She knows the high stakes 

On any given night in these United States, there must be hundreds – if not thousands – of struggling songwriters eking out an existence in the patchwork quilt of nightclubs, coffeehouses, church basements and county fairs... any place that will have them.

It can be a hard life, fraught with the pain of rejection, and the stiff back that comes from sleeping on strangers’ floors when there isn’t enough money in the hat at the end of the show to pay for Motel 6.

Like the thousands of would-be superstars in Hollywood, these folks sometimes go for years without ever having anything more tangible to show for their efforts than sincere compliments from the listeners and the occasional mash note or glowing e-mail that filters back at the end of a tour.

However, Susan Gibson is most definitely the exception to that rule.

While she makes her living driving from town to town with her faithful canine companion Jezebel, and playing the same places as most unknown songwriters, she has more than a feather in her cap.

She has validation.

You see, in 1998, a little group called the Dixie Chicks released an album called Wide Open Spaces. It went on to sell millions of copies, and in 1999 earned the Grammy for Best Country Album. It proved to be the record that really took that group over the top, propelling them to the forefront of the entire country music scene, edging them into the pop world as well.

And its title track was written by none other than Susan Gibson.

Her song, “Wide Open Spaces,” hit number one on the country charts and stayed there for a solid month. Gibson’s astute and optimistic outlook on life became something of an anthem for young, driven American women, and it helped make the album the biggest-selling country music album by a duo or group in history.

At the time this amazing good fortune was taking place, Gibson was barely 26 years old and playing in an Amarillo, Texas roots-rock band called the Groobees. While it’s hard to believe, at that point, she had only been playing music for less than a decade, starting rather inauspiciously with a Suzanne Vega cover she quickly learned for a high school talent show her senior year.

It’s doubtful then that she could foresee the path her life would soon take.

“(At that point I was) just a singer,” she recalls.

“I have been in choirs of one sort or another since I was about 3. But I used to try out for the pop choirs and stuff and I would never make it. I didn't really find my voice until I started playing guitar. Then I would do covers of different contemporary folkies, like the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin.”

Though she was raised in the unofficial songwriting capital of the world (Texas), she didn’t actively pursue that role until 1992, when she headed back to Montana – the state of her birth – to attend school.

It was there that her artistry flourished.

“I moved up to Missoula to go to the forestry school,” she recounted.

“And I wrote the lyrics to “Wide Open Spaces” while I was home visiting for Christmas after that first semester. I thought forestry majors spent a lot of time walking around in the woods looking at how gorgeous everything is, and instead they have to do math and computers and stuff. Bummer. So, I went to class less, went to the bars more.”

By 1996, she was devoting greater amounts of time to music, and specifically to crafting her own personal vision. She returned to the Lone Star State and joined the Groobees – a pre-existing act – on vocals, as well as banjo, guitar and harp.

Over the next half a decade, they would release two albums and do respectably well on the Americana charts, but right about the same time that “the song” was taking the world by storm, Gibson’s group was splitting apart.

The gruel of life on the road was taking its toll on her bandmates’ families, and ultimately, the members decided to go their separate ways.

However, one can only assume that the unmitigated success of the Dixie Chicks’ album made the breakup a tiny bit easier to swallow.

Ironically, according to Gibson, she was initially reluctant to allow that trio to record their own version of her song, since she found it far too autobiographical for easy translation by another artist.

“Boy, am I glad I didn't miss that boat!”, she now admits with a laugh.

That may be a bit of an understatement, for despite the acknowledgement and acclaim that song has given her as a creative artist, the truth is that it has also given her enough of a financial windfall to be able to buy a riverfront “dream cabin” in the Texas Hill Country, and to continue doing what she loves: writing and performing her music.

And while she has said publicly that at the time she initially wrote “Wide Open Spaces,” she didn’t consider herself much of a songwriter (or someone who verbalized well), these days, she seems to be much more disciplined and accomplished at marrying words to music.

Her new album is getting rave reviews from a variety of critics, and almost all agree on one thing: that Gibson has a unique style easily identifiable as her own.

Many characterize that style as being “clever,” or “engaging,” while others point to the refreshing lack of the “woe-is-me” sentiment which seems to drip from the majority of female roots artists today.

“Gibson is unafraid to display emotions in song and unwilling to settle for the simple cliché," says writer Jim Beal of the San Antonio Express News.

And Margaret Moser of the Austin Chronicle writes that Gibson’s songwriting skills are sharp and incisive. She likens here to “a younger Lucinda Williams without the angst.”

One might well wonder what Lucinda Williams would sound like “without the angst,” but suffice it to say that the 14 songs on Chin Up run the gamut from wry humor to twangy cynicism.

She has toured virtually non-stop since its release to an ever-growing audience of people who find in her the same sort of kindred spirit she found in her own musical heroes.

However, despite the fact that Susan Gibson has received perhaps the ultimate commercial and artistic validation as a songwriter, as a performing artist she remains a dedicated trooper, still on the road, heading for another joint, and always looking to improve her craft.

“I live for this kind of thing,” she says. “I mean, not fame or fortune, but I conscientiously picked a job where I get applause about every 3 and a half minutes... I think I would be nervous to meet Ani Difranco ‘cause she'd probably think I was a wuss. And I would be nervous to meet Shawn Colvin because her writing is the way I would like to write.”

“I really like acoustic guitar music... I like the idea of making music with a piece of wood and some strings and years of practice.”
Susan Gibson plays The Sentient Bean on Friday the 27th at 8 pm.


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Jim Reed

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