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Evans tells of country's truths

By Brian Steinberg, November 1997

The first few bars might tell the story. Sara Evans's voice recalls a faraway time, when a female country music singer didn't sound like warmed-over Linda Ronstadt, circa 1970's.

"I look into those blue eyes/ Something happens to me..." The sound reminds one of Patsy Cline, but souped-up for the modern age.

Trouble is, the song with those lyrics, "True Lies," barely registered on the pop-culture meter or in the minds of country radio programmers when released this past spring.

In fact, RCA delayed the release of Evans's debut album, "Three Chords And The Truth," because it wanted a viable single out to support album sales. Instead of coming out in late May, the disc was delayed until September.

The next single, the title track, had the same name as a gossipy book about country music's household names. RCA let Evans's recording linger a while longer until the book's buzz died down.

"It's very dangerous to put out an album (without a hit single) because the stores can ship it back. We wanted to make a huge impact," Evans says in a recent telephone interview. "I swear, my mom thought I was lying about the whole thing."

Evans speaks in relaxed tones, slurping a Coke with ice while telling her sister on the other line they'll have to speak later. Her mind is on other subjects. She wants to set country music afire with a sound reminiscent of its past.

"I would like to hear some music with more depth to it. (What's on country radio) is just not my personal taste, but when it sells so many records and it stays on the charts, how do I argue with that?" she asks.

"I'm just not a fan of that real commercial, sugar-coated stuff," she adds. "I do think there's some good stuff, but it doesn't dominate, I'll say that."

If Sara Evans wants to change country radio, she certainly has her work cut out for her. Witness Nashville's reprehensible treatment of other like-minded songbirds. Kelly Willis can knock out a rumbling, in-your-face version of Loretta Lynn's "Fist City." She released a beautiful EP made with Son Volt and 16 Horsepower and got dropped from her label for her trouble. And has anyone heard from Carlene Carter recently?

Despite prevailing trends, Evans doesn't seem willing to change. "When Reba first came out, I was very very in love with Reba," she says. "She kind of broke my heart, though, because she went to pop."

Evans grew up with a strict roots background, so her stance makes sense. She was the third of seven children, the daughter of Missouri farmers. By four, her musical talent was evident. Evans was already taking mandolin lessons and formed a band with two of her brothers.

Even after being hit by a car four years later, an accident that required two years recovery and plastic surgery, Evans kept on singing. At 11, she recorded an album for a small label and sat in a Fan Fair booth in Nashville trying to sell it. Not everyone can be LeAnn Rimes, however. She returned to high school.

Graduation found Evans on the Holiday Inn circuit. She managed to transfer from her hometown hotel to one in Nashville for what could be a crack at the big time.

Romance intervened. Evans met and later married Craig Schelske. a room-service waiter waiting for a similar musical break, in 1993, and went to Oregon, Scheske's home state. He and his brothers set up a tour of the Northwest. Evans longed to return to Nashville, however, so they did.

Now she has an album out produced by Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam's board man, with members of Yoakam's band backing her up.

Anderson "thinks a lot about what which instruments should go on which songs," she says. "He produces some of the songs really stripped down. Not a lot of people do that in country music these days."

She credits Anderson for drilling the band in her style. The producer/guitar player "rehearsed the band for a whole week, before we even got in the studio. Very uncommon for a producer to do," she says. "I remember him going over and over and over it with the guys, 'cause there are so many ways you could play the songs. The guys kept trying to take it more jazzy, 'let' s play this chord here and that chord there.' He made them really play it through, and ended up adding his guitar in." "Three Chords And The Truth" marks Evans' first attempt at songwriting, and she was able to work with some high-profile collaborators, including former NRBQ-guitarist Al Anderson ("True Lies").

"I never really wrote a song until I got my record deal," she explains. "I wanted to try and write some songs on this record. (I thought) 'It would be so cool to get one song I wrote on my album.' So in the summer of '96, I just wrote and wrote, every single day. Every day I had appointments." She brought along melodies and broad lyrical ideas. The songwriters-for-hire helped her put her ideas into words.

Evans wrote 7 of the 11 songs, also writing with Jamie O'Hara ("Shame About That") and Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery ("If You Ever Want My Lovin'"). She also covered the Buck Owens/Harlan Howard classic "I've Got a Tiger By the Tail" and Bill Anderson's "Walk Out Backwards."

She has set goals for the future. Evans says she has "almost written the whole (next) album already, just me and one other person. I've graduated up to two people. Eventually, I hope to write all of the songs by myself."

Now her work lies in radio tours and quick, one-hop plane trips to various stations. Rather than feeling tired out, the shows have left her wanting more, she says.

"I'm so anxious to go out on the road," she says. "We just can't really afford to do that yet. It's so expensive to take a crew out on the road, so I'm just thankful for any time to do these shows." Her band is David Ball's road band, and her sister, Ashley Evans, sings harmony.

Still, can this 26-year-old conquer country music by returning to its roots? She can always have her hopes.

The country format at present "is just too pop, or '70's rock," she says. "It's definitely a different format than it was 20 years ago."

"I started out singing bluegrass music," she adds, explaining her musical beliefs. "From the time I was 4 until I was 10, I sang in a bluegrass band. I listened to all the bluegrass people. That's how I learned to sing, when you just yell really loud." Obviously, she has refined her approach.

But if Evans wants to shake country music's foundations, she will have to yell. Whether this songbird can make 'em stand up and listen remains a tale still wending its way towards its end.