By RICK MITCHELL
Sara Hickman’s new album, Misfits, collects musical mementos, previously unreleased songs, demo recordings and other stuff that just didn’t seem to fit on any of her other albums.
But the title could also apply to singer-songwriters such as Hickman. A Texas cult favorite, she doesn’t conveniently fit into any of the music industry’s national marketing categories.
"I’ve never really felt like a part of anything," she says. "I’ve always felt like this quirky outsider who gets invited in to come and play, but I’m not really part of the neighborhood. I think that’s because nobody can really label me.
"I kind of stick myself in the same boat with a Michelle Shocked and Lyle Lovett, in that they’re quirky, too. There’s not a place for us in the world, so we just keep making music because that’s what we love to do."
On Saturday, Hickman will celebrate Misfits’ release with two shows at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, her home base in Houston.
There was a time a few years back when it appeared that Hickman might be able to make the music world come to her. Her second album, Shortstop, spawned a Top 5 adult contemporary hit called "I Couldn’t Help Myself."
But her label, Elektra Records, declined to release her follow-up album. With grass-roots financial backing from her fans, Hickman was able to buy the master tapes back from Elektra and put the album out herself. She titled it Necessary Angels, as a way of saying thanks to her fans.
"I think the president of the company at the time, Bob Krasnow, and I had very different visions of me," Hickman says. "I was signed during the Tracy Chapman hype and I think they thought, `Great, she’ll be another girl with a guitar.’
"But then they started wanting me to orient myself more toward the pop stuff like I Couldn’t Help Myself. That’s a part of me, definitely, but I’m also a folk singer. I tell stories. That’s what I do. So I delivered Necessary Angels. I don’t think they felt like there was a single on there."
It took $40,000 to buy the masters back.
"I wouldn’t have done it except they weren’t going to let me re-record the songs for five years," Hickman says. "I felt angry about that. I felt like, `Hey, this is my music. If you don’t want to put that record out, that’s one thing, but this is what I do because I love it. You’re attempting to stop what comes out of me. I think that’s highly unfair.’
"I was really honored that my fans helped me. It really was a miracle."
Misfits is coming out on the independent Shanachie label as a one-time deal. Hickman says the label would like to sign her to a permanent contract, but she’s still gun-shy after her experience with Elektra.
"I feel very protective and loyal toward my music. I think of a song as part of my family."
It’s no accident that Hickman grew up to be an artist. She was raised in a family that nurtured her creativity. Her father, David Hickman, teaches painting and design at the University of Houston. Her mother, Anita Hickman, is a professional photographer who lives in an RV while traveling around the country taking pictures.
"My parents were the kind of people that, if it was raining outside, you didn’t mope around the house," she says. "My parents would give us paper and crayons or give me a typewriter and say, `Write a story.’ "
Hickman graduated from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in 1981 and later earned a degree in painting from the University of North Texas in Denton. While going to college, she began singing in clubs in the Dallas area and quickly became a local favorite.
"I was the princess of Dallas," she says. "Edie Brickell was the queen."
She moved to Austin four years ago, where she lives with her 8-month-old daughter, Lily Blessing. Not surprisingly, she’s been thinking up songs for a children’s album. She’s also the new national singer for Wal-Mart’s TV commercials.
"I’m just singing things like, `At Wal-Mart, there’s a smile on every aisle,’ " she says, bursting into song with perfect pitch. "It’s fun, and it’s helping Lily’s college fund, so that’s a good thing.
"I like doing commercials because you go in and somebody tells you what to do. You get to sing, and then you get paid for it. It’s just so easy."
At the same time, Hickman remains active in a number of charitable activities. She’s the spokeswoman for the Austin SPCA, and she donates time and money to the Romanian Children’s Relief Fund and Habitat for Humanity.
While Misfits generally maintains an upbeat, lighthearted tone, Hickman says her songwriting has taken a darker turn recently.
"I’ve written a song about my insomnia, and a song about a battered woman, things that make people uncomfortable. Generally, I would say people come to my shows because I make them feel very comfortable."
But she must follow where the muse leads her.
"You can’t stop a river from flowing," Hickman says. "It’s never too late, and don’t forget to floss."
Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle. All rights reserved.