BY ARDEN WARD
Culture Map Austin, August 25, 2011
Sara Hickman is best known for her critically acclaimed work as a singer and songwriter, but she’s also an advocate for youth art education, and a fierce one at that.
When Hickman was awarded the title of State Musician of Texas for 2010 – 2011 (a title held by Willie Nelson the previous year and passed onto Lyle Lovett in May), she didn’t just accept the accolade and return to her touring schedule and personal projects. She used the award as a platform to bring Texas’s most influential musicians together, all in the name of keeping art in the lives of children.
“I thought, ‘What if I put together an album called The Best of Times of my songs from my catalog and other Texas musicians sang the songs,’” Hickman says of the idea that started a year-long project to benefit Theatre Action Project, an Austin-based nonprofit.
So she started reaching out to the larger Texas music family, calling on musicians she knew and others she didn’t. In the end, Hickman gathered a group of 38 Texas artists, all willing to pitch in their time and musical talents to record a two-disc album whose full proceeds would go directly back into the community. “It was really a love fest,” she says.
As artists signed onto the project, Hickman would provide them with two handpicked songs from her catalog, giving the individual artist final choice on which song to record. Her only instructions? “You can change anything you want,” Hickman says. “You can change chords, knock out a bridge… change lyrics.”
The artists listened. “Everybody did a different take,” says Hickman. “David Garza completely turned the song [“Risk”] upside down. It was a real upbeat, happy samba and he turned it into a very dark, lush, intimate thing where it feels like he’s in your head.”
The process continued to rumble along, with songs pouring in from a host of Texas artists, including Robert Earl Keen, Marcia Ball and Patrice Pike. “Then finally, I had everybody but Willie [Nelson].”
And once Hickman got the chance to explain the project to Nelson in person, she says, “He sealed the deal.”
By the time Nelson sealed the deal, Brave Combo had already recorded “Simply,” the song Hickman had selected for the Red Headed Stranger. “I felt like I really wanted to give ‘Simply’ to Carl [Finch of Brave Combo], but I really wanted Willie to do it.”
In the end, both versions of “Simply” made their way onto The Best of Times.
“It worked out beautifully, because I made it bookends [for the album],” Hickman says. “It’s really neat, because it’s the song that got me discovered, the song that Elektra really loved, so I feel like it’s a nice homage to that song. I don’t really think of it as my song, I think of it as the world’s song.”
In February, Hickman and Theatre Action Project celebrated the completion of the album at The Paramount Theatre with the musicians who donated their time and talent. Robert Earl Keen was the headliner, but the evening started with The Djembabes performing Hickman’s song “It’s in the Water” in the African language Sousou.
“It was just a beautiful introduction to not only our community, but the community of the world and how music can soothe people, but also can change things,” Hickman recalls. “It can create dynamics that weren’t there before.”
Though the album was completed months ago, The Best of Times was just released nationally this week on August 23. The two-disc album can be purchased digitally on iTunes for $19.99 or through The Best of Times website for $20.00. There are also a limited number of physical copies available exclusively at Waterloo Records.
All of the proceeds from the album will directly benefit Theatre Action Project, an Austin-based nonprofit organization that provides innovative arts programming for more than 16,000 children.
“They give kids a voice to things that are crucial for them,” Hickman says. “They work with the kids to create a theater project. So the kids write the production, they create the costumes, they write songs and music and then what they do is peer-to-peer. What better way to share creativity, to share a message, than friends telling other friends of the same age group?”
Hickman, a graduate of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, grew up in a home where music and art creation were part of daily life.
“Knowing how most children don’t have that opportunity, whether it be because of income status or because of lack of funding to schools that support the arts and share the arts, I just have this burning sensation to share what I can and what I know,” Hickman says.
With The Best of Times, Hickman is doing just that. All it took was a year of hard work and the help of 38 of her closest Texas musician friends, The Red Headed Stranger included.