Had Three Chords and the Truth been released about a decade earlier, it would have been a monster hit for Sara Evans. All of the tracks on this very traditional-sounding album would have been right at home on country radio in the late 80s, alongside the hits of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Reba McEntire and The Judds. But by the mid-1990s, the New Traditionalist movement had run out of steam and country music began once again to drift toward a more pop-leaning sound. Someone at RCA Records apparently felt that the time was right for traditionalism to make a comeback and thought that Sara Evans was the one to spearhead the movement. Unfortunately, country radio wasn’t interested in a traditionalist revival and gave the album little support. As such, it sold poorly, despite being one of the most solid debut efforts by any artist of any era. The album was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by Pete Anderson, who was best known for his work with Dwight Yoakam. Together he and Sara Evans crafted a retro-sounding collection that makes no attempt to tone down the twang in Sara’s voice. It is part Bakersfield, part Nashville Sound, and 100% country.
Sara shared co-writing credits on seven of the album’s tracks, including ‘True Lies’ which was released as her first single in advance of the album. It stalled at #59 on the Billboard country singles chart. The follow-up single, the excellent title track, fared slightly better, peaking just outside the Top 40 at #44. It was accompanied by Sara’s first music video, which, in keeping with the song’s retro theme, depicted her driving a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible and wearing vintage 1960s clothing. RCA made one final attempt to pitch this album to radio, with the release of a third single, ‘Shame About That’, which like its predecessors, failed to crack the Top 40, peaking at #48.
Three of the album’s eleven songs were covers: ‘I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail’ written by Harlan Howard and Buck Owens, ‘Imagine That’, a Justin Tubb composition that had reached #21 in 1962 for Patsy Cline, and ‘Walk Out Backwards’ which had been written by Bill Anderson, and had also been recorded by Connie Smith. The influences of all of these legends is apparent on these tracks, and throughout the album. The Bakersfield sound is represented with ‘I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail’. This was the song that Sara had recorded as a demo, which so impressed Harlan Howard that he helped her to secure her record deal with RCA. ‘Imagine That’ allowed her to show off her ability to sing a torch song, while “Walk Out Backwards” is pure, unadulterated, vintage country.
‘If You Ever Want My Lovin’ was written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery. Sara’s raw vocal style on this track is very reminiscent of Montgomery’s sound on her many duets with George Jones throughout the 1960s. ‘Unopened’ is the only original track on the album in which Sara did not have a hand in writing. It was composed by Leslie Satcher, who was responsible for hit songs that had been recorded by George Strait, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, and Martina McBride, among others.
The closing track, ‘The Week That The River Raged’, is somewhat of an anomaly on this album. It is the only track to include a full string section (though ‘Imagine That’ does have a more subtle string arrangement), and it is the only time throughout the album where the production gets a bit heavy-handed. As such, it is the weakest track on the album and my least favorite.
Although it was a commercial failure, Three Chords and the Truth was praised by critics and made many “best of the year” lists. That it was ignored by radio is nothing short of criminal. Had it performed better at radio and retail, Three Chords and the Truth might have been the album that sparked a second New Traditionalist movement, but unfortunately, the tepid response it received in the marketplace ensured that country music would remain mired down by pop influences for the foreseeable future. It also resulted in Sara herself moving away from traditional country, beginning with her next project. Nevertheless, I consider this to be one of the best albums in my sizable collection and one that I would include on my short list of CDs to have with me if I were stranded on that proverbial desert island.
Surprisingly, it is still in print in CD form and can be purchased at Amazon. Digital copies can be purchased at Amazon or iTunes.