Music

Sara Evans Discusses Reuniting with Husband Jay Barker, Writing an Album About Their Troubled Relationship: ‘The Story Is Mine to Tell’

From the opening line of her new single, “Pride,” which releases today, Sara Evans doesn’t hold back.

“You left a mark on my face,” Evans sings unflinchingly, “and brought a dozen red flags in a vase.”

Since releasing her debut album Three Chords and the Truth in 1997, the 2006 ACM Awards top female vocalist has earned five No. 1 Country Airplay hits, including both light-hearted love songs such as 2005’s “Real Fine Place to Start” and empowering ballads such as 2010’s “A Little Bit Stronger.” But her new music is a rawer representation of that debut album title’s mission (and songwriter Harlan Howard’s oft quoted definition of country music), as she excavates some of the darkest moments — including verbal and physical abuse — in her marriage to former University of Alabama quarterback Jay Barker.

“Pride” is the centerpiece of her 11-song album, Unbroke, out June 7 via Nashville’s Melody Place, in partnership with Evans’ label Born to Fly. The album, her first collection of new music in seven years, chronicles the relationship’s highs and lows, and Evans’ ultimate decision to reconcile with Barker.

“I’m forcing myself to do something scary in talking about this,” Evans tells Billboard, of reflecting on the pair’s troubled past and her decision to reunite with him.

Evans wrote “Pride” just weeks after what she calls Barker’s “rock bottom,” when he was arrested in Nashville in January 2022, after getting into a verbal fight with one of their daughters and then rapidly backing up his truck, narrowly missing the car Evans was sitting in. The daughter called the police, and Evans unsuccessfully tried to call Barker to warn him that the police had been called. When Barker returned to the location later, police were still there and he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (for nearly hitting the car Evans was in) and released after posting a $10,000 bond. He later traded the aggravated assault charge for a misdemeanor reckless endangerment charge with a guilty plea and was sentenced to one year probation. By then, Evans and Barker — who married in 2008 and have a blended family of seven children — had been separated since April 2021, and Evans had filed for divorce in August 2021.

On the debut episode of Evans’ new podcast, “Diving in Deep with Sara Evans” (which also comes out today, March 21), Evans says she didn’t believe Barker deliberately attempted to hit her vehicle, but allows that the verbal altercation between Barker and their daughter was all too familiar. “I’ve had these experiences privately with Jay for 13 or 14 years — it was a first for her to see him like that. His low point was seeing that he had frightened her.”  

During that time, Evans had already been writing for a new project, focusing on songs steeped in traditional country lyricism about relationships — like those made famous by Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Then she entered a writing session with two new collaborators, songwriters Sean McConnell and Madi Diaz, and things got very real very fast.

“I couldn’t talk about anything without crying,” Evans tells Billboard. “Madi had to sing our work demo [for “Pride”] because I couldn’t sing it, because it is so heavy. A lot of people deal with that, whether it’s alcohol or drug abuse and anything like that causes problems in a family and marriage.”

Though “Pride” was written shortly after the 2022 incident, Evans drew on years of arguments and struggles. “I kept saying, ‘It’s just his pride. If he could get around that and start admitting the truth of what’s really going on behind the scenes in our marriage, then we would be fine.’ My kids never knew about it. They never saw anything. They never even heard him raise his voice.”

With a range of emotions to sift through, and a story to tell, Evans said that she knew she wanted to write as much as possible on the album.

“My publisher set up all these writing appointments for me. I would get there and just pour out my whole story and their jaws would be on the floor,” Evans says. “I’d be like, ‘So, having said all that, I have an idea for a song.’ And they’re like, ‘Hell yes, you do.’” Evans is a co-writer on 10 of the album’s 11 songs, working with a stable co-writers including Emily Shackleton, Alex Kline, Ashley Monroe, Karyn Rochelle, Shane Stevens and Melissa Fuller.

“Better Than This” showcases the couple’s more loving moments, while songs including “Pride” and “Mask” detail ongoing physical and emotional abuse. “The last time you saw me crying/ You made it all about you… I ended up apologizing for something I didn’t do,” she sings in “Sorry Now.” “Closet” details the emotional and physical work of picking up the pieces as a relationship crumbles.

“We would have a time like ‘Better Than This,’ and then a fight would happen,” Evans says. “We didn’t have a marriage problem. We had a problem with his anger, especially when he would drink. Nothing ever happened in front of the kids or in front of people. He never drank until his mid-30s — but what he did drink made him extremely agitated.”

The title track offers a through-line from unresolved pain in Barker’s past, to the devastating impact on his family. “I’m talking about how he’s hurting, so he hurts me and that hurts the whole family, like the line, ‘In one fell swoop, we all went down like dominoes/ Nobody’s heart gets out unbroke.’ The dysfunctional aspects of family dynamics affect everybody.”

 “Mask” explores the anger and alcohol-related issues that led to the abuse.

“There were reasons in his life — starting from childhood, where he had to wear the mask, be the perfect person, win the national championship, be this Tim Tebow-type where everyone expects him to always do the right thing,” she says. “He didn’t drink, married his high school sweetheart — and then he got the rug pulled out from under him. I think he became a self-protective narcissist, and when he saw how much I take care of him and the family. I think he thought, ‘This is too good to be true, so before I get hurt, I’m going to push her away.’”

Evans notes that her own people-pleasing tendencies led her to begin changing parts of her personality to help the relationship. “There was definitely some co-dependency happening,” she says.

A few months following the January 2022 incident, Evans agreed to reconcile. She gave Barker an ultimatum — that they had to go to therapy — before ultimately deciding to stay in the relationship.

“We will be in marriage counseling, and he will be in therapy for the rest of his life — because you can change a lot of behaviors, but you have to find out what’s causing it in the first place,” she says. “I think most situations like this require divorce. But I knew the night Jay got arrested, I knew it was his rock bottom and I couldn’t let him go. He’s a great man who made some bad decisions.”

Repeatedly during the interview, Evans stresses that her decision to stay is not meant as a prescription for any relationship facing similar circumstances.

“My biggest fear is that people will judge me or be mad at me for staying with Jay,” she says. “I try to make sure that people understand that this is my story, my specific situation, and it’s not the way that every marriage that has had abuse in it should end up. Most of them should not end up together.”

The couple has been in therapy for a year and a half, both together and individually, and Evans says their whole family is in therapy as well. Evans also says that both she and Jay have stopped drinking alcohol. “We all have to repair from what happened. But the thing that is helping us repair the most is that Jay is taking responsibility for it. He will tell anybody and everybody that.”

Evans has also taken a hard look at her own childhood wounds — namely, feeling a lack of connection with her father after her parents divorced when Evans was 12. “He was a great person, but a terrible divorced dad. I was always seeking his attention,” she reflects. “So in my mind, the attention Jay was giving me, I saw as love — even at times when he was upset with me, because at least he’s paying attention to me.”

Evans and Barker have been living together again since November, and Evans says she has seen positive changes in Barker: “I’m calling this ‘Marriage 2.0.’ And if I do see something that comes up that’s ‘first marriage,’ I’ll confront him and say, ‘I can see that you’re tempted to get angry right now,’ and he’s not defensive at all. We have skills and things we have learned, so that nothing ever goes beyond a responsible conversation.

“I’m thankful that there has been true change and that we were able to stay together. I’ve been through divorce before, so I know how hard it is,” adds Evans, who divorced her first husband, Craig Schelske, in 2006. “More than anything, I’m grateful when I look at him and see the man I’ve always loved, and he’s happy and whole.”

Still, when it came to writing and recording for the new album, Evans says she has been worried about the project’s reception, and its impact on her family.

“With ‘Pride,’ I contemplated turning the song into third person — ‘He’ll take whiskey, he takes wine/ he takes anything,’ and so on,” instead of the second-person pronoun. “Jay told me, ‘Don’t do that. That is your song. You have every right to sing that because you are telling your truth. Whatever embarrassment comes from it, that’s on me.’”

Evans says baring her soul in song on Unbroke has marked a turning point for herself as a writer.

“I’m super proud of these lyrics. My co-writers were so understanding and careful and gracious in letting me guide them through my journey. The writing aspect of this is something I’m so proud of, because the story is mine to tell.”

If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.

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