TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Sara Evans began her career in the early '90s as a traditional country singer, inspired by the work of songwriters such as Harlan Howard, but she became a star by applying her big voice to songs that frequently used pop melodies and structures as much as country styles. Evans' new album is called "Slow Me Down." It's her first album in three years. Rock critic Ken Tucker say it's a strong, often stirring, collection.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SARA EVANS: (singing) Look at that boy in the river, soaking wet with faith. And look at that girl on the courthouse steps saying things gotta change. There's that woman on the corner handing out coffee and the word. She's listening to those working girls, the ones that never get heard. Every time I think I'm lost, this world's nothing but luck, God always sends someone down just to stir things up. Hallelujah.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Sara Evans is a singer with a big voice who knows what to do with it. Her phrasing is conversational - she rarely tries to goose the emotion in a song by stretching out syllables or leaping registers. Evans has never been a singer of hardcore country music; she likes pop and she's not afraid to apply her big vocal power to big cheesy power ballads.
The difference between her and many singers who work in that particular territory is that her power ballads really pack a punch.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW ME DOWN")
EVANS: (singing) Wheels are turning in my mind. Don't want to leave but I might this time. Seconds from whispering good-bye. Yeah, the wheels are turning in my mind. If all that's left to do is walk away, then baby, I'm as gone as yesterday. But if there's something you still need to say, you need to say it now. Hurry up and slow me down.
TUCKER: The title song and the album's first single, "Slow Me Down," is a fine example of Sara Evans' contemplative style of ballad singing. She sings the first verse as though she's speaking thoughts flitting through her mind. That's followed quickly by a big brassy chorus, and Evans makes the shift from quiet meditation to bold declaration with a thrillingly smooth abruptness.
"Slow Me Down" features some clever lyrics - its verbal hook is the notion that the guy she's addressing needs to hurry up and slow down her exit from their relationship. Like the woman in the song, Evans is fully in control of this musical situation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I RUN")
EVANS: (singing) You know they say that your first heartbreak can forever change the way you see love. But ask anyone who's had it broken more than once, they'll say it's twice as hard to get your heart to trust. So baby, can you tell me this. Can I count on all your promises? Are you going to be the one that sticks? If I run, baby, will you chase me? Be the one who wants to save me? Never walk away no matter what?
(singing) If I was lost would you come and find me? When I forget would you remind me who I am will always be enough? If I run. If I run. Don't want to make you feel bad...
TUCKER: Evans went through a 2007 divorce so public and scandalously detailed it could've been a subplot on the TV series "Nashville." Her private life slowed her productivity; she's only released three albums of all new material since 2005. But it didn't mar the quality of her performances. It's always foolish to guess at an artist's motivations but it's undeniable that on her last album, 2011's "Stronger," and this new one, "Slow Me Down," Evans has located a new undercurrent of steely firmness that has only strengthened her singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU NEVER KNOW")
EVANS: (singing) Might be a cold blank stare or a roll of an eye. You know it's slipping through your fingers but you don't know why. Oh, it might die fast or bleed out slow. You never know. Might be the call of God or the look on his face. Was it the lies on his lips I could almost taste? Oh, he might come clean or put on a show. You never know the way love goes.
TUCKER: This album features a number of duets with male singers, including Gavin DeGraw and Isaac Slade, lead singer of The Fray. Those guys are merchants of the maudlin, especially compared to Evans' best vocal partner here, Vince Gill, with whom she sings the most traditionally country song on the album, called "Better Off."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER OFF")
EVANS: (singing) So go on and get that suitcase and help him pack it up. Girl, you ain't losing nothing. You don't need his kind of love. Don't watch him as he's going. It'll break your heart again. And don't stand there waiting with the door wide open, hoping he'll walk back in.
SARA EVANS AND VINCE GILL: If he's going to go, let him go. If he wants to leave, let him leave. If he's going to walk, he's going to walk. He'll only leave you better off.
TUCKER: Sara Evans is in her early 40s, a fact I bring up to place her current achievement in a country music industry context. She's surrounded on the charts by younger men currently making big hits about drinking and partying. The younger women creating the best, most thoughtful and witty new music, such as Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, are struggling to be played on country radio and garner bigger sales.
Country music right now prizes male youth and aggression over female experience and assertiveness, which makes the hit-single success of this album's title song all the more heartening. Sara Evans is one of the few performers whose voice hovers over this situation, blithely ignoring it, avoiding any trace of exertion or self-pity. She then swoops down into the trenches, making difficult, complex relationships sound like the best hard work a person could do.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Sara Evans' new album, "Slow Me Down."