SXSW 2013: Will Micah P. Hinson, Abilene’s Traveling Troubadour, Ever Settle Down?

Dick Sullivan is in Austin for South By Southwest. Over the next three days he’ll share three bands that have impressed during the festival. To read all the profiles go here.

Abilene, Texas, is a long drive from Lubbock, but Micah P. Hinson, callow and peering through black-rimmed glasses, looks every bit the image of his West Texas progenitor, Buddy Holly. And yet his innocence is belied by the cigarette holder gripped in his teeth and the way he carries himself. Standing alone before a late-night SXSW audience, Hinson looks at once jaded and fresh, recalling Hazel Motes from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood: a thin, meek, angry man-child.

Hinson has a smallish acoustic guitar cinched high toward his shoulder. He keeps the cigarette holder in his mouth as he sings. Hinson’s voice is a rattled baritone that cracks when he drags it into higher ranges. It sounds like a branch in weathering a thunderstorm, constantly on the verge of breaking. Coupled with Hinson’s rueful lyrics, the whole performance feels like a car with awful suspension that refuses to mask anything. Micah P. Hinson demands you feel every bump in the road.

After the show, I ask Hinson if his songs always derive from pain. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a happy song,” Hinson says. “Even when I’ve written a love song, it’s still pretty miserable.” That is fitting for a man named after the minor prophet whose sole vocation was predicting destruction. Micah pens songs about suicide, failed love and his own chronic screw ups. But with Hinson, who recently survived a car crash in Spain, you get the sense that his conclusions do not end in misery. For Hinson, the way to truth, even comforting truth, wades through suffering first.

Micah stalls when I ask him where he calls home these days. “I feel very homeless,” the frequently touring Hinson admits. Hinson clearly craves a place to settle down, but the talented songwriter eschews typical musician enclaves like New York City and Austin, which he calls “a bit too big for my blood.” Of all Hinson’s idiosyncrasies, his discomfort in big cities is the most endearing. These days, Hinson is eyeing Denison, Texas, which is closer to his parents and his Chickasaw heritage, as a place to settle down.

Despite his affections for the state of Texas, Micah P. Hinson still struggles to gain popularity here. He admits he has not done himself any favors by releasing his last three records under British label Full Time Hobby. But the singer-songwriter has been speaking with American distributors as he comes up on the tenth anniversary of his first album, Gospel of Progress. Hinson is also traveling to Spain in the coming months to record a new album of material that he describes as “Phil Spector upbeat.”

For now, Hinson is satisfied with his career. “I don’t feel like I have to be bigger,” says Hinson, who his happy enough to be a working musician who owns all his work. And despite his somber reputation and ongoing pain from the automobile accident, Hinson is quite content just to be playing. “When I’m up there, it’s my point of bliss,” Hinson says of the stage. “I don’t have to think of anything. My back doesn’t hurt, my arm doesn’t hurt.” Adds the notoriously dark songwriter: “I’m really happy.”

Photo by Mike Katzif

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