Most country album release parties are held in Nashville, closed to the public and attended by music industry folks who’ve likely received advance copies of the record. But Sara Evans decided to do something a little different this time. For the release of her seventh studio album, Slow Me Down, she took the party to her newly-adopted hometown of Birmingham, Ala. Not only was the event open to the public – all of the money from ticket sales went to charity. Held at the 1300-capacity venue Iron City, Sara’s party raised over $40,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Alabama, and Alabama Forever.
During her set, Sara and her band performed past hits including “Born to Fly” and “Suds In The Bucket,” as well as new songs from Slow Me Down. She also played cuts from the new record as radio personality Buzz Brainard interviewed her for a SIRIUS/XM special.
In the middle of the show, Sara was surprised by Birmingham’s Mayor, the honorable Mayor William Bell. Bell presented her with a key to the city in recognition of her charity work. While her husband and children watched the concert from the balcony, Sara entertained her fans and friends and expressed her gratitude to the packed house. Judging from the audience response, she is now one of Birmingham’s favorite residents.
To quote Sara’s 2005 hit, the city has been “A Real Fine Place To Start” – or more accurately, a place to start over. After her divorce from Craig Schelske in 2007, Sara married former University of Alabama quarterback/current radio sportscaster Jay Barker in 2008. They blended their families – Jay has four children and Sara has three – and Sara moved from Nashville to Birmingham. Sitting in her dressing room before the show, Sara recalls the day she made the decision to leave Music City.
“We had talked about maybe doing a dual residence and going back and forth between Nashville and Birmingham,” says Sara. “Then when we were engaged we got into softball and baseball season – and Jay had something every single night because his kids are all athletes and so are mine. I remember I was at the ball park in Franklin [Tenn.] and he was at the ball park in Birmingham – and I just thought, ‘We will never see each other. This is ridiculous. And I can’t ask him to leave his children – nor would I and nor would he – so I just thought, ‘I can do my career from 2 ½ hours away. It’ll take a little bit more planning, but I’m on the road all the time anyway.’ So we came down here and it just felt completely normal.
“I told Jay to pick where we live because he knows Birmingham,” she adds. “He chose our neighborhood, chose our house. We bought it and started a new life.”
Sara describes her neighborhood as being “like Mayberry,” with restaurants and a coffee shop within walking distance. Her kids even walk to school every day. When she first moved to town, Sara worked hard to fit in.
“I would come home after walking the kids to school,” she says. “Olivia was in kindergarten when we moved here, Avery was in third grade and Audrey was in preschool. I would meet someone, see who their children were, then come home and write it down as quick as I could: ‘I just met Lisa and Caldwell is her daughter.’ And then of course you just naturally gravitate toward certain people. And now I feel like I don’t know what I would do without these friends.”
In the Slow Me Down liner notes, Sara makes special mention of those friends, thanking her Birmingham girlfriends for their support. “I have a really great small group of girlfriends, probably about five,” she says. “I ask them to travel with me; I depend on them for everything.”
It’s been three years since her last album, Stronger, which garnered hits including “A Little Bit Stronger” and a cover of the 1988 Rod Stewart song, “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.” While Sara started out as a traditional country artist (1997’s Three Chords and the Truth), her sound has evolved through the years. Slow Me Down still nods to tradition – “Better Off,” featuring harmonies by Vince Gill, is a standout track – but it also showcases Sara embracing pop music as she covers Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” (with Gavin providing background vocals) and duets with The Fray’s lead singer, Isaac Slade, on “Can’t Stop Loving You.” For her encore at Iron City, she picked three recent pop songs to sing: Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man,” P!nk’s “Just Give Me A Reason” and the Neon Tree’s “Everybody Talks.”
Clearly comfortable with the blurred lines of today’s hybrid country, Sara insists she never paid attention to the current trends or what was on the radio while she was writing songs for Slow Me Down. “I don’t think about that at all,” she states. “I just think about, ‘Do I love this song? Is it a great song? Do I love the lyric? Does it move me? Is it something that’s authentic for me?’”
Perhaps the best example of Sara’s confidence in her music and life is a song on Slow Me Down which she co-wrote, called “Sweet Spot.” “It’s about our life now and how it is,” says Sara of her blended family and their hometown. “We’ve been through a lot of drama and trauma in our lives. Now we’re just in this perfect, sweet spot.”