When Sara Evans released her debut album Three Chords and the Truth in 1997, the term "bro country" had yet to be coined. There was still room for women to become stars in country – that same year, Shania Twain would release the best-selling country album of all time in Come on Over – and Evans wanted to be one of them.
Evans' debut wasn't a commercial juggernaut, though, peaking at Number 56 on Billboard's Top Country Albums Chart, but it was the important first step for an artist who would go on to sell millions of albums and chart multiple Number One singles.
That said, it's hard to imagine what would have happened to Evans had she released Three Chords and the Truth in 2017. A debate about women's representation on country radio reached a fever pitch in 2015 with Tomatogate, and the conversation continues today. At press time only two of the top 25 songs on Billboard's Hot Country Songs Chart are by solo female artists.
That disparity isn't wasted on Evans, whose eighth studio album Words was released last week.
"It’s an odd topic, because I don’t want to sound like I’m angry or bitter or anything like that, but I really am bewildered at the lack of female artists that radio is playing," she tells Rolling Stone Country.
One of the major talking points around Words is the number of female songwriters it features: 14, if you count Evans herself. The roster also includes Hillary Lindsey, Ashley Monroe, Caitlyn Smith and Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott, among others.
"I just happened to choose [the writers]," Evans explains. "I don’t like to ever know who wrote the songs that are being pitched to me; I don't like to know when they were written; I really don't want to know anything about them. I just want to turn it on and listen to it and experience it without any preconceived notions. The fact that there are 14 great female writers on this album is just like, ‘See, women have so much to say and sing about.'"
While Evans' choice of so many female songwriters was somewhat serendipitous, it's quickly apparent in conversation that the kind of songs being churned out by men aren't the kinds of songs that would ever appeal to her. In short: she hates the truck songs.
"I sat the other night and listened to a snippet of every country song on iTunes in the Top 40, and every other song talked about that," she says. "There was something about a truck, a dirt road, my girl in the tight jeans and how she’s [sings] 'Gonna climb on up in my big truck,' you know. Why are you singing about that? Why is that the only thing available to us?"
When asked what she thinks was the tipping point at which women began to be forced off the airwaves, she immediately points to one song: Luke Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)." It was released a few months after Evans' "A Little Bit Stronger," but rapidly made its way up the chart and transformed Bryan into a superstar.
"I remember watching that song and it was when I was coming out with 'A Little Bit Stronger,'" she explains. "I was noticing that it was so much more difficult to get adds at country radio. The label would be like, 'We’ve gotta have Sara come do this. She has to do this show.' It was like we were feeling that we had to say yes to everything as though I was a brand new artist again. And that was so frustrating."
Thinking back to Evans' debut album, then, it's possible that had it been released today, we never would have heard "Born to Fly" or "A Real Fine Place to Start." Evans believes she could have been dropped from her recording contract before those songs ever saw the light of day.
"It was tough [in 1997]," she laughs. "I can't even imagine it now. Even when there wasn’t even an issue of men versus women on country radio, it was still unbelievably difficult to get them to add your records. It’s so competitive. I can’t even imagine being a young female country artist going out and facing not only the normal odds that are out there, but, 'How are we going to get every country station in America to spin this song?' Now there are two slots, maybe four slots, that are going to be available in the Top 50? That would just be overwhelming."
It's so overwhelming that you can count the number of breakout female country stars from the last few years on one hand, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini being the most notable. Even Miranda Lambert, one of country's most beloved artists (male or female), can't get radio to play her music. Other artists, like Lambert compatriot Angaleena Presley and critical darling Brandy Clark, have turned elsewhere for support, finding more welcoming homes in the roots and Americana communities.
Evans has found herself drawn to such artists, and counts Jason Isbell's latest album The Nashville Sound as one of her favorite releases of the year. She insists that, radio play be damned, Isbell is country through and through.
"That’s the kind of country record that we are in love with," she says, leaning forward in her seat. "Jason Isbell is country. He has that one song ‘Anxiety,’ and I’m like, that’s it right there! He doesn’t have one song on his album about his woman getting in the pickup truck. That’s what we did when we were teenagers. We rode around on the dirt roads and drank beer. But now that we're adults with children, there's so much else to life."
Words is chock full of what happens in life when that dirt road dust settles and yesterday's beer cans are today's hangover. Standout track "Make Room at the Bottom," an Ashley Monroe/Brett James co-write that Evans recorded at the insistence of her son, is a heart-wrenching ballad about hitting your lowest point. Lead single "Marquee Sign" is a clever, infectious take on romantic regret. The title track acknowledges that just as words can heal, they can also be used as weapons, a message especially powerful in today's contentious political climate, which Evans describes as "depressing and stressful."
The title track serves a dual purpose for Evans, who chose the track to represent the collection in response to what she sees as a lack of respect for storytelling and thoughtful songwriting on commercial country radio. "The lyrics should be great," she says. "It should say something. It takes a lot of effort to write a great song. And it’s not a factory. A lot of people can sit down and rhyme. You could probably sit down and go, ‘This wall is really tall, and I don’t miss you at all,' but I just want something deeper."
Words marks the first time Evans has released music anywhere outside her original label RCA Nashville, going the independent route this time with her own Born to Fly Records. Whatever the avenue, she's excited and happy to have new music that showcases her artistic range.
You can hear her love for bluegrass on opening track "Long Way Down," her reverence for her country forebears on the Nineties-influenced "I Don't Trust Myself," her passion for storytelling on "I Need a River." More than anything, though, you hear an artist who isn't ready to call it quits. Evans may have had her last Number One single in 2011, but on Words she sounds more sure of herself than she ever has – and has made peace with the fact that she may never hear any of these new songs on country radio (though she'll be the first to admit she still hopes she does).
"It’s definitely been heartbreaking, because I grew up listening to country music," Evans says. "My home has been on country radio since the beginning of my career. I've definitely cried a lot of tears about it. But I also know I have a fan base that's there and they’re waiting for this album and thankfully there are so many other ways to get your music out there. But I really would still love to hear my songs on country radio when I get in the car and turn the radio on."