It has been 16 years since country music star Sara Evans released one of her highest-selling albums “Born to Fly.” The title track became one of her first solo No. 1 hits and remains one of her best and most autobiographical songs about growing up in rural Mid-Missouri and longing to spread her wings.
The multiplatinum artist has sold more than six million albums generating five No. 1 hits in a career that has definitely soared. In 2006 she was named Female Vocalist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and the talented beauty, who has been singing since she was five years old, was born to perform.
Whether it’s the Grand Ole Opry or singing the National Anthem in Kauffman Stadium during Game 2 of the 2015 World Series in Kansas City, her pure and strong voice, along with her interpretative styling, gives new meaning to almost any song.
“I love performing,” said Evans, by phone from her home in Birmingham, Alabama. “Live performance has always been my favorite part of my career.”
Now in her mid 40s, the singer/songwriter continues to tour and is gearing up for her eighth studio album. Even now, with fame, a high-profile life and friends like Vince Gill and fellow Missourian Sheryl Crow, Evans, who has been on People Magazine’s Most Beautiful list remains true to her Midwestern roots, family values and her faith.
“I am a country girl,” she said. “My brothers, sisters and I grew up working the family farm.” ”
Her father, Jack, farmed by day and worked nights in the press room at the Columbia Daily Tribune. At one time their home on the 450-acre family farm sat on a parcel of land that now houses Vintage Hill Farm & Nursery, six miles north of Boonville.
There’s no mistaking that Evans is the most famous person from New Franklin. Coming into the small town in Howard County, there’s a sign that proudly proclaims it as the Hometown of Sara Evans, Country Music Star.
Growing up, country music was the soundtrack of her life. Her mother, Pat, who drove a school bus for 40 years, played all the greats like George Jones and Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline. Time spent at her granny and grandpa’s house included watching Roy Clark and Buck Owens on the television show “Hee Haw” as well as listening to a lot of country and bluegrass albums.
Singing with her brothers Jay and Matt in the Evans family band, by the time she was 16 she was belting out “Sweet Dreams” and songs by Reba McEntire and the late Merle Haggard with the house band at Country Stampede, a large dance hall on Interstate 70 outside of Columbia.
After she moved to Nashville, she recorded demos for her manager’s husband who was a song plugger, pitching songs to artists. One day in 1995, she cut a cover of Buck Owen’s “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” co–written by legendary songwriter Harlan Howard, who by chance was in the studio that day.
Howard compared her to Loretta Lynn, and she landed a seven-record deal with RCA Nashville, a division of Sony Entertainment. Her hits started coming, but while building her career she was also a busy mother.
Her son Avery, 16, and daughters Olivia, 13, and Audrey, 11, are “tour babies” and have grown up alongside her in her tour bus, their home away from home.
After she had her son Avery in 1999, the same year of her first No. 1 hit “Fool I’m a Woman” from her “No Place That Far” album, she brought him along with the band and crew in the middle of touring during fair season. When Evans, Reba McEntire and Martina McBride went on the Girls’ Night Out tour, she built in a crib and added a playpen in the bus. Then her girls started traveling with her, too. It’s been a family affair really as her brother, Matt, plays bass in her band and her sisters Ashley and Lesley have traveled along as back up singers for many years.
After marrying Jay Barker, a radio sports announcer and former University of Alabama quarterback, in June of 2008, she’s also become stepmom to his four children. Their wedding in Franklin, Tennessee, along with their blended family, was featured in People Magazine. Their brood of 7 has been called a modern-day Brady Bunch.
“As my kids get older they need me more and I want to be at their soccer games and other events so it’s a constant juggling act trying to balance my home and road life,” she said.
Navigating the changing country music industry is also more challenging than when she started out with other great female singers, like Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack and Leann Rimes.
“I was lucky to be in the company of these incredible artists and we definitely half-ruled the radio play,” she said. “But that’s not the case anymore. It’s very closed off now and has been for the past five or six years, where it’s a certain type of song that’s been successful and they keep repeating it over and over.”
“I don’t relate to songs about partying, trucks and beer,” she said.
From the beginning, her inspirations have come from her own life, and she knows how to pick a hit song. Many of her songs are country-pop and it’s no surprise that she listens more to radio stations that play Bruno Mars, John Mayer, Selena Gomez and rhythm and blues.
For her, it’s all about telling a story that’s universal, that speaks to her as a person and an artist. It was going back to her roots in the single “Born to Fly” that put her on the road to stardom. She received seven Country Music Association (CMA) award nominations and the music video with the “Wizard of Oz” theme won Video of the Year.
She co–wrote “Born to Fly” with her close friend Marcus Hummon who co-wrote the Rascall Flatts hit “God Bless the Broken Road,” which he sang at Evans and Barker’s wedding. Evans has recorded both an acoustic and a bluegrass version of the song for other albums over the years and it’s still relatable, a story of a girl looking for her “over the rainbow” and sharing her dreams with a scarecrow in the fields.
“I Could Not Ask for More” the second hit single from the “Born to Fly” album was written by the prolific Grammy Award-winning songwriter Dianne Warren and first recorded by Edwin McCain. One of those big, swelling ballads that Evans can sing to perfection, she made it her own and gave it a female perspective.
Her third number-one single on the US Country charts was “Suds in The Bucket,” written by Billy Montana and Tammy “Jenai” Wagoner.
“This song is about a young girl running off and making this split decision that changes her life. It was written in a comedic way, but the topic was serious and real,” she said.
Evans co–wrote “Missing Missouri,” a single from “Real Fine Place” (2005) with another Missouri native, Trent Tomlinson, and reminisced about watching the St. Louis Cardinals on television and tobacco fields.
Her career was on fire and Hollywood came calling. The first country artist picked to join the celebrity cast of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” her private life took center stage and she left the television show during a very public divorce from her first husband.
It was five years between her fifth and sixth studio album, “Stronger” released in 2011. She remarried and moved her family from Nashville to Alabama and helped her children settle in to new schools and a new life.
The hit single “A Little Bit Stronger” became an anthem of sorts for anyone who has been through a heartbreaking breakup. Co-written by Hillary Scott, of the Grammy-winning Lady Antebellum (with Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey), the song was featured on the soundtrack of the movie “Country Strong,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a fictional country music singer.
“I like songs about relationships, love and heartache, sad songs with drama,” said Evans, “Sometimes people assume that when you sing a song that’s what is going on in your life, but I was happily remarried when ‘Stronger’ came out and unhappy at other times in my life when I’ve sang happy songs.”
“John Mayer said, ‘I don’ t need to have lived certain lyrics, I need to be able to understand the human heart and emotions,’” she added.
Evans played essentially herself, when she sang “Put My Heart Down” from her seventh album, “Slow Me Down” in a duet with Luke Wheeler, (played by Will Chase), on the ABC television show “Nashville.”
“That was a phenomenal experience and it gave me a huge amount of respect for actors and what these people do,” said Evans, who has expressed an interest in acting. If her videos are any indication, she could probably be good at it. “I’m a bit intimidated by it and there’s never been a good time to move my family somewhere, but maybe down the road.”
The title track “Slow Me Down,” about a rocky relationship, was released in 2014 and debuted at #1. One of her favorites, she built the entire album around this song. It includes several duets with male singers including Gavin DeGraw and Vince Gill, around that song because it spoke to her sensibilities.
“What’s frustrating is that I spend so much time on every song on an album, going over the string part and the harmony like a mad scientist in the studio,” she said. “I worry if my voice is loud enough and whether the bass part works.”
A time of transition for her–she’s no longer with RCA Nashville, and she has made management changes, too–her career is at a cross roads. She’s not sure what advice she would give to young female artists on how to break into the business, or how to deal with the narrow playlist on country radio that seems full of songs by men.
“I would tell them to be as authentic as they can be and if they don’t believe in something they shouldn’t record it. That’s how I have always conducted myself in my career and I still believe that the cream always rises to the top,” she said.
Forever she will be Missouri’s own success story, the small town girl who made it big. She not only went after her dreams but she’s living them, too. Maybe she can have it all on her own terms but her longevity in the business is a testament to her resilience and dedication to her craft.
Soon to be writing and recording in the studio, Evans hopes to have her new album out in the fall. This summer, she’ll be on tour and will have her kids in tow, several who are musically gifted. Her husband has described their life as “managed chaos” but they make it work and when she’s home she likes to make dinner for her family.
“We got a new puppy and he’s going crazy,” she said. “We’re also building a pool in our backyard and there’s workers here and a big Bobcat out in the yard. There’s always something going on but I feel confident, happy and peaceful.”
“I am where I am just like everyone else, but I feel just as creative, young, vibrant and excited about music as I ever have been in my life. So, hopefully the career and the music will drive off of where I am right now.”
Editor’s Note: I first interviewed Sara Evans back in 2011, right after she released her sixth album, “Stronger,” I met her in January of 2012 during a meet-n-greet before she performed at a concert at the Mizzou Arena in Columbia. She was on tour with Hunter Hayes and Rascal Flatts. She will performing in Branson on June 17 at the Mansion Theatre.