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Joy Ride

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Lounging in the backyard of her ranch home in suburban Nashville, with her 2-year-old son Avery at her feet, Sara Evans is pondering the unthinkable. What if, at next week’s Country Music Association Awards, for which she has been nominated in five categories (including song of the year for her No. 1 hit “Born to Fly”), Evans fails to win a single trophy? “It would be sad to have your name called five times and not win, but it could happen,” she says. “That would be embarrassing—and my family would die laughing.”

It’s an unlikely scenario. The CMA nods cap a bravura year for the 30-year-old native of Boonesboro, Mo. Last October she released her third album, Born to Fly, to glowing reviews, then spent the summer touring with idol Reba McEntire. Her distinctive twangy voice has made an impression. Singer Bruce Hornsby, who played piano on Born to Fly, says she has the goods to rival Shania Twain or Faith Hill—”the great looks, great voice, great personality.”

It’s a breakthrough Evans has been preparing for her entire life. The third of five children born to Pat Boggs, 54, a school-bus driver, and salesman Jack Evans, 55, she was 4 when she began belting out tunes like “Delta Dawn” with her family’s bluegrass band at fairs and rodeos. By 11, Evans had cut her first record, and at 16, she was earning her own money singing Saturday nights at a dance hall. “It taught me how to dress right,” she says, “and smile at the audience.” After high school Evans went to Central Methodist College in Fayette, Mo., but lasted just 11 days. Nashville was the only place she wanted to be.

Her arrival in 1991 was shortlived. Working at the local Holiday Inn, she fell in love with fellow waiter Craig Schelske, and all her career plans, she says, “went right down the toilet.” The couple moved to his native Oregon in 1992 and married the next year. Together they formed a band, working in bars until 4 a.m., then getting up at 9 a.m. to work at a Portland electronics store.

In 1995 the couple moved back to Nashville. Veteran songwriter-Harlan Howard took her under his wing and helped her get a solo record deal. Her debut album in 1997, Three Chords and the Truth, was critically acclaimed but received little airplay. “It wasn’t commercial,” says Evans. “It was more rootsy and artsy.” So she overhauled her music and her girl-next-door image, shifting from traditional country toward pop. The move worked: Her 1998 album, No Place That Far, went gold, and the title track hit No. 1.

A baby wasn’t on the agenda, but son Avery, who arrived in August 1999, was the extra jolt she needed. “I was really in a funk,” she says. “I didn’t enjoy my career because I was so stressed. After Avery was born, it all vanished.” She slotted him into her work life, setting up his playpen at the recording studio.

Now she wonders whether she can integrate her husband’s career so seamlessly. Last month Schelske, who has managed her career until recently, announced his bid for Congress in Oregon, where the couple have a home. “It’s going to be hard,” she admits. “The main thing is to try to be together as much as possible.” Their favorite times: having coffee together in the morning and wine after putting Avery to bed. “It’s all laughter,” says Schelske.

Tempered by the occasional insecurity. “I’m obsessed with my weight,” says Evans, even though she recently shed the 50 lbs. she put on during pregnancy—and 25 more—on Gwen Shamblin’s Bible-based Weigh Down Diet, which advocates fulfillment from spirituality rather than food. But career success—and motherhood—has equipped her with a new confidence. After Avery was born, she says, “I thought, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.'”

Susan Horsburgh

Beverly Keel in Nashville