8 p.m. Thursday
The Blue Door
2805 N. McKinley
Sara Hickman needs her own armed forces ad, because she does more in one month than many artists do all year.
The 47-year-old mother of two was recently named Texas Musician of the Year, following in the big shoes of last year's winner, Willie Nelson. She's a tireless advocate who's provided music therapy at hospitals; partnered with Half Price Books as a national ambassador to promote literacy in schools; written and sung jingles for Walmart, Southwest Airlines, and Daisy Brand sour cream, among others; co-produced the PBS documentary "Take It Like a Man"; and along the way written 17 albums, self-producing most of them, and scoring a Billboard hit in the early 1990s with "I Couldn't Help Myself."
Currently, she's producing an album of musical Austin moms that will raise money for a local breast-milk bank; working on a compilation CD of other Texas artists covering her songs, to raise money for arts programs in schools; and developing an animated DVD for children, all while making plans to officially release her most ambitious album to date, "Absence of Blame," which drops in early May.
She's prolific to the point of dizziness, but hearing Hickman talk about her new record is enough to take your breath away.
"The complexity of me is really going to get to come out, and some people will be uncomfortable with it," she said. "It wasn't really until I became a mom that I started realizing how much darkness was out there and that I should be able to talk about what's happened in my life and should be able to share more, whether it's being a survivor of rape, or it's talking about (Seung-Hui) Cho massacring all those people at Virginia Tech, and writing a song from his mother's point of view."
The topics are harrowing, colored b0y subtle, textured touches of producer/ multi-instrumentalist Mark Addison, whose father was an orchestral arranger.
"Mark added all this atmospheric, heartbreaking stuff," she said. "It's like a small film. It's more like a piece of art than me trying to make a record and have a hit single."
Backed by crack guitarist "Scrappy" Jud Newcomb (Ray Wylie Hubbard) and drummer Dony Wynn (Robert Palmer, Brooks & Dunn), Hickman traces the suicide of a friend in the aftermath of rape, and her own encounter with the Houston police when, as a 16-year-old, she was arrested for kissing her girlfriend. After watching "Brokeback Mountain," all those memories flooded back, and Hickman invited her old flame, Ginger, to sing on the track.
While Hickman's never been a fluffy, love-obsessed songwriter " early career tracks like 1990's "Aurora" is about a woman with the language disorder aphasia, and 1994's "Joy" focused on a homeless woman " her songs often feature an upbeat, hopeful feel.
When Elektra signed her in 1989 when she was fresh out of college, she became the label's upbeat, folksy answer to Tracy Chapman.
It wasn't until she wrote 2006's "Motherlode," after a series of children's albums, that Hickman's new direction first surfaced. The double-CD set is split in two: one bright side, the other considerably darker.
The positive response to "Motherlode" empowered Hickman to take a leap on "Absence."
"It seemed like everybody really liked the dark side, and I thought, 'Well, this is just scraping the surface. If you really want to know, I'm going to be vulnerable and completely naked," she said.
Advance, "special-edition" copies of the new album are available at her Thursday show at The Blue Door.
"It's just a dark time in the world," she said. "You would think I'd be saying, 'Let me put out a really happy album to make you feel better.' But instead, I'm going, 'I'm right there with you. We're all in pain, we're all in economic hard times, here's some shitty stuff you can listen to."