UNT alum finds upside to a packed schedule, pops across Texas as musical ambassador
By Lucinda Breeding / Features Editor
Ever since Sara Hickman was named Texas’ official state musician — a torch that passed to her from Willie Nelson — life has been busier than usual.
The singer-songwriter sounds anything but exhausted. If anything, Hickman sounds like she might be running on the most purposeful fuel she’s known. Hickman will be the state musician through next year, and her schedule is packed.
The Austin-based artist and University of North Texas graduate is promoting her project “Family Time Rocks,” an endeavor to get Texas families to be creative together. She’s recruited a roster of Texas musicians (Shawn Colvin, Marcia Ball and Patrice Pike, to name a few) to record a catalog of her songs. The compilation will be released under the title Best of Times. Then there’s Big Bird, Little Bird, an animated music DVD for parents and babies. She’s doing some work with Denton resident and 2010-11 Texas Poet Laureate Karla K. Morton to bring music and poetry to Texans.
For Hickman, there’s no time like the present to shine a light on Texas music.
“I was fortunate that when the Legislature met [in 2009], I had a whole year to make things happen,” Hickman said. “They don’t ask you to do anything. And they don’t give you any money. They just give you the title.”
Hickman said she asked an official at the state Capitol what was expected of her, and the official said she isn’t expected to do anything more than she usually does. But Hickman decided not to go about her usual routine, instead devoting the year to partnering with her peers and serving her community. The compilation album includes musicians who don’t have home recording studios, so Hickman also footed the bill to get them into a studio to lay down tracks.
“I want to go back [to the Capitol] on an arts recognition day and tell them: ‘I hope you keep the ball rolling. And give the artists $5,000 to get the artists out into Texas.’”
Hickman has had a Denton following since her days as a UNT fine arts student. Music was already a habit for Hickman when she got to UNT; she started playing guitar at age 7, later studying at Houston’s prestigious High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Hickman’s career took off when Brave Combo founder Carl Finch saw her on a public access television show and helped produce her first album, Equal Scary People, in 1989. She signed with Elektra Records, and appeared
on VH1 and on The Tonight Show. Elektra dropped her and shelved her album. But Hickman’s fans rallied to raise $50,000 to buy the album. Her fans were already organized.
Hickman is busy promoting her latest independently produced album, Absence of Blame. Released in May, the album features 13 tracks that go from heartfelt to funny to political.
Hickman pressed 500 copies of a limited edition of Absence of Blame, which features a bonus track that Hickman considers one of her riskiest. “The One” is sung from the point of view of Hyang-im Cho, the mother of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho. Cho killed 32 people in the massacre before shooting himself to death.
“I’m a mother,” Hickman said. “When this happened, I kept thinking over and over that, God, I’d hate to get that phone call. I couldn’t imagine losing a child and also knowing that my child had done something so horrible. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that of all the grieving mothers after that incident, she was the only one we didn’t hear about. How lonely that must have been.”
“I remember reading and hearing on the news about the Amish slaughter,” Hickman said, recalling the incident in which 10 Amish girls were shot in a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. Five of the girls died, and shooter Charles Carl Roberts IV killed himself on the scene. “After the girls were killed, the community brought food and comfort to the parents of the man who shot their children.
“A month later, this [Virginia Tech massacre] happens and no one did that for Cho’s parents.”
In fact, in 2008, The Washington Post reported that Cho’s parents went into hiding after the 2007 mass murder. A year later, the couple was living quietly in their Centreville home, continuing to decline interviews.
Hickman said she sings “The One” a cappella on stage, and said it’s one of her favorite songs. Audiences have been divided in their response to it.
“I’ve had people come up to me and call me a Nazi, and say they’re offended that I’d write a song for her and not the people who died. Here I am, as a mother, saying: ‘I’m sorry. I’ll bear this the rest of my life. Where did I go wrong? What did I do?’”
Other people cry quietly when she performs the piece. Hickman says the song is one of her darkest.
Absence of Blame has a few other dark tunes. “Juliet and Juliet” is a story about two young girls in the midst of a secret love affair. Hickman threads “Amazing Grace” through the piece, and the song ends with the couple parting to save their reputations. “Blown Away” is Hickman’s open letter to a friend who killed herself, unable to heal from a sexual assault.
“99 Percent” is a sassy come-on to a man who might be obtuse to the narrator’s feminine wiles, but then again, he could be playing hard to get.
Hickman is part of a small niche market shared by singers like Colvin, Lucinda Williams and Roseanne Cash, all women who make torchy, twangy music rooted in folk and rock. Hickman doesn’t have the twang, but there’s something Southwest about her music.
“A lot of people have put me in the folk category, but I’ve always considered myself a pop musician,” Hickman said. “I guess it’s easy enough to see how I’d get put in the folk category, but I’ve always tried to write pop music. That’s where I’ve always put myself.”
Hickman said Texas holds sway over the music map because of the sheer heft of the state, and because of the wiliness of its people. She’s pleased as punch to be an ambassador to the Texas music scene through the next year.
“I think of Texas as a parallel to Canada,” she said. “We’re both wide-open spaces, and we both have a lot of eclecticism. With these open spaces, people can really be individuals. I love it. If I weren’t in Texas, I’d be in Canada.”
Her comparison isn’t even far-fetched musically. Canada’s biggest musical export is surely Celine Dion, and Canadian pop music lovers are fond of singers like Lara Fabian, who struck it rich singing French torch songs. But Alberta, Canada, also produced country singer K.D. Lang and before her, folk singer Gordon Lightfoot.
“I’m surrounded by talented people in Texas,” Hickman said. “I’m going to make the most of this year and next.”