Sara Evans is living proof that life is filled with unforeseen circumstances that can derail the best plans and intentions. Fortunately, her upbeat demeanor these days offers ample evidence that it's not impossible to overcome those obstacles and embrace the future.
Having gone through a bitter divorce that fueled the national tabloids, Evans married former University of Alabama quarterback Jay Barker in 2008 and moved from the Nashville area to Birmingham, Ala., where they reside with their blended family of seven children. Barker hosts a radio sports show in Birmingham and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.
With her personal life on stable ground, the big challenge now is relaunching her career after a self-imposed hiatus of five years. She's doing that with a hit single, the aptly-titled "A Little Bit Stronger," and a new album, Stronger. A greatest hits album came in 2007, but Stronger is her first collection of all-new music since the platinum-selling Real Fine Place arrived in 2005. She hadn't planned to go so long without releasing a new album.
"Never," she told CMT during a recent interview in Nashville. "I never thought that would be the case. I just have to say that sometimes life takes over, and you have to switch around your priorities. And I definitely did. We had a hit song on the greatest hits album, and then I married Jay. And then moving to Birmingham and changing managers, there was just a whole period of time when I had to put family first."
That realization came in October 2006 after Evans gained new fans as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. The immense popularity of the TV series only magnified the media's interest when she announced she was leaving the competition because of the breakup of her 13-year marriage to businessman-turned-politician Craig Schelske. As the weeks progressed, Evans' national profile increased even more after the media gained possession of court documents in which Evans and Schelske made a series of personal allegations against one another.
Despite the adverse publicity surrounding the divorce, Evans says she has no regrets about being a contestant on the TV series.
"Dancing With the Stars helped my career a ton," she said. "I had millions and millions of people that knew about me that didn't know about me before. It made me a household name. Everybody knew. Not that any of the drama that happened on there was good, but because that happened during that time, everybody knows who I am now. Being on a show that has so many viewers was just so awesome for country music, in general."
When it came time to begin work on her new album, Evans enlisted the services of Nathan Chapman to help her produce four tracks.
"I loved the success he was having with Taylor Swift," she said. "I thought that music just sounded very fresh. ... He came to Birmingham. I went to lunch with him. We instantly clicked, and we had this great chemistry. He started coming down with my brother [Matt Evans, a songwriter and associate producer of several tracks on Stronger], and we began writing."
When time constraints prevented Chapman from co-producing the entire album, Evans turned to veteran producer Tony Brown to fill in the gaps.
"Tony used to call me in to sing harmony with Vince [Gill] quite a bit," she said. "I've known him forever, but he was always contractually obligated elsewhere. In the middle of making this album, I changed management, so everything shut down for a good bit -- six months or so -- and Nathan had to go on to his other projects that he was committed to. He just couldn't work it out in his schedule to finish the record. We both hated that. But at the same time, I knew Tony Brown would be perfect."
One of the tracks, "Wildfire," was produced by Marti Frederiksen. Best known for his work with Aerosmith, he co-wrote Carrie Underwood's "Undo It" and "Mama's Song" and has also worked with Sheryl Crow and Faith Hill. He co-wrote "Wildfire" in Los Angeles with Evans, her brother and former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi.
"I asked them to take it back and demo it," Evans said. "He took it back in his studio and played every instrument on the demo and sent it back to us. It was Kara's voice. I said, 'I love this demo so much, I don't think we need to change a thing.' So I took her voice off and put mine on ... and called it a day."
One of the most chilling songs on the album is "What That Drink Cost Me," a statement about the far-reaching effects of alcoholism, written by Chapman, Evans and her brother.
"That song was just a gift from God," she said. "There was no personal experience. It was just me and Matt and Nathan trying to think of something to write about. I think our inspiration was 'He Stopped Loving Her Today.' We just decided to write a sad country song about drinking, and that's what came out. ... My manager thinks that song could be a total game-changer for my career. It would have to be released at the right time."
Although country radio is often reluctant to play singles that deal with such serious subjects, she says her record label, RCA, isn't steering clear of the song.
"They're not opposed to it being a single," she said. "It all depends on where I am. We need two or three big hits -- and then that."
To score those two or three big hits from the new album, Evans acknowledges she's having to work a lot harder because of her time away from the spotlight.
"I've worked my ass off," she said. "I've been working since Sept. 1, promoting this single and doing every single thing that's asked of me by my label, by the radio stations. I've done every free show, every guitar pull. And I didn't take that lightly. I knew it was what I would have to do."
Not that she's complaining.
"It's been humbling for me," she said. "But anything that's worth having is worth working for. I'm a very hard worker. I grew up on a farm. I know the value of hard work. There have been moments from Sept. 1 until now where I've been like, 'I cannot go another day. I'm exhausted.' My limit is three days away from my kids. I won't go more than three days away from them. But I've told myself, 'This is just for a time. It's just me getting back. I won't have to do this for every single.' And I'm doing it for my family, for our future, so that's a good feeling."
Asked about the greatest life lesson she's learned during the past few years, Evans said, "You know, the only thing that matters is what is really going on -- not what the perception is, not what the rumor is but what is really going on. People are always gonna talk, and they're always gonna speculate, and they're always gonna gossip. And that happens whether you're a celebrity or not.
"The only thing that matters is the truth. If somebody has a perception of me that's false, I cannot do anything about that. I mean, I want to be a good example, and I want people to know where I stand and all that, but I can't make everybody like me. So all that matters is what's the truth behind our walls and with our family -- with me and Jay and the kids."