By Mark Jordan
Published Thursday, September 22, 2011
As a teenager, Sara Hickman, the Texas singer-songwriter who performs at the Levitt Shell on Sunday night, learned the habit of public service from her grandmothers, one of whom gave time at a local hospital. Following her lead, young Hickman would volunteer in the hospital gift shop or, when she was old enough, as a candy striper.
But it wasn’t until she turned 15 that she learned the true impact that philanthropy could have on lives. Hickman, who describes herself then as a “shy and lonely” teen strumming her guitar in the hallways of her high school as she struggled with her parents’ divorce, was approached one day by her vocal teacher about performing for local groups. One of those gigs turned out to be at a teen psychiatric unit, playing for kids not that much different from herself.
“There was a lot of angry kids, but I stood up in the front and I sang and they all calmed down,” she remembers. “They really were grateful that I came out and sang to them, and I was so surprised. I left realizing that music could be therapeutic. Before, I’d just been writing songs just ’cause I liked writing songs, but that totally changed my world view of what music could do.”
It’s not surprising then that when Hickman was named State Musician of Texas last year, a strictly honorary, one-year post in which she had been preceded by Willie Nelson and recently succeeded by Lyle Lovett, she decided to transform the post into an agent for change.
“I was like, ‘I don’t do anything?’ And they said, ‘No,’ ” Hickman recalls of being offered the honor. “I was like, well, ‘You obviously don’t know who you just made State Musician of Texas. I can’t just sit around and have that title and not utilize it for something that helps the general public.'”
In her year as state musician, Hickman undertook two initiatives. Family Time Rocks was a trio with musicians Jason Molin and Gray Parsons that toured Texas libraries with a show that encouraged families to spend quality time together under the motto “Families who create together do great together.”
The other project is the just-released CD, The Best of Times, a star-studded, two-disc set that features artists like Nelson, Shawn Colvin, Rhett Miller of the Old 97s, the Brave Combo, and Robert Earl Keen performing Hickman’s songs. Proceeds from the record, available at bestoftimescd.com, go to benefit the Theater Action Project.
“The Theater Action Project takes art, music and theater back into central Texas schools, since our legislature cut arts funding,” says Hickman. “So I used the title they gave me to replace something which they actually cut.”
Hickman had little trouble rounding up artists to perform on Best of Times, all of whom were eager not just to help a good cause but also honor an artist who has quietly become one of the state’s best and most respected songwriters.
Carl Finch of the Denton polka-rock band Brave Combo discovered Hickman on a public-access television show, and in 1989 he produced her first record, Equal Scary People. The New York Times praised the record, comparing her to Rosanne Cash and Jesse Winchester and singling out her audacious acoustic cover of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.”
The indie release did so well that Hickman was soon picked up by Elektra Records, which re-released it and put out her two follow-ups, Shortstop, which features her biggest hit, “I Couldn’t Help Myself,” and Sara Hickman. By the time of her fourth record, 1994’s Necessary Angels, the late ’80s female folk explosion had been supplanted by grunge, and Hickman found herself dropped, forced to buy back her own record in order to release it.
“The label president really wanted me to be more sexualized,” she says of her struggles with a major label. “I think they were hoping I’d be the girl-next-door version of Tracy Chapman with a little bit of Mary Ann from ‘Gilligan’s Island.'”
Since then, however, Hickman has survived — if not thrived — on her own. After making a couple of records for independents, she started her own label, Sleeveless, releasing nine albums, including three acclaimed albums of children’s songs. She has also been aggressive about marketing her music, popping up in ads for Wal-Mart and Southwest Airlines among others.
With her tenure as state musician now ended, Hickman is looking forward to making a new album, a follow to last year’s Absence of Blame, a record inspired by her work to abolish the death penalty in Texas.
“It’s disheartening to think people would cheer anyone dying,” says Hickman, reflecting on the cries of approval heard at a recent Republican presidential debate when Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s record of executing more prisoners than any other governor was announced. “I think it’s a somber thing. No matter who it is, it should never be celebrated.”