The recently concluded South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin was not just one of the most notable annual presentations of music talent anywhere on the planet, it was also a chance for artists, industry insiders, journalists and fans to examine many of the key issues that surround the music business through a series of daytime workshops.
Ironically, one of the most authoritative voices on many of those subjects -- Austin's own Sara Hickman -- was missing from that discussion.
The veteran singer-songwriter -- well known for her artistic integrity, social activism and determination to chart her own career course -- is preparing for the release of her next CD, Absence of Blame, and is actively engaged in promoting arts education in schools and family creativity through her role as the official state musician of Texas for 2010-2011, succeeding the legendary Willie Nelson.
Hickman is no stranger to Oklahoma audiences, having performed in the past as part of the All Soul Acoustic Coffee House series at All Souls Unitarian Church and at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah. She is also a regular at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City, where she'll take the stage again at 8pm on Thursday, April 1.
Hickman said she was intrigued to learn from Scott Booker, long-time manager of Oklahoma's Flaming Lips, during a meeting at SXSW 2009 that the band's song "Do You Realize??" had been named the official state rock song by an executive order of Gov. Brad Henry.
Her new appointment gave the two plenty to talk about when they spoke again several months later, she said.
"I said, 'Guess what happened to me since I met you?'" she said.
But Hickman was particularly interested in Booker's role as the CEO of the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma, a new, innovative program based in Oklahoma City's Bricktown district that offers students an associate of applied science degree in music performance, music production or sound design. Booker likes to call the program the "School of Rock," and Hickman was impressed enough when he told her about it to keep the idea of promoting arts education in the back of her mind.
While her new title carries with it no financial reward or authority -- "Not even a tiara," she noted, laughing -- Hickman was not content to serve merely as a figurehead. Her initial reaction to the news she had been selected for the position through a vote of state legislators was somewhat confused.
"I giggled, and I was happy," she said. "Then I thought, 'What do I need to do?'"
At an ensuing breakfast hosted by the Texas Commission on the Arts honoring the state musician, the state poet laureate, the state two-dimensional artist and the state three-dimensional artist, Hickman decided to press the issue.
"I asked, 'Can I be proactive with this?'" she said. "They said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'I'm really humbled and excited, but I would like to use it for the greater good of Texas.'"
While she was grateful to be honored, Hickman was distressed to see arts education falling by the wayside as Texas lawmakers struggled to balance their budget.
"What makes me sad is that the Legislature has slashed so much money for the arts," she said. "So I took a picnic lunch to the Texas Arts Commission and told them my ideas."
Concerned that children were being denied access to visual art, music, creative writing and theater programs in public schools, Hickman turned her attention to remedying that situation.
Having earned the blessing of the Arts Commission, she set about trying to enlist corporate support to carry out the things she wanted to do. That effort, initially successful, stalled when her corporate sponsor backed out, leaving Hickman to explore other avenues of raising money.
She has settled on putting together a fundraising CD called The Best of Times.
Other Texas artists are recording Hickman's songs, and the money raised from CD sales and downloads will go to Big Thought of Dallas and the Theatre Action Project of Austin, two nonprofit groups that bring creativity into schools, workshops and after-school programs.
The lineup of artists who have already finished their songs for the disc includes Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, Marcia Ball, Shawn Colvin, David Garza, Trish Murphy, Brave Combo, Ruthie Foster, Jimmy LaFave and Shelley King. She's hoping to have songs by Kelly Willis, Alejandro Escovedo and Asleep at the Wheel done in time, and she's waiting to hear from Nelson, her predecessor as the state musician of Texas, about whether he'll participate.
Hickman is also compiling a second CD called Family Time Rocks! -- featuring stories, songs and ideas -- that she hopes to place in the backpacks of one million Texas school children. That's the project for which she is currently hoping to find a sponsor.
That search has been unsuccessful so far, but Hickman isn't letting that stop her. She's broken into her IRA and put $2,000 of her own money into production of the CDs so far, not counting the publicists she has hired to promote the discs.
She's particularly excited about the potential for the The Best of Times project.
"I'm anxious to hear my songs turned into new things," she said. "I figure this is one way I can celebrate my music and introduce it to people who don't know it at the same time."
Hickman plans to keep track of the progress on her two projects throughout the course of the next year, then report back to Texas legislators.
"I'm going to say, 'Here's what I've accomplished. Now it's up to you to keep the ball rolling and restore funding for the arts,'" she said.
Hickman drew a comparison between her title and Oklahoma's naming of an official state rock song, and wondered if Texas' neighbor to the north wouldn't benefit from having an official state musician program, as well. After all, Oklahoma might not have the number of prominent musicians that Texas does, but it has produced musical talent in a disproportionate amount for its population for decades. And many of its most historically revered talents -- Bob Wills, Woody Guthrie and Charlie Christian, to name a few -- have strong ties to both states.
Jill Simpson, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, acknowledged the idea has merit. But she said her office's experience of working on the process to name a state rock song last year proved so tricky she wasn't sure it was something she was ready to take part in again.
"It's a really interesting process in the state of Oklahoma, where you have as many opinions as there are types of music," she said. "It's challenging because you've got red dirt music, you've got rock, you've got country ... it's not something my office could do on its own."
Simpson said she recognized the idea would be a good way of promoting the state's bevy of talent, something her office is always interested in doing. But she had concerns about the competitive nature of the process in Texas, where Hickman found herself pitted against nine other finalists.
Ultimately, a legislative committee, apparently swayed by her long history of working on behalf of a number of good causes, in addition to her impressive body of work, voted to select Hickman. She became the eighth official state musician in Texas history, joining such names as Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, Dale Watson and Shelley King.
"It might be a good way of getting people out there," Simpson said. "The criteria would have to be well thought out and prepared. But I kind of hate to pit artist against artist."
Simpson recently returned from South by Southwest herself, where her office, along with the Academy of Contemporary Music, presented its annual Oklahoma music showcase -- an event that seems to attract more attention each year because of the brand of talent that has emerged from the state in recent years.
"It seems to be a great time for Oklahoma music," Simpson said, adding that the state's latest success story is Choctaw's Ali Harter, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter who had two songs featured on an episode of ABC's Grey's Anatomy on March 4. "The quality of music coming out of the state is very high," Simpson said.
Not so long ago, Hickman was enjoying her own swift rise to the top, landing in the pages of Rolling Stone, making two appearances on The Tonight Show and even hosting a show on VH-1. For the past several years, she's worked hard to balance her family and career with her various social interests, but her latest venture -- Family Time Rocks! -- gives her the chance to work on all three at the same time.
She has high hopes for the causes she has chosen to champion as Texas' state musician.
"It could start a movement," she said. "Say, if Oklahoma does this, that sort of raises the bar so that when you win an award like this, you do things to help your community, too. Whatever your passion is, that's what you would choose. You don't have to have the same interests as someone else."
Hickman acknowledged her work could benefit her career, as well.
"Compared to Willie, nobody knows who I am," she said. "This will help me raise my profile, but it also helps me do more for things I care about. So it's win-win from that scenario, too."
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