After the traditional sound of Three Chords And The Truth had failed to break Sara at radio, there was some modification and a slightly smoother, glossier sound for her second album in 1998, but without breaking away completely from her traditional roots by any means. The production chair passed from Pete Anderson to Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, a partnership with experience on both pure country and pop-country sides of the fence and a track record creating hits.
Leadoff single, the insistent mid-tempo Jamie O’Hara song ‘Cryin’ Game’, did no better than its predecessors, but it is a good pop-country song with a fine vocal as Sara tells a lover he’d better treat her right or she’ll be gone. I think Jamie (formerly half of the O’Kanes duo in the late 80s) sings backing vocals here. The long-awaited breakthrough came for Sara when the title track, an impressive ballad co-written by Sara herself with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin, was selected as the next single. It was a #1 smash hit. A delicately subdued opening leads to a big chorus, with Vince Gill prominent on harmony.
Disappointingly, the third and last single, Sara’s last release of the 90s, ‘Fool, I’m A Woman’, which she wrote with Matraca Berg, was less successful, failing to reach the top 30. It is another contemporary-sounding song, but an engagingly peppy one about a woman’s prerogative to change her mind about love, addressed to a boyfriend treating her badly. I think this is the track featuring Martina McBride on backing vocals, although Martina is very low in the mix and is basically indistinguishable.
Altogether, Sara co-wrote almost half the material on this album, including the very traditional country gospel ‘There’s Only One’, which she wrote with the brilliant Leslie Satcher. Closely banked female harmonies (possibly from Sara’s sisters) help this track close the set on a high as she declares God’s love is the only thing that matters. Although the song itself is not as memorable, I also love the traditional sound of the lost-love ‘These Days’, which Sara wrote with Billy Yates, and on which Alison Krauss sings prominent harmony.
Of the outside material, the dramatic ‘The Knot Comes Untried’ also has a strongly traditional flavor, and is my favorite track on the album. Written by Sam Hogin, Ron Harbin and Ed Hill, it tells the story of a young woman driving away from New Orleans and her husband, in what might be a sequel or alternative ending for the protagonist of ‘Three Chords And The Truth’, and has one of Sara’s finest ever vocal performances:
She throws her last picture out the window near the Louisiana line
She’s somewhere between dreaming and leaving old feelings behind
As the knot comes untied
Her heart is running scared
She says a silent prayer
“Lord I’m countin’ on you
To help me get through this night”
There’s memories like mountains
And each one gets harder to climb
As the knot comes untied
On one hand she wonders if what she is doing is wrong
Cause it sure is a long stretch of highway between going and gone
She’s been down this road a thousand times in her mind
But what’s done is done
She won’t turn around this time
As the knot comes untied
Another of my favorites is the beautiful Beth Nielsen Chapman/Harlan Howard song ‘Time Won’t Tell’, a delicately delivered lament for the end of a long-gone relationship, and regrets for the path not taken. It sounds like something Trisha Yearwood might have recorded, but Sara does it full justice, tackling the lyric with subtlety:
Time won’t tell me how it might have been
Time won’t make what’s wrong all right
It can only take me back again
Leaving all those memories in black and white
I watch us kiss goodbye that day
Here’s where you turn around and walk away
What were the words that would have made you stay
But time won’t tell
Never see the road you didn’t take
You’ll never feel the love you failed to make
But to never know might be the worst mistake
And time won’t tell
Time won’t tell
On this album, Sara seems torn as to the value of love. In the charmingly anthropomorphic Bill and Mary Sharon Rice song ‘Love, Don’t Be A Stranger’, Sara sings winningly about needing love in her life, even if it does sometimes end in tears. She is disenchanted with love in the playful uptempo complaint to ‘Cupid’, the Roman god of love, written by Keith Gattis and Kostas, which features none other than George Jones (who Cannon and Wilson were producing at the time) on harmony:
True love I saw and finally found that I’m better off just doing without
Oh it’s a real cold shock, it’s a deadly curse
That goes from good love to bad love to heartache at its worst
So tell Cupid not to point that thing at me
One more hole in my poor heart is just what I don’t need
Well, I’ve been teased by fate and burned by love and left by destiny
So for my heart’s sake tell Cupid wait and don’t point that thing at me!
I am less fond of ‘I Thought I’d See Your Face Again’, another of the contemporary ballads, this one written by Marv Green and Rick Orozco, which while well sung, is just not that interesting. The brightly optimistic up-tempo opener ‘The Great Unknown’ (written by Sara with Phil Barnhart and James House), with its lyrical nod to the Eagles and poppy fiddle which sounds like something on a Shania Twain record, is my least favorite track, with Sara really not sounding at her best vocally and some rather bizarre interjected yeahs which sound like hiccups.
I actually like No Place That Far almost as much as Three Chords And The Truth, although she was certainly compromising her original sound to some degree in order to make that commercial breakthrough. She also seems at times to be trying to emulate some of the more successful female singers of the day, like Yearwood and Twain. The balance worked on this album, although she was to go too far across the country/pop line for my tastes in subsequent releases. The album is well worth checking out (or at least downloading selected tracks), whether your tastes lean traditional or more contemporary, and is readily available at reasonable prices. Thanks to the one big hit single, it sold reasonably well, and has been certified gold.