Sara Evans’ Restless Pop

It’s been nearly three years since the release of Born To Fly, Sara Evans’ career-catapulting third album. This week, the singer debuts a new batch of tunes called Restless. Like its predecessor, Restless is more pop than country in sound and attitude. And once again Evans tapped Paul Worley, studio mentor to Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks and many others, to be her co-producer.

“There’s just something that happens in Paul’s brain when he starts making music,” Evans explains. “He becomes so creative. He’s constantly making the sound better and better and better. He is so willing to keep going on a song until he feels it’s reached its maximum potential. A lot of producers, I think, just cut the tracks, do a great job — and it sounds great — and then they call it done. But Paul never says it’s done, even when the album is released.”

Thematically, the 13 songs on Restless cover such familiar emotional terrain as acceptance, determination, anticipation, devotion, resignation and the changing shades of love. “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus,” the first single, tells of a young, unwed mother who first dreads and then rejoices in the birth of her child. “Perfect,” the follow-up single, concludes that love doesn’t have to be perfect to be great. Evans co-wrote five of the songs, working with such lyrical heavyweights as Marcus Hummon, Troy Verges, Darrell Scott and Tom Shapiro.

Because of their free-association structures, irregular lines and offbeat rhyme schemes, these aren’t the kinds of songs you hear a couple of times and then start singing along with. Even Evans finds them a stretch. “It is a hard album to sing right now,” she concedes. “We’re on tour and performing a lot of these songs night after night. Some of them are extremely hard.”

Hummon, who co-wrote “Born To Fly,” has emerged as one of Evans’ chief inspirations. “My relationship with Marcus is just a total love fest — in terms of enjoying music and writing together,” she says. “He’s just a maniac. He’ll sit down with his guitar and play things that he can’t even quite remember because they’re so creative and crazy. He’s the perfect match for me. I’ve always wanted to sound different from everybody else, and he definitely writes and thinks differently. He knows exactly how to home in on me and shape the entire song around me and my voice.”

Evans co-wrote “Rocking Horse,” easily the most imaginative song on the album, with Hummon and her brother, Matt Evans. It starts with the image of a tree being felled by lightning and then yielding the wood for building a rocking horse. The lesson of that image, the song says, is that “something magic” can come “out of something frightening.”

“That was Marcus’ idea,” says Evans. “He brought that beginning line [‘The rocking horse came from an old oak tree’] and said, ‘What about this?’ Anyway, he had that idea and we went with it. And we were struggling with the second verse and the second chorus and the bridge and all that. So my brother came in and helped us finish the song. He gave us a direction we hadn’t really thought of, but it brought complete closure to the song.”

Just as many other country artists have done lately, Evans includes a song by the relentlessly productive Diane Warren in the new album. It’s called “Need to Be Next to You.” “It was previously recorded by Sixpence None the Richer,” Evans says. “But then someone pitched it to me in a country version. I just loved it.”

Evans admits that she had reservations about “Otis Redding,” the dreamy and sinuously seductive tune written by Angelo, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey. “I wasn’t sure about it until I cut it,” Evans reflects. “And then, when I heard myself singing it, I kept thinking, ‘I just don’t know if this sounds believable — because it’s so different for me.’ But then everybody who was listening to the album — all our friends and family and the [RCA Records] people — kept coming back with ‘Otis Redding,’ [saying things like] ‘That’s the best song I’ve ever heard,’ ‘I’ve never heard you sing like that,’ ‘It’s so cool,’ ‘I’m like obsessed with this song.’ So then it was like, ‘OK, if everybody feels that way.’”

Now playing the fair and festival circuit, Evans is taking time off to plug the new album. “We’re doing everything,” she says. “We’re going to do a radio tour by Lear jet right around the time of the album’s release. We’re doing television — I’m going on Hannity & Colmes again. Just anything and everything for the next nine months. … Of course, I’ll be touring from now until the end of time.”

Evans arrived on the country scene as a die-hard traditionalist, a legacy of the kind of music she had loved and performed throughout her youth. Her 1997 debut album for RCA, Three Chords and the Truth, wowed the critics with its stone country intensity, but it sold dismally. It soon became clear to Evans that she would have to change to survive as a major label artist. No Place That Far, her second album, moved her in a more contemporary direction, and Born To Fly, her first project with Worley, took her all the way there. The album is nearing double-platinum certification (which means that record stores have ordered almost 2 million copies).

“Had Three Chords been more successful,” Evans reflects, “I think I would have stayed a little bit closer to [the traditional country] sound. But there were many other sides to me musically that I didn’t feel I was tapping into. Bluegrass and traditional country are really, really close to who I am and how I grew up. But I also loved Aerosmith and Aretha Franklin and Sheryl Crow and Destiny’s Child. I just love so many different kinds of music.”

Restless demonstrates just that.