By Richard Skanse
If Susan Gibson chose to never write another song in her life, she’s already earned her footnote in the annals of country music. You get that, at the very least, when you pen a song that becomes the title track of the best-selling album by a group in country music history. Because when you’re the writer of a little song called “Wide Open Spaces” that played a significant role in launching the reign of the Dixie Chicks, you’ve reached more people with one song than 99.9 percent of the world’s musicians ever will with their entire life’s work. But that said, Susan Gibson isn’t the type to fixate on such matters. She’d rather be on the road, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, en-route to somewhere, anywhere where she can play her songs to people who may not know or even care that she once won “Song of the Year” at the Country Music Association Awards, let alone the fact that she spent six years singing in a crowd-pleasing little group called the Groobees.
“Spent” is right. In case you missed the bulletin, the Amarillo quintet split up shortly after last year’s Buy One, Get Eleven Free, leaving Gibson free to finally pursue a solo career and explore some wide open spaces of her own. Her self-produced solo debut, Chin Up, finds the 30-year-old songwriter wrestling with a lifetime’s worth of insecurities and ultimately declaring her strength and independence with the kind of confidence and healing humor that comes only after long, long hours of soul searching and not a little crying. “I’ve been on the verge of tears/For the better part of a year,” she sings on the opening “Anything to Keep From Cryin’.” But from the sound of Gibson now, calling from the road somewhere in the middle of Idaho (“I’m half-way down the big thick part, not that skinny neck”) and later (after numerous cell phone disconnections) from Reno, things are looking way up for her.
So how’s the solo career treating you so far?
I would say it’s been good. I had like a CD release party at Gruene Hall and at Cactus Café, and they were both fantastic. And I did two Willie Nelson dates and got to sell quite a few CDs there. I feel like the album hasn’t been in my hands for very long, but I’m really happy with how it’s doing. I’m getting good response on it. I do feel like it was kind of awkward to have the release and then immediately go on a little stretch of solo tour, but my timing is not typical, so that’s ok.
Your timing’s not typical in general?
In general on every subject. As a wide blanket statement, I would say my timing is not typical. As an example, I spent about three years in Montana going to school. I think the requirement was you had to live there about 12 months so you could get the tax break for being an in-state tuition student. So I did that and got all my stuff squared away to be a Montana resident, and then the next semester moved back down to Texas and started singing with the Groobees. And I’ve done everything that way every since.
How long have you been out on the road so far?
I’m kind of constantly touring. I don’t know when I’ve been not traveling and playing in the last several years. I don’t mean to be vague, but really I’ve been back home in Amarillo for maybe three days at a time at most. This last time I was back home in Amarillo, I took a shower, switched out clothes in my suitcase and was gone. I don’t think I was home for half an hour.
You didn’t take a break when the Groobees broke up?
I didn’t even skid to a halt. I had solo dates the next week after the Groobees were done, for fear of going under the surface. It was like water skiing — you let go of that rope, you only have so much momentum that will keep you up before pretty soon, you’re down in the water with your arms up.
Still, was it hard for you to go out on your own again after being in the Groobees for the last six years?
I always felt like the solo thing — just getting in my car with my dog and driving like I’m doing right now, pulled off on the side of the road when I do interviews or whatever — that always felt like something I should have already done. It wasn’t something that I felt was pulling at me and was going to yank me out of the Groobees, but I feel like I should have already maybe had a CD before I joined the group. It was like dating or living on your own before you go from your parent’s house into your husband’s house, because the Groobees went from zero to full blast pretty quickly. I would say within the first two years of us even playing together, we were doing it fulltime. But [playing solo] was something that I wanted to do because I felt it would make me better at what I was doing right then [while still in the group], coupled with the fact that I was getting a lot of the attention because of “Wide Open Spaces,” and finally, the guys were putting down some roots, starting families. And all three of those things were road signs that pointed at me sitting right here.
But you had played solo at least a few times before the Groobees, hadn’t you?
Right. I’d kind of gotten my feet under me by singing in Amarillo, just learning how to play the guitar at the time. And then I hooked up with Gary Thomason, who was the guitar player for the Groobees, and kind of my door into the group. We played around for about a year as an acoustic duo where I was playing every song and singing and Gary playing lead stuff on top of me. We were doing a lot of covers — I wasn’t writing a lot at that point. And then I moved up to Montana and kind of started writing a little bit more seriously there, started doing open mics, which I had not really done too many of in Amarillo. I loved them. You’d go up there and try to make friends with the guy who was hosting it so he’d give you a good spot or wouldn’t make you show up at 7:30 and play at 11 — just the very basic abacus of getting into the music business. Then my friend that hosted the open mic thing moved away, and I bought his P.A. equipment and paid it off by running the open mic night myself. So in a lame kind of way, it was a stair-step for me for sure. But I still love open mics. I love to go see the little goony birds that will get up onstage for 20 minutes and do anything. There are some neat people out there.
Now that you’ve written a CMA Award-winning song, are you ever tempted to sign up for an open mic night where people won’t recognize you and kind of play the hustler?
[Laughs] You know, sometimes that would feel good. Go up there and really wow people. Because sometimes when you walk in there with a feather in a cap they’re all, “Look at this girl — she thinks she can wear feathers in her cap!”
In the very first line on your solo album, you say you’ve “been on the verge of tears for the better part of a year.” Can you talk about why?
I’ll tell ya, I have had quite a year. Breaking up with a band is like divorcing five ways. And I recently broke up with a boyfriend, within the time of that song being written, and gosh, I was just having a rough go of it. And I realized I needed to have a rough time. You know how us girls are — anything can make me cry. Not even us girls, us songwriters. I love John Denver, and I read this thing where one of his friends said that as happy-go-lucky as he seemed, he was very close to his melancholy sad side. I feel that way. I feel like I choose to stay close to that a lot of times. A lot of times when I feel bad, I’m inspired to write something to make myself feel better. There’s just a wealth of colors there when you go in and explore those feelings. I’m a 100 percent believer in being ok with your vulnerabilities — even to the point of using a sense of humor to deal with that pain. That is living, man. Feeling that hurt and feeling the humor and getting over it, that’s the good life.
The first song, “Anything to Keep From Crying,” almost sounds like self-therapy.
That is awesome. That really means a lot to me, because I’ll tell you — you don’t have to be happy every day, but you do have a choice. Sometimes I fight it so much, and there’s some times when therapy is just letting yourself feel it and get through it. That song to me, the moral of the story is go ahead and let it out, cry. But I didn’t ever get around to saying that until I wrote my little liner notes, where I say laughing and crying are mirror images of each other.
I write to clear things up for myself, really. That’s why there’s so much “I think I feel,” “maybe,” “if only,” “woulda, coulda, shoulda …” I do that for myself. I hope other people enjoy the album too, but it’s already served its purpose for me in one way. But I hope I sell a couple of copies too, though! [Laughs] I just hope it’s not a downer. I can see how it would come off that way. I’m stretching for some of the more upbeat material, but there is no denying that it’s almost like a cry for help. “Help! I’ve taken a beating!”
Yeah, but it seems pretty clear that the songs are about you surviving all that — every thing you went through that sparked these emotions, you got through it and came out a stronger person.
I think that is really appropriate and accurate. The silver lining is the key. I think you can have a very, very slight amount of joy that will balance out a very great amount of pain. You don’t have to have three weeks of good weather to balance out three weeks of bad. You can have three weeks of bad weather and then have one beautiful sunny day and you’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to have a stormy day.
Speaking of sunny days, did you allow yourself time off to celebrate when “Wide Open Spaces” became a hit, or were you too busy with the Groobees to stop?
Oh we were totally in Groobees mode.
So no vacation?
No. We celebrated, but we didn’t take a vacation to celebrate. It was one of those things where it kind of happens one step at a time. It wasn’t like the Dixie Chicks went, “We’re going to do your song,” and then at the end of the month it’s sold 13 million albums. It’s like, “We’re going to do your song … Hey, it’s not going on the album … Hey! It’s going to be the title track of the album! … Hey, you know what? The record label cut it.” It goes back and forth like that for a while. And then you get the album in your hand, and you see the push behind them, and you’re like, “Wow, these guys can go gold!” [Laughs] And it still comes in steps. Some of the steps are bigger. I mean, shoot, we’re in Reno, Nevada to play the Reno Hilton, and we were watching TV in the hotel room, and the Dixie Chicks were singing “Wide Open Spaces” on VH1’s Divas in Las Vegas special. And then, as the trailer for that show, Wayne Newton is singing the chorus of “Wide Open Spaces!”
That’s a pinch-me moment.
Yeah! Which is more unrealistic? The fact that it would become a big country song, or the fact that Wayne Newton would sing it? Holy buckets! I’m really lucky and happy to say that I hope there will always be happy little things that will come up like that. Like, the Dixie Chicks started their own record label in conjunction with Sony, and it’s called Open Wide Records. I love that. It’s a little reminder, that hey, I had a little piece of this.
Have you ever heard the song in the supermarket and felt compelled to tell a total stranger that you wrote it?
I know one time my mom was at an Eckerd’s when it came on the radio and the checkout gal was like, “That’ll be $6.18.” And my mom went, “I’ve just got to tell you, my daughter wrote this song.” And the gal looked at her and went, “That’ll be $6.18.” Didn’t register or acknowledge her or anything. [Laughs] We figured it’s ok just to be excited by yourself. I was in the grocery store myself once and I heard, not the Dixie Chicks singing “Wide Open Spaces,” but the Muzak version. And I went back and switched to, not Shur-Fine cream of mushroom soup, but by God I got Cambell’s cream of mushroom soup. You know what I mean? I got the real deal. Then when I got home I thought, that’s probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.
I gotta ask you about another song — Terri Hendrix’s “Goodtimes Van.” Did you know that was about you the first time you heard it?
Yeah, from the first line. “Susan headed out in her Goodtimes van …” I was like, “Whoah! That’s me!” It talks about my dog, and we had that talk over a bottle of wine. Yeah, I knew it was about me. I couldn’t believe that she was playing it for other people. I mean, I don’t think it was about me — it’s about her, but it’s really neat. We’ve had a couple of chances to sit down and talk and to do some writing, and we were talking about the grass being greener on the other side. I was still in the Groobees at the time and was looking at her gigs, going, “Wow, she’s playing with Lloyd Maines and look at all this other fantastic stuff she’s doing.” And she was kind of looking at my situation, going “You’re driving around with bunch of guys and you’re all playing for peanuts but you’re having a great time … I’d love that.” So we were just kind of being nostalgic about each other’s lives. That’s what that songs means to me, because it reminds me of those conversations we had. But what an honor — I know what I think about the things that inspire me, so that’s really neat to be a part of that in a Terri Hendrix song.
Your original Goodtimes Van is retired now, isn’t it?
Yeah. I gave it to the Catholic Family Services. I imagine they had to have someone else donate a transmission to it. It might be housing goodwill donations right now. I drove it there though, I’m proud to say. It didn’t have to be towed there.
What are you driving now?
The ’98 Ford Club Wagon that the Groobees used to travel around in. But I’m putting my feelers out for some sort of vehicle that’s going to be kind of like what I’ve got right now, but maybe with a diesel engine.
What’s in your road survival kit?
Jugs of water. As much water as you can pack in your car. And my glow-in-the-dark fish alarm clock, I need that. And my dog Jezebel and her dish. And of course, the phone and credit card combination is a powerful travel tool that comes in awful handy. That kind of negates the inconvenience of having the dog with me — they kind of cancel each other out.