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Story Behind the Song: Wide Open Spaces


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By Ace Collins
Texas Music Magazine - Fall 2000

The biggest country hit of 1998 almost wasn't.  The anthem of independence was resurrected from obscurity in a care package sent from mother to daughter and became the touchstone of a young songwriter's career.
It can easily be argued that the Dixie Chicks' inital album, Wide Open Spaces, is one of the 10 most important releases in the history of country music.  While it is true the recording was packed with more than its share of incredible songs, the album represented something far more important than chart-toppers and award winners.  A generation before, Barbara Mandrell proved that females could be more than just "girl singers," but the Chicks were the first female band to really rock the Music City charts.  In many people's mind, they did the impossible.  The Grammy-winning Wide Open Spaces blazed into virgin territory and claimed a vital spot for all women who dreamed of forming a band and making a mark in country music.  Yet the title song, written by an unknown Susan Gibson, was almost lost before it had even been completed.
At about the same time the Dixie Chicks were winning Dallas over with their bluegrass sound, Gibson was studying forestry in Montana.  The daughter of a piano teacher and railroad worker, Gibson had lived all over the United States before landing in Amarillo for her high school years.  Besides trees, something not easily found in the Panhandle, her other interest in life has always been music.
"My love of music came from my mother," Gibson explains.  "I really was the daughter of Ward and June Cleaver and I acted like that.  My family was a very musical family.  There were five siblings and we would sing hymns around the piano.  When our relatives would visit, we would even have family talent shows.  Even though I loved to sing, at that time my talent wasn't as appreciated as my cousin's, who played music with his armpit.  Still, all through school, I was in every church choir, school choir and vocal group."
While Gibson enjoyed singing all kinds of music with her family and friends, and though she was in Bob Wills territory, country music was completely foreign to her.  She couldn't imagine listening to a country radio station, much less following her own success on Nashville's charts.  It was women of the era, such as the Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman, who were having the most influence on the teenager.  The passion Gibson felt when she listened to blues and rock music drove her to pick up a guitar and begin writing original songs.
"I was at West Texas A&M studying forestry for two years," Gibson recalls, "and though I was still working with my music, I wasn't making any money.  Really I just learned to play guitar one song at a time, just focusing on playing enough to carry myself through [each song].  Then I met Gary Thomason and he began to push me.  By the time I moved to Montana for my final two years of college, music had become a very important part of my life."  Little did Gibson know that it would be Thomason who would later set in motion the events that led to landing a Music City hit.
Back at college, writing about her experiences and her emotions now took precedence over the ambition she had harbored since childhood to work in forestry.  Still, Gibson didn't have much faith that her self-penned tunes would ever have commercial value.  Yet when a bar patron requested an encore of one of her original songs, a suddenly inspired Gibson gave up on a long-help childhood dream - trees - to pursue her adult dream - music.  Soon Gibson was spending more time playing in local honky-tonks for tips than she was going to class.
A year before Gibson left college, she returned home to Amarillo for Christmas.  Though always close to her family, she suddenly felt stifled in her own home.  There seemed to be too many eyes looking at her every move, too many people giving advice and not enough room to grow and face the world head-on.  One night, seeking some solitude, Gibson sat down at the kitchen table.  Picking up an old notebook she began to scribble down her thoughts.  She had no plans to write a hit song, she just wanted to put her feelings and emotions into perspective.
"Here I was, thinking I was full of maturity and confidence," she recalls, "thinking I knew it all and I was all grown up.  Because of my attitude at that time, I felt I needed more elbow room and didn't want to be at home with the family.  It took me 20 minutes to write the lyrics that expressed how I really felt at that moment."
Gibson evidently didn't place a lot of importance in her ode to independence, because when she returned to school in Montana, she didn't take her notebook with her.  The song she had written at the kitchen table would have been lost forever if Gibson's mother hadn't slipped her a care package that included ponytail holders, guitar picks and that old notebook.  When Gibson read the lyrics again, she put them to music and began to sing them during her modest gigs.
In 1994, Gibson gave up on finishing her degree and moved back to Amarillo.  Old college friend Gary Thomason, along with Scott Melott, Bobby Schaffer and Todd Hall, had formed a band called the Groobees.  With their rock/folk sound, they had won some fans in the Panhandle.  Wanting to expand their fan base, the band decided to produce a demo tape.  Thomason asked Gibson to provide some of the vocal work.  In that session, she impressed the men so much that the Groobees became a quintet.
In 1996, the band, which in the past had almost exclusively used Melott's original work, turned to Gibson.  Retrieving that old notebook, Gibson shared her most autobiographical work.  Adapting it to fit their sound, the Groobees went back into the studio and cut the demo.
"We knew that Lubbock steel guitar player Lloyd Maines was producing a lot of music," Gibson explains.  "We sent him the tape hoping he would get interested in us.  Lloyd liked my song so much he made a copy for everyone in his family.  He ever got a demo tape to his daughter Natalie, who had just joined the Dixie Chicks."
At the time, the Chicks were going through hundreds of demos looking for the right songs to place on their first Monument album.  During the overwhelming process, when one Chicks found a song she liked, she shared it with the other two.  If all three liked it, then they tried it out in front of their concert crowds.  Gibson's song not only passed the Chicks' test, but garnered such incredible response from crowds that the band decided it belonged on their initial release.  Unimpressed, the record company executives didn't think the song was country enough and nixed the idea.  With bulldog-like tenacity, Natalie wouldn't give up and pushed the issue until the powers at Monument relented.
Recalling the struggle to record her song, Gibson admits, "The song reflected where both of us - the Dixie Chicks and myself - were at that moment.  We both needed space to grow, to try our wings."
The Dixie Chicks debut single was "I Can Love You Better."  It soared and took the band's new CD with it up the charts.  Yet it was Gibson's song, inspired by her need to leave home and try her wings, that allowed the Chicks to follow up their first top 10 tune with a song that became the biggest country hit of 1998.
"Wide Open Spaces" proved the Dixie Chicks were not a flash in the pan.  It rode the top spot on the charts for four weeks and crossed over onto the pop and rock charts as well.  Now Nashville and the world realized that the Texas trio was the real thing.
"It is funny now," Gibson explains, "when the Dixie Chicks asked me to let them record 'Wide Open Spaces.'  I was nervous about letting them do it.  There was nothing about the Dixie Chicks that made me hesitate, it was that I was so close to this song.  I was hanging on to it so tight.  I really did come close to saying no.
"Then when I finally heard it and I listened to it played on the radio, I got to thinking this thing could go gold.  It was then I realized that if I had held onto the song and kept it as only mine, millions of people would have never heard it and identified with it themselves."
"Wide Open Spaces" opened up countless doors for the Dixie Chicks.  Thanks in large part to their monster hit, the Texas trio became the hottest ensemble in country music.  And though the mainstream media missed it, "Wide Open Spaces" also opened doors for the Groobees.  Gibson knows what the song has meant to the band.
"'Wide Open Spaces' has given us the opportunity to play the gigs we want and have a good time playing the songs we love.  People hear the song and identify with us.  The money we have made has allowed us to get the most out of the moment," Gibson says.
While the Groobees have benefited, it is the modest Gibson who has earned the most praise.  She was named the American Songwriter Magazine's Country Songwriter of the Year and she has been recognized by noted music historian Robert Oermann as "the white Etta James."  Most importantly she has brought an edge and excitement to country music that few songwriters in recent years have generated.  Just like "Wide Open Spaces," each Gibson cut is unique, not driven by a hook, but inspired by personal experience.  Her music may have a different feel, a different edge, but like legendary country scribes Hank Williams, Sr., Harlan Howard and Roger Miller, it is music penned from the heart that seems to touch hearts when performed.

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