In late December of 1995, legendary songwriter Harlan Howard went to a Nashville studio to hear a new girl in town sing a new demo of his classic "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail." When Sara Evans finished singing, Harlan's enthusiasm was obvious. He said to her, "Girl, I have been looking for you for years to sing my music. You're great!" It was high praise from country's most revered writer, who proved his ear for talent remains as sharp as his writing when RCA Records signed Sara to a contract.
To meet Sara Evans is to discover an old-fashioned girl who knows what it takes to make it in the '90s. To hear her sing inspires the question, "Where does such a young woman get a voice so authentically country and so emotionally powerful?" It immediately evokes comparisons to country's greatest female artists past and present.
The answer in part lies in the fact that rural America continues to yield talented people whose life experiences resonate in the music they grow up listening to and singing. Sara's roots in the heartland and country music are as deep as they get. "I was born in Boonville, Mo., because it had the hospital. But, I was raised on a farm in Boonesboro which is a suburb of New Franklin, a town of 1,200 people," explains Sara. "On our farm we raised corn, beans, cattle and hogs. Later we raised tobacco. We were a very poor farm family." (Seven children in all, two boys and three girls by Sara's father and two girls from her mother's second marriage.)
Sara was barely 4 years old when music became an important and permanent part of her life. It began when her mother, Pat, started 9-year-old brother Jay on guitar lessons, along with seven year old Matt on banjo. "Mother knew even then I could sing," Sara reflects. "So, I think to get me in the act, my mother made me sing with my brothers supposedly so they could practice their chords." Before long, little Sara was taking mandolin lessons and the Evans family had an act.
Sara and her brothers became locally famous performing in churches, retirement homes, PTA meetings and bluegrass festivals singing mostly Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers material. The money the Sara Evans Show began to make professionally was a welcome source of additional income for the family that was so broke at one point they had to survive with the help of food stamps. "We were making fifty bucks each a night. We worked every weekend and a lot more in the summer time."
But, money has never been the point for Sara, she just loves getting up on a stage to sing. At age eight she even forced her family to let her sing in a wheel chair while she recovered from a traffic accident. Sara played in a succession of groups through junior high and high school, and she switched from bluegrass to country music.
"A real turning point for my career was when I was 16 and began working at a place near Columbia called The Country Stampede. It was a big country dance hall, a family kind of place. It held 2,000 people, I worked there two years, and every Saturday night I did a four hour gig. It was awesome, I felt like a star."
In summer of 1991 Sara decided to give Nashville a try. She waitressed at various restaurants to survive, and she began to write songs. She met a musician from Oregon named Craig Schelske (now her husband) who had a band with his two brothers. She headed back with them to Oregon in May of '92 where they spent the next three years. "In the summer of '95, Clay Walker complimented me from the stage and told me he thought I'd have a record contract within a year," remarks Sara.
Clay's comment was prophetic, because things moved quickly when Sara returned to Nashville in the fall of '95. First, an entertainment lawyer named Brenner Van Meter and her husband John, who worked for Tree Publishing, helped her connect with Tree where she began to record demos. That led to the happy encounter with Harlan Howard which, in turn, led Harlan's wife Melanie, to play Sara's version of "I 've Got a Tiger by the Tail" for RLG Senior A&R Director, Renee Bell.
In March of '96, Sara found herself sitting in the office of RLG Chairman, Joe Galante, auditioning live for him. "I just decided to go in there and sing for him and then be very straight with him about what I wanted as an artist," Sara recalls.
Galante says, "We were already impressed with a tape of her material. Then she came in and sang for us and did just great. We absolutely flipped for her and made the offer right after that."
RCA has added to its roster a performer who is the real thing, whose voice and style contain the essential qualities traditional country music will always have. Yet, Sara Evans has placed her fresh stamp on the classic form, a perfect link between the century where country music was born and the new century where its future lies.