Singer-songwriter Susan Gibson was born in Minnesota but spent most of her formative years in Amarillo, Texas. Growing up, she and her family would often drive between Amarillo and Missoula, Montana, where she drew comfort and inspiration from the wide open spaces along their route.
Ultimately, Gibson took to music and the continuum of movement through those scenic vistas would become an essential muse that, in the early 1990s, would end up on a cassette tape of her early songs.
“I didn’t start writing songs to become a professional songwriter at all,” Gibson recently told me on the latest episode of The Load Out music podcast.
Recorded way back in 1992, that cassette tape had a gem that, not-so-ironically, was called “Wide Open Spaces.” The song ended up on a demo tape for Gibson’s former Amarillo-based band, The Groobees, which they sent to legendary music producer Lloyd Maines in hopes he would produce a record for them.
Maines connected with the lyrics of “Wide Open Spaces,” a tale of a daughter leaving home. But he thought it would be an ideal match for the voice of his daughter Natalie, who had just joined a little country outfit called The Dixie Chicks (now The Chicks). And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Chicks released the album Wide Open Spaces in 1998 and the title track went on to become a smash hit around the world and one of the most impactful country songs of the past 50 years. But Gibson has no remorse about one of her songs turning into a hit for another artist. She not only adores The Chicks as a band, but is grateful that her inspiration remains so appreciated.
“I’m proud that I captured something at 24-years-old that still feels true to me today,” she said. “That idea of being a tumbleweed is really attractive to me. I lean into that part of the job…I love kind of a gypsy-ish lifestyle.”
Gibson is realistic about the song, playfully calling it her “lightning strike lottery ticket,” but it’s important to understand the context of just how big “Wide Open Spaces” became. Not only was it named the Country Music Association Single of the Year in 1999, but it won Gibson the American Songwriter Professional Country Songwriter of the Year award in early 2000, along with a BMI award the previous year.
Despite the acclaim, however, Gibson has remained grounded and committed to her craft—writing, playing, singing. She is highly respected across the industry as a songwriter which is on display throughout her catalogue of seven albums and a variety of singles.
Her last full-length record—2019’s The Hard Stuff—dug deep into her personal journey. It examined Gibson’s battle with alcoholism (she’s been sober since 2010), and we spoke at length about the signals she received that led her to finally giving up the bottle.
“I had all of the stuff that you are imaging happened when you have a drinking problem,” she said. “The lying, cheating, stealing, blaming other people for your own mistakes. It makes good relationships incredibly hard when you are an alcoholic.”
A hand injury suffered in a 2010 car accident turned the light on, leading her to realize that—without her physical talents—she had no music.
“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said. “Getting sober has changed my life profoundly.”
Thus, today Gibson is clear-eyed, loving the craft of playing music every single day; being thankful for moments in time like writing “Wide Open Spaces,” and the experiences that drove her to follow an artist’s path.
Enjoy an amazing conversation with a terrific songwriter and wonderful person, Susan Gibson, on the latest Load Out music podcast.