The Montanan Online - http://www.umt.edu/montanan/s08/contents.html
Montana On Her Mind
Susan Gibson wrote Dixie Chicks’ hit “Wide Open Spaces” as a UM student
By Patia Stephens
It was 1993, and Susan Gibson was home for Christmas in Texas after her first semester—and her first taste of adult freedom—as a UM student. Something set her off—she doesn’t remember exactly what—and prompted her to write the lyrics that would become one of the best-selling country songs in history—and an anthem for independence-seeking young women everywhere.
“My mom probably said something like, ‘What time did you get home last night, honey?’ Whatever it was rubbed me the wrong way,” Gibson says. “I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote furiously for twelve minutes, and then I went and did something else. I forgot all about it.” The journey from furious scribbling in a notebook to best-selling title track on the Dixie Chicks’ album “Wide Open Spaces” seems like something, Gibson says, “sprinkled in fairy dust.” A folk-Americana singer, songwriter, and guitarist with a throaty voice and a twang that isn’t quite full-blooded Texan, Gibson has been described as “a palomino of a woman.” “Susan Gibson’s growl grabs you in a headlock and doesn’t let go,” wrote one reviewer. Another says she “has a voice that recalls blue skies and amber waves of grain.” Born in Minnesota to a railroad worker father and a teacher mother, Gibson and her older sister grew up moving often. The family settled in Amarillo, Texas, during Gibson’s high school years. But throughout all those moves, one place always felt like home: Montana. Her father was from Missoula, and his parents had a cabin on Flathead Lake.
“Our going ‘home’ meant going up to the cabin in Yellow Bay,” Gibson says. “When we were the new kids everywhere, when everything else in my life was changing, we would go up to that cabin every summer.”
Gibson said she considers Montana, particularly Missoula and the Flathead Valley, her spiritual home.
“So much of my childhood was there,” she says. “A lot of good memories. It was just solid.” Gibson’s family often hiked and held reunions in Glacier National Park, where she remembers meeting college students working at the chalet. It inspired her to enroll in UM’s forestry school.
Her mother, Nancy Eliasson Gibson, had spent a few semesters at UM. In fact, Nancy was attending UM when she was set up with Susan’s father, Walter, by the family that owns Jim Palmer Trucking.
“My parents were brought together by a trucker,” Gibson says with a laugh. “That’s probably why I like traveling so much.” Nancy taught elementary school math and music and gave piano lessons to the neighborhood children, but Susan never took her mother’s instruction seriously.
“We just banged on the piano,” she says. “I shouldn’t have taken it for granted. I don’t really read music, I just play by ear.” She did learn to play guitar, and after a childhood singing in church and school choirs, she performed Suzanne Vega’s “Gypsy” at a high school talent show and was hooked. She taught herself Vega’s entire catalog, as well as music by the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and Shawn Colvin. She began writing songs. Returning to UM after that fateful winter break, Gibson played a piece of music she was working on for a friend. “I asked her, ‘What does that make you think of?’ and she said it reminded her of her grandfather and the Sweetgrass Hills. And I thought, ‘Oh, weird, I have similar lyrics in this notebook.’” Her mother had included the forgotten notebook in a care package Susan received that week.
“I love serendipity,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a coincidence.”
Gibson put lyrics and music together, and “Wide Open Spaces” was born.
She performed the song for the first time during open mic night at Maxwell’s (later called The Ritz and now The Badlander). Before long, she was running Maxwell’s open mic.
“I’d set up and get to drink beer for free,” she says. “I met the coolest, weirdest people. It was so much fun.” She started playing solo gigs at other bars, including The Rhino and The Old Post. It was one of these shows where “Wide Open Spaces” became the first of Gibson’s original songs to be requested by someone she didn’t know. School was not as much fun.
“It was hard,” she says. “I didn’t make as much out of the academics as I probably should have. I think what I’d really wanted was to work in Glacier Park, but I got my wires crossed. [College] was not chasing butterflies and fixing lunches for campers.” Eventually, she left school and headed south to help her sister, who’d just had a baby. She began playing with a band called the Groobees. Together they recorded an album, “Wayside,” that included “Wide Open Spaces.” The album’s producer, respected Lubbock musician Lloyd Maines, shared the song with his daughter, who had just started singing with a local favorite, the Dixie Chicks.
Gibson remembers Natalie Maines having her bachelorette party at a Groobees’ performance.
“She put a note on the piano that said, ‘Play “Wide Open Spaces.”’”
When Gibson learned the Dixie Chicks were interested in putting “Wide Open Spaces” on their new album, she felt a bit territorial.
“I’m a sentimental person, and I get attached to things,” she says. “There was a part of me that didn’t even want the Groobees to record that song, because it was mine.
“That song is so specific to me. ‘She traveled this road as a child’—that was when we went up to Montana every summer. It was a really long drive from Amarillo to Missoula.
“And I don’t talk to my dad without him saying, ‘How’s your car running? Have you checked your oil?’ That’s how dads tell their daughters they love them.”
But when she first heard the Dixie Chicks perform “Wide Open Spaces,” all her concerns went out the window. “Michael Tarabay, Natalie’s first husband, brought a copy of the CD over, and we went and sat in his Suburban and listened to it,” Gibson says. “It made me bawl my eyes out. It was so beautiful—it had this stunning musicianship and very professional production. “I could still see my handwriting on the page, and here was this gorgeous recording of it.”
“Wide Open Spaces”—the song and the album—propelled the Dixie Chicks to international stardom in 1998. The song went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart and won Single of the Year at the Country Music Awards. It has sold more than 16 million copies. The album hit No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart and won a Grammy Award for Best Country Album. It went platinum, then diamond, selling more than 12 million copies—the most ever by a country music group.
Attending a party in Nashville, Gibson and the Dixie Chicks—Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire—celebrated in their own way. “We did what Texas girls do—we went bowling and got tattoos,” Gibson says.
The Dixie Chicks have a ritual of getting tiny chicken-feet tattoos to commemorate their successes; to date, each has nine tattoos on their feet. Gibson got hers on her right hand instead, between her thumb and forefinger.
These days, Gibson lives on four acres in Wimberley, Texas, and spends a lot of time on the road performing gigs and traveling in a custom Freightliner van with her dog, Jezebel. Her third solo album, New Dog, Old Tricks. will hit stores in June. Her first two albums, “Chin Up” and “Outer Space,” along with her previous work with the Groobees, have earned her a loyal following and a solid reputation as a musician and songwriter. Montana still holds a special place in her heart, especially now that her college roommate, Michelle Moss, lives in her guest house.
“Aside from having a good friend close by,” Gibson says, “it’s like having a piece of that life that I had back in Missoula. That was one of the best parts of my life.
“If I could do what I’m doing down here in Montana, I would move tomorrow.”
“Wide Open Spaces” has become a calling card for Gibson, who spent a long time trying to figure out how to replicate the song’s success before finally letting go.
“Letting go is harder than hanging on,” she says. “But I’m in a different place now than I was back then. I just say, ‘Thank you.’ “I love what I’m doing right now,” she says. “I have my little house in the hills and the whole rest of the planet I can visit.”
Spoken like a woman who’s found a dream and a life of her own.
Visit Susan Gibson online at www.susangibson.com and www.myspace.com/susangibson.
Patia Stephens ’00, M.F.A. ’07 is a freelance writer in Missoula. She worked for UM as an editor and Web content manager for ten years in University Relations. Visit her Web site at www.patiastephens.com.