Interview: Sara Evans Hopes Her Mother Won’t Read Her Memoir, ‘Born to Fly’
Sara Evans' memoir Born to Fly is intentionally incomplete. The longtime country hitmaker, one-time reality show star and occasional outspoken social commentator didn't stuff every story from her life and career into the 21 chapters because — well, she has her reasons.
There's one off-limits topic and a few that might still need processing or time for her children (two teenagers and a 21-year-old) to mature into. At 49, Evans is young for a memoir, and she seems to recognize this by dedicating the second half of the book to things she's learned about love, divorce, step-parenting, the music business and communication instead of granular details around songs like "Suds in the Bucket." The appetizers (if you want to call them that) are up front, while the more substantial pearls come later.
Born to Fly the book is in many ways the story of Evans' relationship with conflict. The abandonment she felt from her father after her parents divorced when she was 12 sets up a series of events with men (including physical and attempted sexual abuse) that she didn't really sort through until she was well into adulthood. These memories, Evans tells Taste of Country, may upset her siblings (including older brother Jay) and her mother. As she describes recent panic attacks had while imagining their response, it's easy to understand why she may have held back.
“Like the part where I talk about how my mom told us to ask our dad for the child support. I don’t wanna make her feel bad about that, but it did happen,” Evans says. “Hopefully that won’t offend her, but we’re kind of an easily offended family and we have a hard time talking things through.”
Evans now lives in Nashville with her husband Jay after more than a decade spent in his home state of Alabama. The book is but a chapter marker in her career, and she makes it clear during sections that focus on country music today — and her unsavory experiences with radio programmers — that she's just as plugged into the business as she was in 1997, when her debut album Three Chords and the Truth was released on RCA Records. She also makes very clear her feelings about the business and the role radio plays in making and breaking careers. It's a familiar story told with acerbic emphasis on right and wrong. With Born to Fly (available Sept. 8) you get the sweet and the bitter.
"It’s always frustrating. So many tears cried. So many days away from my kids. So many free shows that I’ve had to do and it’s just humiliating. It’s not that I didn’t ever want to work hard for my career because I did. I had no problem with that. I just have a problem with no explanation for not playing great music in comparison to playing other music."
What did you learn about yourself while researching and writing this book?
The main thing I learned about myself is I’ve been through a s--t ton of hard times and drama. I look back on how I was as a child, I had a wonderful mom and an absent father, but I still had a great childhood. Growing up on a farm in the ‘70s and ‘80s was just idyllic, you know, but I look at the difference in the way that my kids have grown up and how I’ve really done so much and dedicated my life and my heart and soul to making their life as easy as possible, because we always want our children to have it better than we had it.
One of the main things I learned is that I really did go through so much on my own, supporting myself getting through anxiety and difficult situations, on my own.
Your dad is a central character early, especially as you talk about your parents’ divorce and how that affected you. Is he still alive and will he read this?
He is. He developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, so he’s very bad. He is in Dallas in essentially a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients. With COVID-19, it’s been awful because no one who knows him can go and touch him and see him. So he’s literally just kind of fading away.
Does your brother see your childhood the same way you do?
I think so, yeah. As we’ve gotten older and when my dad first got sick, it wasn’t easy for us five siblings because I think we each had different thoughts. I’ve probably been the most hard on my dad. I was the oldest girl, I was 12 when they divorced. So from birth until 12, I had him and I was the center of his attention. So that just all completely changed and went away when they divorced. So I probably harbored a lot more bitterness towards him than maybe some of my siblings. That’s been difficult and divisive, but we’re working through it.
You allude to how the fractured relationship with your father made you vulnerable later on to a certain type of man who might take advantage of you. How old were you when you started to understand how these feelings of abandonment shaped your adulthood?
I’m totally an empath, and I’m so susceptive to being walked on and being taken for granted. I’m too nice, way too nice. Personal relationships I am very much like that, but not professionally. Just like the story where I fire the manager who said the F-word when I told him I was pregnant. Professionally I don’t put up with that s--t at all. But personally I am very much the giver in relationships.
I think it was in my 20s when I started mourning my parents’ marriage and started thinking about the divorce. I remember calling my mom and having these long conversations with her where I think it kind of hurt her, because you want to believe as the parent that the kids are fine. It’s been years, and, ‘Why are we still talking about it?’
Your mom is going to have a hard time reading this book, isn't' she?
Yeah, I don’t really want her to. I mean, that’s been the most stressful part of the book, is that I want to sell millions of copies but I don’t want family to read it necessarily, because it’s my — this is such a millennial term — but it’s my truth about my experiences and how I saw the world from my point of view. I don’t want to offend siblings. I’m not trying to speak ill of my father now that he’s not doing well. But at the same time, all of it is true. I did feel those ways and it did shape who I am.
You don’t talk much about your first marriage and how it ended. How did you draw the line between stories you wanted to tell and what you decided wasn’t worth it?
It was drawn for me because we have a gag order. Even if we didn’t have that in place I probably wouldn’t have, because my kids are still young. Audrey’s still just 15, Olivia is 17 and Avery just turned 21. I don’t think they’d want to have that out there in a book.
Professionally, what were your favorite years?
Definitely "Born to Fly" (2000) all the way to "A Little Bit Stronger" (2010). There were always hiccups along the way, bumps in the road and most of those were always country radio. The most negative aspect of my career, hands down, when I think about when I was still signed to RCA and even today … has always been dealing with radio.
Is that frustration or bitterness?
It’s a bitterness. I’m very bitter about it. It was so hard every single. Every single was so hard. They always gave me so much crap. I would have a huge hit and then they wouldn’t play “Backseat of the Greyhound Bus.” Why? I didn’t know if it was the promotions staff at RCA Records or if it was something about me. There are always these things that go on behind the scenes that people don’t realize. Like, so let’s just say a guy on my promotion team pissed off the programmer from Cincinnati, then he might decide not to play the new Sara Evans record. Which just screws with my life, but it might have been something between the two of them. That kind of stuff happened all the time, and I was very bitter about it, because it changed my career.
It’s always frustrating. So many tears cried. So many days away from my kids. So many free shows that I’ve had to do and it’s just humiliating. It’s not that I didn’t ever want to work hard for my career because I did. I had no problem with that. I just have a problem with no explanation for not playing great music in comparison to playing other music.
I’m looking at your singles discography on Wikipedia and it’s No. 1, No. 32, No. 1, No. 2, No. 16 — these are the chart rankings. You can see what you’re saying. Hit, hit, wouldn’t play it.
Yeah, I could never get them to make me an automatic add, and I worked so hard for every add that I ever got at radio. I really do miss having songs on commercial country radio because that makes the world go 'round, you know?
Today, many of the young, female artists bond and have a conversation among themselves, which may be because of social media or because of the wider “Women in Country Music” conversation being had, but there’s a sisterhood. Was there the equivalent of that in the early 2000s?
Not really — no, because we were all fighting for that space. We were all nice to each other, but there was definitely a competitiveness. As much as I liked Martina McBride, I still wanted to beat her out of that slot to get my record played. And I’m very competitive.
If we put your accomplishments on paper and took that in a time machine to Sara Evans in 1994, would she have been satisfied?
That’s a great question. I would have been a little bit of both. I would have been angry that every song I released didn’t climb to the top of the charts, because I am so competitive and I am a perfectionist. But at the same time, I would have also been very grateful, and I am very grateful, for my career, and my career is still going very strong.