Sara Hickman says she’s retiring; a look back at her early days

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Sara Hickman at her home in Austin in 2013. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez / Austin American-Statesman
Sara Hickman at her home in Austin in 2013.  Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez / Austin American-Statesman

Sara Hickman at her home in Austin in 2013. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez / Austin American-Statesman

“When you’ve done something all your life, it’s in your muscle, your bones,” Austin singer-songwriter Sara Hickman wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday that acknowledged her pending plans to retire from a lifelong career of making music.

“I’ve been cracking, hurting, wrestling with the decision to leave since 2011,” she continued. “Because if you’ve seen me perform, you know I love being on stage. I love bringing people together through song. Gosh. It’s a very sacred feeling, giving people a space to be loved through music.”

The post linked to an article in the Winnsboro News previewing her July 9 show in the Northeast Texas town, which she says will be her last for the foreseeable future. It follows her appearance last night at El Mercado Backstage, as a guest of Will Taylor & Strings Attached for their regular Wednesday night residency at the South Austin Mexican restaurant.

Hickman referenced the El Mercado show fondly in her Facebook post, recalling “folks out on the floor dancing and laughing, smiling over to my partner in crime, the gorgeous Kristin DeWitt, followed by a massive hugfest afterwards.”

READ MORE: Sara Hickman takes a musical journey with African Children’s Choir

To mark the occasion, we’ve reached back into our American-Statesman archives for a 1990 interview with Hickman that coincided with the release of her 1990 album  “Shortstop.” Hickman lived in Dallas at the time but was visiting Austin for record-release events at Cactus Cafe and Waterloo Records. Here’s the full story:

Oct. 25, 1990 / Austin American-Statesman
By Peter Blackstock

Sometimes the most telling truths about individuals can be found in the stories they tell of other people.

Such was the case when I asked Dallas singer-songwriter Sara Hickman how she ended up being managed by Austinite Kevin Wommack. Her response ultimately revealed more about herself than about her manager.

Hickman recalls meeting Wommack two years ago, when she was handling all her business and promotional duties on her own. Although the work was exhausting, she was worried about turning over those responsibilities to someone else. “I was really fearful that if I gave somebody that control,  it could ruin my career, ” she recalled.

“So it took a couple of months for me to really trust him. But he would do all these wonderful things for me. He helped me open for Leon Redbone, which at the time was really exciting for me,  and I got to play at the Austin Opera House, and all these really neat gigs. And he never asked me for anything. He was giving me advice, and he helped counsel me with some things.

“Finally, one day when I saw Kevin playing with his daughter, I just realized that he was a really good person. And I decided, ‘That’s it,  he’s my manager.’ I know that sounds kind of silly, but all those other things didn’t seem as relevant as the way he respected and treated his daughter.”

The importance Hickman places on such basic human values is central to understanding her personality and her music. Though her career has grown steadily since she began playing Dallas clubs in 1986, Hickman appears determined to stand by those values as she takes on the often harsh realities of the music business.

It can be a daunting task, as evidenced by her tale of a recent conflict involving her Elektra Records debut “Shortstop,” which was released Tuesday. (She celebrates its release with concerts tonight and Friday at Cactus Cafe and an in-store appearance at Waterloo Records at 5 p.m. Friday.)

The record company, Hickman recounts, was in favor of including a song she recorded for the “Arachnophobia” movie soundtrack on her new album. “And in my heart, I felt like there was no place for it on my album — partly because I didn’t write it,  but also because it’s just a different style of music completely. … So we bartered back and forth and back and forth, and finally I just said, ‘No,  I’m not going to do it.’ And I think they were really disgruntled with me from a business sense.”

But not in an overall sense. “I think that Elektra and I have a very respectful relationship with one another,” she says. “I concede sometimes because I trust that they know what they’re talking about. But if my instinct is that it’s not right for me, I don’t concede,  and I stick with it.”

READ MORE: At home with Sara Hickman

So far, sticking with it has paid off for Hickman, 27, who began playing music at age 8. During her high school years at Houston’s School for the Visual and Performing Arts, she and Gretchen Phillips, now a member of Austin folk-rock band Two Nice Girls, played together in a folk group called, appropriately enough, The Folk Group.

After high school, Hickman moved to Denton to attend North Texas State University, where she graduated with an art degree in 1986. While at NTSU, she became friends with members of Denton polka-rockers Brave Combo. Band leader Carl Finch released Hickman’s single “How Can It Be”/”As Much As Me” on his own label, Four Dots Records, shortly after her graduation.

Hickman moved to Dallas in October 1986. Over the next couple of years, her reputation grew gradually as a result of her engaging live shows, which showcased her outgoing and talkative personality as much as her songs. One Dallas music writer described her performances as “a cross between a stand-up comedy routine and group therapy — with great music as an added bonus.”

It was during this period that she hooked up with Wommack, who also works with Austin acts Omar & the Howlers, Pariah, Ian Moore and Water the Dog. Wommack first saw Hickman in September 1988 when she opened for Darden Smith at Austin’s Cactus Cafe.

“In 10 minutes, I was nailed,” Wommack recalls. “She was so witty, so funny, and her vocal capabilities were incredible. And she had songs that I felt were phenomenal.”

By December 1988, Hickman had recorded a full-length LP, “Equal Scary People,” which was produced by Finch and released on the Four Dots label. In March 1989, she received several awards from the Dallas Observer, a weekly entertainment publication.

One of the magazine’s readers was Elektra vice president Howard Thompson, who has helped his label become a leading force in introducing new talent to the mainstream by spotting acts such as 10,000 Maniacs and the Sugarcubes in the early stages of their careers.

“He happened to be reading the Observer one day, and he saw my name listed all these different times. And — this sounds really funny,  I still don’t believe this — but he said he walked around the office saying ‘Sara Hickman, Sara Hickman,’ and he just couldn’t get my name out of his head.

“So he called Kevin Wommack, and I was on tour with Killbilly (a Dallas neo-bluegrass band) through the Midwest at the time. He flew to Kansas City and he saw me, and the night he saw me, he said he wanted to sign me to Elektra.

“And I said, ‘Get outta here, you do not.’ And he was saying, ‘Yes, I do.’ And I was thinking, ‘Nobody just walks in and offers you a record contract.’ … But he kept coming to all my shows. He came to some in Austin and in Dallas, and the next thing I knew, I was on Elektra. It really happened pretty fast.”

READ MORE: Sara Hickman speaks out about suicide and depression

Hickman signed with the label in August 1989; Elektra re-released “Equal Scary People” two months later. The record didn’t make much of a commercial dent, but it provided a subtle preface for her full-fledged major-label debut.

“On my first album, I was learning as I was going along, kind of stumbling in the dark,” Hickman said. “On this album, I had a stronger sense of myself and who I am and how I wanted the music to come across.”

She also had studio help from David Kershenbaum, renowned for producing Tracy Chapman’s first two albums. Kershenbaum produced eight of the album’s 11 tracks, with Hickman handling the other three herself.

The result of her more focused approach and the assistance of a first-class producer is an album that’s much more orchestrated than its predecessor. The fullness of the sound should help break Hickman from the folk mold in which she originally was cast by the press.

“I’ve never really categorized myself as folk. That was something that I was branded with when my last record came out,” she said, though she acknowledges that “Equal Scary People” seems more in the acoustic-folk vein.

“It was my first attempt at making a record, so I was kind of learning as I was making it,” she continued. “And since a lot of people had seen me solo, I wanted to keep the songs basically simple and straightforward.

“And I think because of that — and I think also because of the fact that I’m a woman — I was instantly just dumped into this folk category. Which I don’t mind, because there’s a great history behind folk music. But I was kind of surprised because I’m very jazz-oriented, so I kept waiting for people to go, ‘Wow, look at those jazz transitions in her music, or the way she vocalizes.'”

Her vocal strengths and jazz leanings are showcased on the album’s first single, “I Couldn’t Help Myself,” which already is in rotation on VH-1.

And it’s not the only potential hit on the album. The leadoff tune, “In the Fields,” is a powerful pop song that seems destined for radio; the album’s title track is equally appealing in a gentler way.

Whether “Shortstop” will break Hickman as a major artist remains to be seen. Whatever happens, she seems determined to keep a grip on her values and ideals. An example is her continued involvement with Arts for People, a group that boosts the spirits of hospital patients by arranging entertainment for them. Hickman has played for patients through the program since 1987.

“I love the organization, and I hope to get to a level where I can help actually raise money for them,” Hickman said. “But as for the one-on-one contact with patients, I hope I’ll always be able to do that.

“And I’m sure I will, because there’s just nothing like it in the world. Patients  just teach you a lot about what’s really important in life. I guess that’s the simplest way I can say it.”


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