Sara Evans is a new woman. You can see it in her eyes when she talks about the new man in her world.
“There are no words to describe what Avery did for my life in every way,” Evans says of her 17-month-old son, born last August. “I was just so much more artistic when I started writing for this album, because I was just so full of emotion and hormones and just gushing with pride.”
Avery makes his major label debut on Born to Fly, his mom’s third album for RCA Records. The 29-year-old Evans co-wrote six of the 11 tunes and co-produced the project with noted Nashville producer Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride). Avery was in the booth with Evans as she cut scratch vocals for “I Keep Looking,” and he chimed in during the song’s intro. They kept his gurgling on the final version.
“Every day I brought Avery with me, and we just left the playpen in the studio the whole time,” she says. “There were so many times I’d go in the booth to sing and Paul was holding Avery [in the control room] and bouncing him. I was like, ‘Now this is a white trash way to make a record!'”
“White trash” though it may have seemed in the making, Born to Fly marks an uptown shift in Evans’ musical landscape. With Worley at the helm, the singer has made a much more contemporary record than her previous outings. The Missouri native debuted in 1997 with Three Chords and the Truth, a critically hailed traditional country album produced by Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam). For her 1998 release, No Place That Far, she worked with producers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson (Chely Wright, Kenny Chesney). The project was certified gold (for sales of 500,000) and spawned her first No. 1 hit, “No Place That Far.” Co-written by Evans, Tony Martin and Tom Shapiro, the song featured Vince Gill on harmony vocals, and garnered the duo a 1999 CMA nomination for vocal event.
“We had a No. 1 and it [the last album] was gold, but it wasn’t totally satisfying for me or where I wanted to go musically,” Evans says. “I knew the label and fans were expecting a lot with this album. I just figured this would be the most important record I ever make. So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to take a step back and I’m going to have Paul produce this record because I know he’s the man for me.’ I just decided to wait until he was available.”
Worley became available in January, and the two holed up in a Nashville studio until May. Evans, who grew up listening to a mix of country, pop and ’70s rock, wanted the finished product to reflect her own musical tastes. The first single and title cut, a semi-autobiographical tune co-written with Marcus Hummon and Darrell Scott, is a frenetic mix of Dobro and strings that underline the song’s carpe diem message. She also recorded covers of last year’s Edwin McCain pop hit, the Diane Warren-penned “I Could Not Ask for More,” and Bruce Hornsby’s 1987 pop hit, “Every Little Kiss.”
“Bruce has been on RCA for 15 years, and [RCA Label Group Chairman] Joe Galante used to work his records in New York, so he knew him really well,” Evans explains. “Joe called him up.”
Hornsby, who already knew of Evans through her Three Chords and the Truth album, flew to Nashville to play piano on the cut.
“That was my favorite song in junior high school, and it was just a magical night,” Evans recalls of the studio session. “I felt comforted that he was there, because he almost helped me make it my own.”
In addition to Hornsby, Evans recruited a passel of talented musicians to play on the record. Jerry Douglas played Dobro, Randy Scruggs played guitar and Ricky Skaggs offered backing vocals. Evans also tracked down rock drummer Matt Chamberlain after she found his name in the liner notes of The Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse album.
“We played a trick on him, and we pretended like the first song we were going to record was ‘Rocky Top’ so he would be like ‘What in the world did I come to Nashville and get myself into?” Evans says. “He just absolutely made this record.”
In fact, the singer says it was Chamberlain’s fault that nearly every cut runs four or five minutes, with the longest coming in at six minutes. The album version of “Born to Fly” ends with a soaring two-minute jam session not heard on the radio edit of the song.
“We tracked this record with a really small band — drums, bass, keyboard and guitar. Every song, they just didn’t stop because it just felt so good to play with Matt’s drumming,” Evans said. “Every song was like a one take, I’m not kidding you!”
While the more pop-leaning tunes focus on the happy, light-hearted side of life, Evans shines most on two of the more serious cuts. “I Learned That From You,” written by Tony Lane and Jess Brown, is a melancholy waltz that spotlights the hard lessons brought by lost love. “You Don’t,” which Evans wrote with Ron Harbin and Aimee Mayo, is an angry outburst from a lover who is tired of being taken for granted. On both songs, Evans’ voice is strong and distinctive.
Just as her music has changed on Born to Fly, so has Evans’ image on the cover. The transformation started last year when she first brought Avery home from the hospital. She would watch CMT during late-night feedings and could sense a change in the business was coming.
“I could see on CMT and from what’s on the radio that the competition was getting steep,” Evans says. “Faith is just looking so amazing. She and Shania raised the standard of how women are to look in country music. That’s fine with me. I was determined to get in there and compete with that. I thought, ‘I’ve got the voice to do this, and it would sure be a shame if because of anything [image-related] I didn’t come out and really get myself heard on the radio.'”
Evans, who says she gained 55 pounds during pregnancy, dropped 80 pounds with the “Weigh Down” diet. The Christian-based program teaches you to eat only when your stomach growls and to stop eating when you’re full.
“It sounds easy, but it’s really hard. When I first started the diet, my stomach didn’t growl for, like, two days because I didn’t need to eat,” Evans says. “When I do growl, I’ll go out and get a cheeseburger or whatever I want. I’m 25 pounds smaller than I was before I got pregnant. I’m a size 6, and I’m 5-feet 9-inches. I’ve never been this small.”
The measure of Evans’ willingness to modify both her image and music is evident in her striking new video, “Born to Fly,” now in “Hotshot” rotation on CMT. Since the theme of “Born to Fly” is fulfilling one’s dreams, video director Peter Zavadil borrowed the Wizard of Oz story and installed Evans in the role of Dorothy. But this latter-day Dorothy wears a tight miniskirt — and very, very well. In earlier videos, Evans projected a somber, pensive image. Here she is bubbly and flirtatious, a farm girl waiting for a metaphoric tornado of self-discovery to pick her up and carry her away to something better.
“My brother, Matt, is the bass player in my band, and he’s also in the video. He’s the guy who catches me when I fall off the fence,” Evans says. “When I came out of the dressing room with that mini-skirt on, Matt looked at me, shook his head and said, ‘I’m telling Mom!'”
Brenner Van Meter, Evans’ manager, says the change in look and sound is just a natural evolution.
“I don’t think it’s been calculated,” Van Meter muses. “I think it’s been sort of a natural progression on her part. Being a mom has really changed her attitude and changed her thoughts about her music. She’s wanted to write a lot more positive songs.”
Now that Evans has both her spiritual and physical selves in check, she’s ready to concentrate on promoting the new album. Fresh from a nomination for the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award (which went to Brad Paisley), she’ll jet to Hawaii in November to shoot an episode of CMT Hit Trip. She also is joining labelmates Kenny Chesney and Jennifer Day for “Making Music Matter,” a series of free concerts sponsored by Maytag and the U.S. Dept. of Energy. The short tour will take her to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, where she’ll sing on a float.
“Kenny will be wearing a turkey costume,” Evans joked. “Jennifer and I will be waving behind him.”