Sean Green for The Boot
Sitting in her Nashville hotel room, Sara goes over a few details of her schedule with her record-company publicist then turns her attention to The Boot's camera to discuss her new album.
"I cannot believe it's been six years," she says of the time that has elapsed since her last studio album. "Part of the reason it is hard for me to believe is I released a 'Greatest Hits' album and I had new music on that, and then I got married, moved to Birmingham, kind of put another pause on my career for my personal life. I can't believe that it's been that long since I've had a regular studio album. It kind of freaks me out."
Before her self-imposed hiatus, Sara seemed to be on top of the world. Her 2005 album, 'Real Fine Place,' hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart and the single, 'A Real Fine Place to Start,' became her fourth No. 1. In the spring of 2006, she won the Academy of Country Music's Top Female Vocalist award.
In October of that year, Sara was competing on ABC's 'Dancing With the Stars' when her 13-year marriage to politician Craig Schelske unraveled. She immediately left the show to concentrate on taking care of her kids and putting her life back together. Now married to former University of Alabama star quarterback turned sportscaster Jay Barker, who has accompanied Sara on this trip to Nashville, the Missouri-born singer is ready to once again focus attention on her career.
It's a chilly Friday morning in Music City, which is blanketed with snow. In fact, schools are closed due to the weather, but that doesn't keep Sara from a very special event on her day's agenda -- visiting Pearl-Cohn High School, whose choir is slated to perform the following week at the Keep the Music Playing concert at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Sara's visit has been arranged by the Country Music Association, which launched the Keep the Music Playing campaign in 2006. The initiative supports music education by providing instruments and performance opportunities for Nashville public school students. The annual CMA Music Festival has raised more than $4.7 million for Keep the Music Playing and more than 4,000 instruments have been provided to nearly 70 schools.
Despite the fact that it's a snow day, ten students braved the icy roads to meet Sara and perform for her. All impeccably dressed for the occasion, the talented teens sing several gospel tunes, along with Mariah Carey's 'Hero.' Pearl-Cohn High School Music Director Llewellyn Peter accompanies the students on a Baldwin grand piano, which was donated through the Keep the Music Playing campaign. "Amazing!" a beaming Sara exclaims after their performance. "That was so beautiful that I have no advice to give, because you sound so great! You are all very talented.
"People ask me for advice," she continues. "And the best advice I can give aspiring singers is to know in your heart this is your calling and there's nothing else you'd rather do. It takes a lot of sacrifice -- you can't do things other people are doing in their life, like I had to wait six years to have a baby ... But when you're on stage, there's no greater high than that."
Sara is an enthusiastic supporter of CMA's Keep the Music Playing. "It's a great cause. If I hadn't had the music teacher I had in high school and she hadn't really pushed me and taken that extra step, I wouldn't have been quite as motivated. She was a huge influence on my life and that's what I saw today. They were all very committed to what they were doing."
After saying goodbye to the new friends she made at school, it's time for Sara to visit some old friends at country radio, with the first stop being WSIX on Nashville's famed Music Row. As she steps into the control room to be interviewed by the morning team -- Billy Greenwood and Karla Lawson -- Sara is all smiles, chatting about football, family and the new album. The interview feels more like a conversation among friends than business. Sara is at ease, and the radio folks are anxious to have her tell WSIX listeners about where she's been the past few years and what they can expect from the new album.
After wrapping up with Karla and Billy, Sara takes a few steps down the hall to meet with Blair Garner, award-winning host of the syndicated radio show, 'After MidNite with Blair Garner.' Blair has been interviewing Sara for years and the two have an easygoing camaraderie and kid each other like brother and sister. Blair teases her about being the "Kate Gosselin of Country Music" because she now has so many kids. "One more and I could call you the OctoMom," he says.
In addition to talking about Sara's new record, the two also dish on their shared passion for reality TV shows, with Sara confessing to such guilty pleasures as 'Toddlers and Tiaras,' 'Hoarders,' 'Teen Mom,' and 'Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.' "I've never been in a fight with another female," Sara says. "How do these women think it's OK?"
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During the interview, Blair and Sara also talk about her being claustrophobic. "I'll take 20 flights of stairs. I'm terrified of elevators," she says, adding the only way she'll ride in one is if it's glass and she can see out. Before she leaves, Blair challenges her to do a handstand. She thinks about it for a moment then asks, "If I refuse to do it, will you think I'm pregnant?"
He says she can either take an EPT home pregnancy test or do the handstand, so she opts for the handstand, turning upside down against the wall, feet high in the air, with the athleticism of a high-school cheerleader -- not a mother of three.
She says her goodbyes amid laughter and hugs, then hops in her manager's car for a fast lunch at Calypso Café, a Nashville eatery known for its Caribbean-influenced cuisine. Noting that salad isn't a good choice if you have to be on camera because lettuce makes everyone look bloated, she orders a chicken sandwich on a wheat bun, intent on maintaining her svelte silhouette for the afternoon's video interviews. Following lunch, Sara and K.K., her sister-in-law/stylist, head back to the hotel for a very quick nap. She changes clothes, freshens up and heads to the offices of Great American Country to tape an interview for the 'Headline Country' show with producer Jeremy Weber.
During the interview, the conversation turns to Sara's favorite subject -- her kids. Her son, Avery, is now 11, Olivia, 8, and Audrey, 6. "I don't feel like I'm myself unless I'm with my kids," says Sara, noting she really enjoys spending time at home with her family.
"It's controlled chaos at all times," Sara says of life at home in Birmingham. "I have three children of my own, Jay has four kids and so 80 percent of the time our house is full of children and activities and chaos, but Jay is such a great support to me. He works well with controlled chaos too. He doesn't get stressed and I don't get stressed. We just kind of go with it every single day. We try not to look too far into the future. We're kind of like Brad [Pitt] and Angelina [Jolie] except we don't go to foreign countries, but we have all those kids."
Sara says keeping her priorities straight keeps her focused. "It's God, Jay, the children and then the career," she says. "If I keep it like that every single day, then it's really not stressful."
After wrapping the interview at GAC, Sara and her team are on the move again and heading to the Tracking Room, a studio near Music Row that often holds showcases, press conferences, recording sessions, interviews and other activities. Sara arrives by 4:00 PM and after K.K. touches up her makeup and hair, she sits down for an interview with 'CMT Insider.' An intern comes in and takes a coffee order before heading to Starbucks. Sara's beverage of choice is a skinny vanilla latte with six Splendas.
Buoyed by a jolt of caffeine, she completes the CMT interview and moves to another room in the studio, which has been adorned with candles and special lighting. Several staff members from Sony Music Nashville are preparing to tape an interview segment with Sara that will be used to promote 'Stronger.' One of the things on the agenda is for Sara to do a "cut by cut," which is a song-by-song description of each track on the album. As the crew adjusts the lights and prepares to shoot, Sara tells The Boot about the music on 'Stronger.'
"I didn't have a message really that I wanted to say, I just wanted each song to be incredible," she says. "I wanted each song to be kick butt, so that was my only focus."
The album includes six songs Sara co-wrote as well as a cover of the '80s Rod Stewart hit, 'My Heart Can't Tell You No.' She also recorded 'Born to Fly' once again, this time reinventing the song as a bluegrass tune. "It's been 10 years since 'Born To Fly' was No. 1 and we just thought this would be something fun to go back and do," she says.
Sara continues filming, doing what music biz folks refer to as "liners," short promotional blurbs for radio stations to use on the air. She wraps up at the studio by recording public service announcements for the American Red Cross.
Sara, K.K. and her manager say goodbye to the crew and there's just time to head back to the hotel, change clothes, grab a quick bite to eat and then get to Nashville's Municipal Auditorium where Sara is headlining a concert that is part of the festivities surrounding Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's inauguration. "I'm honored that they asked me to perform. I miss Tennessee and I miss living in Nashville. As much as I love Alabama and love Birmingham, Nashville was my home for a lot of years, so it just feels really great to be going there tonight and performing for all the local people."
"I'm proud and honored to be here on behalf of Governor Haslam," Sara says from the stage. "Congratulations to you!"
Sara chats with the audience, filling them in on her new life in Alabama and then launching into her latest hit single, 'A Little Bit Stronger.' Though she'd expressed concern earlier that her voice might be tired after a long day of interviews, she sounds energized and delivers a memorable performance.
After the show, it's time to head back to Alabama. "I'll get on the bus tonight, go home and make breakfast tomorrow then go to basketball games all day," she says of attending her children's sporting events. "It's the opposite of what I've been doing today."
So, just how does she muster all the energy to juggle family and career? Sara says, "About five years ago, I started praying this every night, 'Lord, please give me the energy that I need to do my career and be a great mom and wife at the same time. Just give me the energy that I need to do all of this,' and somehow I have it. Jay and I don't sleep. We stay up until at least 11:30 or 12 every night. He's up at 5:00 AM to do his radio show, I get up at 6:30 with the kids. I guess it's just an answer to a prayer. I pray for energy."
Sara's album, 'Stronger,' was officially released on March 8. The following week, it took the No. 1 spot on Billboard's country album chart and made a Top 10 debut on the Billboard 200.