Sara Evans walked into Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the CMT Artists of the Year event last month with every intention of enjoying a night spent honoring artists such as Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood for their contributions to country music.
But instead, Evans, who was joined by daughters Audrey, 14, and Olivia, 15, walked out feeling defeated and downright angry.
“I was sitting there watching Alison Krauss sing (alongside honoree Kelsea Ballerini) and I just got depressed,” she tells PEOPLE. “I just thought to myself, ‘This is bulls—.’ Women like Alison have made unbelievable music and has made powerful impacts on this genre, but we can’t get our music played. I felt like I was at a memorial following a death of some sort.”
In the days following the CMT Artists of the Year event, Evans found herself smack dab in the middle of the often tense conversation regarding equality on country radio, specifically due to her comments on social media on Oct. 26 when she expressed her opinion about the “blatant stonewalling of female artists.” In the same social media post, Evans referred to comments she made to Billboard about how her family has often watched her cry in regards her own lack of play since launching her own label in 2017.
“It’s true — my kids have watched me sob,” she says. “I have been singing since I was 4 years old and I was raised on country music. There is no reason that I am now being shunned after I’ve made my mark and contributed to the genre.”
Indeed, Evans has experienced much difficulty with getting her songs on the radio as of late, with recent singles such as “Marquee Sign” and “Put My Heart Down” not even reaching the top 40. In 2017, the Missouri native released her eighth studio album Words on her own Born to Fly Records label. Featuring 14 different female songwriters, the album shot to No. 1 on the iTunes Country Albums Chart upon its release.
But her music never found itself on the radio.
“Words was the best album I ever made and it wasn’t played,” says Evans, who hasn’t had a number one single since “A Little Bit Stronger” in 2010. “I’m not about to spend 1/3 of my year away from my children for no reason to go on some radio tour and promote it and essentially introduce myself to everyone. It’s humiliating. I remember when Kix Brooks went solo and I watched him have to go around to country radio like he was some new artist. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
And as far as Evans is concerned, this struggle for females in country music isn’t necessarily new.
“Believe me when I say that I know it takes work to get a song on the radio,” she tells PEOPLE. “My kids grew up on my tour bus. They learned how to walk and talk on that tour bus as I visited radio stations. It was never easy, but I worked my ass off for every spin. But at least, years ago, putting myself out there would pay off.”
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Well, sometimes it would.
“I mean, I would have a huge career hit like ‘Suds in the Bucket’ and then they wouldn’t play my next single. But that never seemed to happen to men like Kenny Chesney,” Evans recalls.
“I know at this point that radio isn’t going to play my music,” she says quietly after a brief pause. “I know that I have probably pissed off every radio programmer out there at this point.”
Indeed, in the days after her controversial comments were made, one popular morning radio host hinted on social media that Evans’ music was not being played not because of her gender, but because of the quality of her music. But fans were quick to defend Evans, who remains committed to speaking her truth.
“Some may say we are moving away from bro-country, but c’mon,” she says. “Every time I turn on the radio, it’s the same s—. It’s just not good in my opinion.”
But make no mistake, Evans’ anger is not directed solely at men.
“I’m not a man hater,” she says. “I have a husband that I love and a son that even wants to get in the business and I want him to have all the success in the world. But there are six women in the top 60 right now. Six. You always worry about backlash and I don’t want to sound bitter, but I’m just so upset.”
Granted, Evans didn’t get this far in her career to just give up. She says that her next single, “Long Way Down,” is as country as country gets these days. And on Nov. 24, she will head out on the road with her At Christmas Tour.
“I’m just sad, you know?” she tells PEOPLE. “There are so many new female artists that deserve to be heard, like Danielle Bradbery and Carly Pearce. I can’t imagine what they are going through. And what if we never had a Patsy Cline? What if her music was never heard? I basically just hate what has happened.”
What makes things even tougher for Evans is the fact that daughter Olivia has expressed her hope to possibly follow in her mama’s footsteps someday with her own music.
“I’m just not sure what to tell her anymore. I just don’t know,” she concludes.