It was the spring of 1999, and Sara Evans was definitely hearing the seductive siren calls of the studio and the concert trail. Hardly surprising, as Evans had found herself on the proverbial roll, coming off her first No. 1 single, “No Place That Far,” earlier that year, along with the acclaimed album of the same name. But also beckoning was first-time motherhood, and the 28-year-old mom-to-be had her priorities well in place. The recording studio would have to wait. But still, the competitive fire inside her smoldered just a little.
“I was nine months pregnant with my first child [son Avery],” Evans recalls to Sounds Like Nashville, “and feeling so ready to have this baby. One afternoon, I was watching TV and a Faith Hill video came on CMT, and then listening to her and Martina McBride and the others – I just wanted to be out there with them. I wanted to get back to it so bad. I was even thinking about styling and imaging.” But, as the adage would have it, first things first. “I had made a pact with myself not to start a family until I had a number one record,” Evans reveals. “That did happen and it made me feel a little more secure about having a family. This was a big step in my life and I was so excited.”
Not long after Avery was born in August of 1999, Evans strolled into the Money Pit studio in Nashville to record her third career album, eventually titled Born to Fly. It proved the breakthrough recording that vaulted Evans into that coveted “next-level” status. Born to Fly, featuring the No. 1 hit title track, was released October 10th, 2000, and became Evans’ most successful album to date, racking up sales of one million copies by July of 2001. Born to Fly also garnered a CMA award nomination for Album of the Year. Evans shared some insights and recollections about the record as it celebrates its twentieth anniversary.
MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT DRUMMER
With her first two albums, Three Chords and the Truth and No Place That Far, Evans was hailed for her neo-traditional vocal style and obvious respect for country’s past, particularly on Three Chords, which included a cover of Buck Owens’ “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.” Born to Fly, though, sent her soaring in a slightly different direction, featuring more flavors of pop and rock. To get that sound, Evans changed producers and enlisted Paul Worley, known for his eclectic musical leanings, as her co-producer.
“I liked a lot of the records that he had produced,” Evans explains, pointing to Worley’s previous efforts with Martina McBride, Highway 101, and others. “I met with Paul and we talked about my music. We decided to change course a little bit.” One element that Evans fairly well insisted on was a more prominent drum sound. “On the records I would listen to over and over, I paid attention to bass and drums a lot,” Evans tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I was a big fan of the Wallflowers and I would always be asking, ‘Who is that guy on the drums?’ I wanted Paul to find that drummer.” The percussionist in question was Seattle-based session musician Matt Chamberlain. “He had played with a lot of bands and artists, like Pearl Jam,” Evans says. “He was a pretty big deal in the pop world. We asked if he would come in for this album and he said yes. That was so unbelievable.” Chamberlain’s playing added some snap to the record’s overall sound.
Evans and Worley shared a mutual approach to unearthing songs for the album. “Paul was very particular on song choices, and I liked that,” Evans recalls. “We did not compromise on songs.” One of the early selections was the title track, written by Evans along with a couple of songwriting heavyweights, Marcus Hummon and Darrell Scott. “I had my first co-write with Marcus and Darrell,” Evans notes, “and it turned out to be ‘Born to Fly.’ I had no idea what the song was going to do. Looking back on it, I think ‘Born to Fly’ really gets everything off to a great start and sets the tone for the album.” The up-tempo tune, released as the album’s first single in June of 2000, charmed both listeners and country radio, eventually reaching No. 1. “It became my signature song,” Evans cheerfully notes.
Evans’ stylistic shift was best represented in her choice to cover “I Could Not Ask For More,” a romantic ballad from the prolific pen of Diane Warren, a pop writer if ever one existed. The move paid off, as Evans took the song to No. 2 on the country charts. Evans also covered pop star Bruce Hornsby’s “Every Little Kiss,” further signifying her artistic metamorphosis. Another Evans co-write, “I Keep Looking,” written with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin, leaned heavily on crunching guitars and weaved in some swirling Hammond B-3 organ. “I Keep Looking,” the album’s fourth and final single, peaked at the No. 5 spot.
The third single from Born to Fly, “Saints & Angels,” which followed “I Could Not Ask For More,” was the lone release to peak outside of the Top Ten. That it failed to hit the chart stratosphere remains one of those unexplained mysteries, as the song appeared to own all the right elements: an enlightening message (‘Cause when we’re torn apart/Shattered and scarred/Love has the grace to save us), heartfelt lyrics, and an anthemic chorus that showcased Evans’ expressive vocal range. “That is still my favorite song from the album,” Evans states with no hesitation. “Everyone agreed that it had to be on the record. It’s such a special song from Victoria Banks, who is a wonderful writer. It has such a good message.” Evans pauses and adds, with a certain emphasis, “I am surprised that it didn’t do better.”
The Born to Fly song list also included the track “Four-Thirty,” one of the earliest cuts by Hillary Lindsey, now an award-winning songwriter who can claim around 20 No. 1s. It’s an upbeat traveling tune which Lindsey wrote with the accomplished artist/songwriter Bill Lloyd. Evans points to “Four-Thirty” as yet another example of her new direction.
“It has a very jazzy sound and you wouldn’t think it belonged on a country record,” she laughs. “It was one of the first songs we looked at. Hillary did the demo and she is such an amazing singer. She makes incredible demos. So, I had to keep asking myself, ‘Was it the song or was it the demo?’ And I’m sure it was a little of both. I have heard people say that it’s one of their favorite cuts from the album.”
Evans brightly recollects the recording process for Born to Fly. Definitely a by-product of its era, the album was meticulously crafted by her and Worley. “We spent days in the studio,” Evans says, “which is not how they do it now. I think there was one day when we only did like two songs. You wouldn’t hear of that now. These days, they want you to slam those sessions on through.”
A “PIVOTAL” ALBUM
Born to Fly served as a fitting title for Evans’ record, as her career quite literally took off from the time it hit the streets and retail outlets. The album helped propel Evans to seven CMA award nominations in 2001 (the album was released too late to qualify for the 2000 honors), more than any other artist. The nods included Female Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year, plus Song, Single, and Music Video of the Year for the title track. Evans would cop the Music Video honor, but many thought the album deserved a better fate.
Unfortunately, the album faced some stiff competition in the much-buzzed-about soundtrack recording from the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The throwback album featured an array of music that spanned gospel, blues, folk, and bluegrass, meshing perfectly with the film’s Depression-era setting. It became the darling of the country music world, embraced by purists and progressive listeners alike. “I was a little unlucky,” Evans admits, “because O Brother was up that same year and it was so popular. It swept all the awards. I was excited to win the Video award. I really tried to up my game in that area and I think we made a tremendous video.”
Awards notwithstanding, however, Born to Fly achieved that rare double-play of both critical and commercial success. “Born to Fly, simply put, is a great album,” raved All Music Guide to Country. The album has since gone on to surpass the two million mark in sales.
“It was a pivotal album for me,” states Evans, and for several reasons. First, it marked her initial effort at co-producing. Plus, she co-wrote six of the album’s 11 cuts, establishing her as an all-around, versatile artist. Coming after the birth of her first child, Evans, to paraphrase one of the album’s hits, truly could not have asked for more in terms of professional and personal fulfillment.