write-up for all 25. Kevin asked for comments from his readers on their favorite Matraca Berg songs. In the 29 comments received, three more collaborations with Gary were mentioned that didn’t make Kevin’s cut, including “Hey Cinderella” and “Eat at Joe’s” by Suzy Bogguss and Pinmonkey’s “That Train Don’t Run”.

“Hey Cinderella” is from Suzy’s 1993 CD, Something Up My Sleeve. Fantasy turns into “dreams that lost their way” by the end of the first long verse. In the second verse, reality sets in. In “Eat at Joe’s”, from her 1992 CD, Voices in the Wind, Suzy’s sounds like a sultry waitress in an all night diner – “here’s a hot top on your coffee, honey you’re a mess, I ain’t your wife I ain’t your momma, but I’ll do I guess”. The bridge is a wistful but not really hopeful call out to prince charming.

My favorite Pinmonkey song is still “Barbed Wire and Roses”, but “That Train Don’t Run”, from their 2006 Big Shiny Cars CD, isn’t far behind. It’s up-tempo like Barbed Wire. It was also a single for Matraca Berg from her 1997 “Sunday Morning to Saturday Night” cd. The singer recalls a former lover who may have been a bit on the wild side. It must be “your memory rattlin’ the shutters, that train don’t run by here no more”. The next line is “I lie and listen to the last boxcar, sweet dreams baby wherever you are”. Love that last phrase. Sounds like something Bogie might have said.

A bit of trivia: I wonder how many times that last phrase, “sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”, has been used in a song. In addition to the Pinmonkey song, I found it in “Goodnight”, written by Charlie Black and Dana Hunt, from Suzy Bogguss’ self-titled 1999 CD. The last line of the chorus is “I’m signing off, sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”. A song by Jedd Hughes, “Time to Say Goodnight” has “sweet dreams baby, sweet dreams baby wherever you are tonight”. It was written by Hughes, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride and can be found on Hughes’ 2004 CD, Transcontinental. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else finds another instance.

I found another Berg/Harrison collaboration but this time with Jeff Hanna on a Chely Wright song, “Emma Jean’s Guitar”. It’s an album track from Chely’s 1997 Let Me In CD, which featured “Shut Up and Drive”. The story tells of a guitar with Emma Jean’s name etched in the finish found in a pawnshop. The singer wonders about Emma Jean’s hopes and dreams and feels that she’s the guardian of her guitar.

Gary has written quite a few great songs without Matraca. Another frequent co-writer for Gary has been Tim Mensy. My favorite Mensy-Harrison collaboration is Trisha Yearwood’s “Nearest Distant Shore”, an album track from her 1992 Hearts in Armor CD. It’s a song about getting out of a bad relationship: “You did your best but “the one you swore to love is pulling you down, you’re in over your head, chilled to the bone by the waters you’ve tread, chart a course to land before you drown”.

“That Wasn’t Me” was an excellent album track for Martina McBride on her 1993 CD, The Way That I Am. She knows that the guy is still hurting from the memory of an old girlfriend. She tells him “that wasn’t me”. It’s time to move on because she “can no longer pay the price” of his not letting go.

For fans of Mark Chesnutt, there’s “I Just Wanted You to Know”, a #1 song in ’94 from the CD Almost Goodbye and a #6 the same year, “She Dreams”, from What a Way to Live. Other Mensy Harrison collaborations include Doug Stone’s “I Thought It Was You”, a #4 in 1991, “A Singer in the Band”, an album track on Joe Nichol’s Revelation CD in 2004, and a Mark Wills song “Any Fool Can say Goodbye”.

With J.D. Martin, Gary Harrison wrote “Rollin’ Lonely”, a Johnny Lee song from his “Workin’ for a Livin’ ” album, which reached #9 on the charts in 1985, “Domestic Life”, a John Conlee #4 hit from his “American Faces” album in 1987, “Two Car Garage”, a #3 hit in 1983 from the B.J. Thomas album “The Great American Dream” and “Broken Toys”, a song about child abuse from BJ’s 1985 album “Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon”. The last song was written with Gloria Thomas as well as J.D.

Gary co-wrote 3 songs with Tammy Cochran from her “Thirty Something and Single” album released in June of 2009, the title track, “It’s All Over But the Leaving” and “He Really Thinks He’s Got It”.

With Karen Staley, he wrote “Face in the Crowd” which peaked at #4, a duet with Michael Martin Murphey and Holly Dunn from the former’s 1987 “Americana” album and “Now and Then” which Michelle Wright took to #9 in Canada.

Some other Gary Harrison songs are:

- “I Hate Everything” written with Keith Stegall, a #1 for George Strait in 2005. Check out the wake-up call at the end.

- “Alone Some” with Billy Yates, an album track for Billy from his 2005 album “Harmony Man”.

- “Crazy Me” and “I Do It for Your Love” with Richard Marx, from the Kenny Rogers 2000 CD There You Go Again.

Impressive list and I’ve probably missed some songs. If you search BMI.com, you’ll find 918 work titles for Gary Harrison. He’s been so busy, he probably hasn’t had time to set up a website or MySpace.

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