By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
But Shortstop would be her sole Elektra record: When she brought to the label the follow-up, Necessary Angels, the company refused to release it; execs there found it too incoherent, not at all like Shortstop...or so they said. (Now, even Hickman refers to it as "an alphabet soup.") In the end, Hickman was cut loose and would spend the next year and a half trying to raise money to buy back the album's masters, an effort that eventually paid off--interestingly enough, with the help of Elektra, which eventually came down from a $300,000 asking price to $25,000. Meanwhile, Hickman's friends and fans and even a former Elektra colleague rallied to her side, buying $100 prisoner-of-war-type bracelets to benefit the cause. After the record-label rollercoaster, the show of hometown support restored some of her confidence.
"I look back on it, and I'm glad it [Elektra] happened, because it strengthened my music," she says now. "It just strengthened what I had started with in the beginning, because I think I kind of got swayed a little bit by Elektra. I actually remember someone referring to me as a kind of Taylor Dane type, because I had these big lips and [they said] if I would just kind of play that up..." She pauses. "I thought, 'People in Dallas will think that's weird, people who know me.' I was like, 'I'm just not comfortable wearing negligees and stuff.'"
Historically, people in Dallas have had a lot to do with Hickman's feelings of success. She attributes her burgeoning fame in the early '90s to Brave Combo's Carl Finch and friends such as Christine Lavin and Josh Alan, with whom Sara has recorded or performed or produced. Finch, she says, was absolutely crucial to her coming out as a songwriter, to her deciding to pursue a career in music instead of visual art, which she studied at North Texas State University and East Texas State University.
It was Finch who first contacted Hickman after seeing her on a cable-access program in Denton in 1987. He called the station, got her number, and told her to come over as soon as she could. He didn't even know her, but he told her he would help her make a record, which he did: Finch not only produced Equal Scary People, but he also plays on it and released it initially on his Four Dots label.
Theirs is a friendship that continues to this day, and if Finch was once drawn to the gifts of a 24-year-old girl he had never met, he's perhaps even more enamored of the resilience of a woman who has endured a handful of bad relationships and emerged with her talent intact.
"I tend to find myself responding to and attracted to people who operate with a great deal of faith in the intangible world," he says now. "They don't put nuts and bolts and facts and figures in front of them--they just do what they do. And Sara is that kind of person. That's where she's enormously blessed. She has this incredible gift for knowing what humans respond to. Sometimes I think about an artist's ability to reach people as a sphere that extends out from them, almost like an aura. And Sara's lasso is enormous. You can almost see this thing swirling. And when you look at the faces of the people who are drawn into her, it's beyond adoration. It's deep faith. The greatest thing a performing artist can do is have the faith of the listeners."
Yet for a long time Hickman felt as though she let down her audience when she failed to make a second record for Elektra. Her sense of gratitude to her Dallas contingent, her feelings that she had somehow failed her friends, affected her profoundly in the year after Elektra broke the contract.
"I know it sounds corny, but in a way I felt like I kind of let Dallas down," she says. "I felt like I had put a lot of heart and soul into that community and I had had so much cheerleading, and so I felt like, How embarrassing. They believed in someone who really isn't that good. It's kind of like going through a divorce. It's painful and it's long and it's scary. Basically, I just felt stupid and rejected, because everybody knows about it when something like that happens."
Those feelings hung around for about a year, she says. Meanwhile, she went on to the California-based label Discovery, which released Necessary Angels in 1994--and which was a subsidiary of the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic conglomerate she thought she had escaped. She would leave the label before ever cutting a new record, though Discovery would release the self-titled debut by the Domestic Science Club, the country-plus trio featuring Hickman, Patty Lege, and former Dixie Chick Robin Macy that has since disbanded.
By 1996, Hickman had decided she would go indie. She was tired of the formulaics and the pressure to create songs that were not her; one label executive asked whether she could make a new song sound, you know, a little more Alanis Morissette. Hickman's response to the strong-arming was to seek out a small, artist-friendly label. Two years ago, she settled with Shanachie, which she says has given her free artistic rein: "I just wanted someone who would listen to me." Last year, Shanachie allowed her to clean her closet and release the odds-and-sods collection Misfits, which features songs recorded between 1971 (when she was 8) and 1995.