While Sara Evans is reportedly in the studio hard at work on her forthcoming seventh studio album, Sony Legacy has released a new fourteen track retrospective of her sixteen-year career – the latest installment in the label’s Playlist series. Coming nearly five and a half years after Evans’ 2007 Greatest Hits package, Playlist: The Very Best of Sara Evans intersperses several of her biggest hits with a few less expected inclusions. While there is some great material to be heard, there are a few missed opportunities as well.
The most glaring omission is Evans’ 2011 smash “A Little Bit Stronger,” which returned her to the top of the charts after a six-year dry spell, and became the first platinum-certified single of her career. Its absence is made particularly disheartening by the fact that the song post-dated Evan’s original Greatest Hits album. Her other four number one hits – “No Place That Far,” “Born to Fly,” “Suds In the Bucket,” and “A Real Fine Place to Start” – are all present and accounted for, as are Top 10 hits “I Could Not Ask for More,” “I Keep Looking,” and “Cheatin’.” Her 2003 #2 hit “Perfect” is curiously omitted, while “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” gets the short shaft for the second time.
Among the lesser-known cuts, the most worthwhile inclusion is Evans’ 1997 single “Three Chords and the Truth,” from her critically acclaimed, commercially unheralded debut album of the same name – a project which Greatest Hits pretends never existed. Another pleasant surprise is Evans’ rendition of the Barbara Mandrell hit “Crackers,” from the 2006 Mandell tribute She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool. Two unreleased album tracks (“You Don’t” from Born to Fly and “Niagara Falls” from Restless), one hymn (“The Sweet By and By,” after which Evans’ first novel was titled), and the pretty but forgettable Jim Brickman collaboration “Never Alone” round out the set. The collection closes on an unnecessary sour note, tacking on the mediocre non-hit “Feels Just Like a Love Song,” from a 2009 album project that never materialized.
In theory, Sara Evans should be well served by a compilation that mixes hits with hidden treasures – especially considering that many of her finest moments never made it to heavy radio rotation. Unfortunately, Playlist all too often includes questionable choices at the expense of superior material. In some cases the songs included are decent, but pale in comparison to what might have been included instead. If you’re going to include an unreleased track from Born to Fly, why “You Don’t” instead of “I Learned That from You”? If you’re going to include a track from Restless, why “Niagara Falls” instead of “Rockin’ Horse”? If you’re going to include one of her cover songs, why “Crackers” instead of “I Don’t Wanna Play House”? Why not include excellent underrated singles like “Coalmine,” “Tonight,” or “Fool, I’m a Woman”?
Evaluated purely on the merits of its content, Playlist: The Very Best of Sara Evans is an enjoyable listen with many fine tracks. It’s a decent introduction to Sara Evans’ music, but it neither adequately summarizes her hit-making career, nor offers an effective representation of her best work. Her 2007 Greatest Hits remains an overall better value.
Track listing: 1. Born to Fly/ 2. I Could Not Ask for More/ 3. I Keep Looking/ 4. No Place That Far/ 5. You Don’t/ 6. A Real Fine Place to Start/ 7. Sweet By and By/ 8. Three Chords and the Truth/ 9. Suds In the Bucket/ 10. Niagara Falls/ 11. Crackers/ 12. Cheatin’/ 13. Never Alone (with Jim Brickman)/ 14. Feels Just Like a Love Song
He broke through to stardom singing love ballads in the style of Vince Gill, but it was his turn toward more adventurous topical material that cemented the musical legacy of Collin Raye.
Born Floyd Collin Wray in Arkansas, he is the son of Lois Wray, a professional musician who often opened for the big acts of the fifties, including legends like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Growing up, Collin and his brother Scott would often perform on stage with their mother. As the boys got older, they struck out on their own, forming the Wrays Brothers Band. They soon became popular local performers across Texas, and also had success performing in Reno, Nevada.
The band, now performing as The Wrays, signed with Mercury Records in the mid-eighties, after a few independent label releases raised their profile. But their major label releases were not successful, and the band broke up after losing that deal. At this point, Raye adopted his stage name and embarked on a solo career, signing with Epic Records in 1990.
His first single, “All I Can Be (Is a Sweet Memory)”, did reasonably well, peaking at #29. It set the stage for the big breakthrough, “Love, Me.” A heartbreaking ballad about a grieving grandfather, it was an instant classic, and began an impressive streak of hits that would make Raye one of the most dominant radio acts of the nineties.
Though he had some mid-tempo hits scattered among them, it was a string of ballads that kept him on the charts. Mostly love songs, some became wedding hall staples, like “In This Life” and “That Was a River.” Raye’s first two albums sold well and produced many hits, but he was not satisfied with them. Thinking himself capable of more meaningful music, he set out to make an album for the ages. The result was extremes, his 1994 album that found him singing up-tempo material convincingly for the first time (“That’s My Story”, “My Kind of Girl.”)
But the standout hit was “Little Rock”, a powerful monologue from a recovering alcoholic that remains one of Raye’s finest moments on record. The success of this song encouraged Raye to tackle more socially relevant material. On his fourth album, I Think About You, the title track explored the exploitation of women in the media and society at large; “Not That Different” made the case for the universality of the human experience outweighing surface differences; and “What If Jesus Comes Back Like That” put the social justice inherent in Christ’s teachings front and center.
The depth of these hits elevated Raye into the Male Vocalist races at the country award shows, and gave the fuel for his run of hits to continue throughout the nineties. Though those hits would return to being more conventional in theme, they were still quite popular. Highlights of this run include “I Can Still Feel You”, “On the Verge”, “Someone I Used to Know” and “Couldn’t Last a Moment.” Raye also scored a major Adult Contemporary hit with “The Gift”, his 1997 collaboration with Jim Brickman.
As with so many other nineties stars, the new century brought a decline in fortunes. While his first four studio albums had gone platinum, nothing beyond a hits collection would sell gold in the years to come. After his 2001 set Can’t Back Down failed to produce a hit, he left Epic Records. He’s since resurfaced on various independent labels, releasing 2005′s Twenty Years and Change to warm reviews and having a top 40 country album with 2009′s Never Going Back. He had a minor chart hit with “A Soldier’s Prayer” in 2007, and continues to record new music and tour across North America.