When Sara Evans emerged on the country scene with her 1997 RCA debut, a female dominance was finally ruling radio. Heavy-hitting material from women who had something to say and something worth listening to resonated with listeners. As the new millennium broke, reality TV competition winners and young starlets took reign and countless top females from the 90s were abruptly reassigned to the legacy act category. Today, a mere handful of women see their singles receive airplay. Those emotion-gripping story songs, aching with the truth, have been replaced with vapid lyrics and computer-generated production.
Sara Evans has built one of the best career models in recent memory. She’s managed to stay relevant and grow musically without artistic compromise. Along with Reba McEntire, she’s the only female act to score a number one single in each of the last three decades: “No Place That Far” (1999), “Suds in the Bucket” (2004), “A Real Fine Place to Start” (2006), and “A Little Bit Stronger” (2010). Only Terri Clark, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Jo Dee Messina could achieve that feat should they return to the top spot by the current decade’s end.
Her musical evolution is a fascinating one; there’s no commercial flop or unexpected path where listeners questioned why the artist was straying from what they excel at. Those honky-tonk Harlan Howard sounds of her debut to the contemporary styling of 1998’s “No Place That Far,” remain listenable after decades have passed. Her commercial breakthrough, “Born To Fly,” is one of the few albums from that particular mainstream era that doesn’t sound dated or full of trendy production tricks.
The fact that she was gaining full control with her self-owned label imprint and seemed to have a reignited passion for the creative process, left me in full-on anticipation mode for “Words.” I had the chance to catch a brief set Sara performed at CMA Fest and she previewed several tracks. Her voice, the delivery, it’s all still there.
What sets this record apart is that there’s a cohesiveness that is stronger and more obvious than her previous efforts. You are getting a focused piece of music, not something that attempts to cover multiple musical landscapes to appease various realms of listeners. In a business where performers struggle to stay pertinent when their commercial success peaks, Sara Evans has managed to mature gracefully and continuously advance her work. This isn’t an artist who is repeating the same material from days gone by, this is someone who produced age-appropriate, relatable, enjoyable songs that have been finessed with instrumentation that suits the song without taking away from the lyrics. Appropriate, as the collection is titled, “Words.”
The gem-filled 14-track record showcases familiar notable songwriters: Hillary Lindsey, Sonya Isaacs, Brett James, among others. “Make Room at the Bottom,” co-written by Ashley Monroe and “I Don’t Trust Myself” – a Caitlyn Smith co-write, are premier lyrical highlights. There’s such a personal and inviting vibe to this album, as if Sara Evans and her band were playing right there in your own living room, articulating these tremendous story songs. The players transition into country, folk, light pop, and bluegrass sounds effortlessly and refrain from sounding out of place.
There are big ballad songs like “I Need A River” that are never overshadowed by production – her voice is always on point without being over the top. Vocally, she’s at her best on this album. The acrobatic stylings of “Rain and Fire” and the vulnerability of “I Want You” prove why Sara Evans is a lively force in country music.
A stripped-down acoustic version of Sara’s CMA-nominated chart-topper “A Little Bit Stronger” closes the album and it’s worth the wait. Free from the polished production of the original, this version allows Sara’s biggest asset, her voice, to reign. It’s a gorgeously beautiful take on of the best-written singles of the decade.
While talking with press about this project, Sara has stated that “Words” is a career-defining album that is her best work to date. That’s a massive statement from someone who has reaped both positive critical and commercial reception from her multi-platinum, award-winning catalog. However, the fresh production, players, and Sara’s vocal capabilities leave “Words” making an impressive statement.
Listen to "Words" on Spotify or visit www.SaraEvans.com to purchase a vinyl edition.