On Real Fine Place, Sara Evans paints herself as a willing prisoner of domesticity’s four walls, but this is a housewife whose home turf of “shotgun houses, shanty shacks” by the railroad track gets her hot enough to greet her coal miner husband with “nothing but the supper on” and who plans on keeping him busy until it’s time for him to head back down to work. Which is an admirable response to hard times and as good an example of Evans as Christian Ecstatic as anything on her 2003 breakthrough Restless, where she got almost too carried away by Niagara Falls and let herself get twisted up “like a hurricane” listening to Otis Redding with hubby.
Evans’s earlier records revealed a singer in search of a sympathetic producer. On 1997’s Three Chords and the Truth, Pete Anderson cast her in a post-Bakersfield mold, with predictably dry results. No Place That Far, from 1998, found Evans sounding somewhat uncomfortable emoting like a hornier Reba McEntire over Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson’s competent but brittle arrangements. Born to Fly, which in 2000 marked the beginning of Paul Worley’s association with Evans, almost got there: Worley devised settings that employed second-line drumming, luscious string arrangements, his own witty and allusive guitar playing, and on “You Don’t,” a kind of newfangled country-raga-rock.
What made Restless the breakthrough were its capacious song structures, its sonics, and its heat. “Rockin’ Horse” and “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” mutate like stoner mini-epics, incorporating Leslied organs and cunningly placed guitar commentary into forms that seem overloaded to begin with. Real Fine is more conventional, more tied into country cliché. Still Evans comes across as something more than conventional on the suicide narrative “Bible Song,” during which she hightails it out of her nowhere town yelling “hallelujah, hallelujah” at the top of her lungs.
What makes Real Fine Place fascinating is that Evans truly, fervently believes she can have it all; it’s as if her declarations of piety (about her Missouri roots or the affirmation of a God who, in “You’ll Always Be My Baby,” she equates with her father) are there to balance out her needs, which seem almost as inordinate as they did on Restless. Purists might decry her defection from the neotrad verities of her first album, but at this point in our history the last thing we need is a purist Christian Ecstatic—they’re too dangerous.