Highest Stakes

Susan Gibson cashes in her loan

Highest Stakes
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

For a woman who wrote the best-selling single in country music history, the Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces," Susan Gibson is concerned with the most mundane of activities on this late September afternoon: She's lavishing affection on her dog Jezebel. Jezebel acknowledges the love with big slurps of her wide pink tongue. Gibson just laughs. She leaves the dog in the van with a big bowl of fresh water and wide-open windows before bouncing into Magnolia Cafe for a salad and some talk.

Not just any talk, mind you.

Born in Minnesota and raised in Burleson, Texas, and later Amarillo, Susan Gibson is opinionated, verbose, and quick with an answer. At 30, she's a palomino of a woman -- trim, tanned, tall, and leggy as a thoroughbred. Her gorgeous golden mane of hair is naturally blonde and tosses in the early autumn breeze as she exudes a confidence that isn't reigned in by hesitation of any sort.

"Yeah," she offers a rueful half-smile. "There are things I like to talk about onstage that add background to my songs, but there are other things I blurt out. I've gotten hand-slapped for it sometimes."

She mimes zipping closed her mouth and makes a face of a schoolgirl caught passing a note by the teacher.

"Maybe it's a nervous reaction, but it's okay. I really like being spontaneous"

Gibson speaks in a most forthright, and yes, spontaneous manner about her good points as well as her bad ones ("I'm pretty darned entertained by my character flaws," she told another interviewer). And her way of speaking is charming: lively, run-on sentences peppered liberally with similes and metaphors that let you know she spends plenty of time thinking. Even if she still blurts things out. To wit:

"Selfish and impulsive is okay when you're alone and you're moving as an atom, but as soon as you become a molecule, there are certain rules."

Rules and metaphors aside, it's difficult to imagine the vivacious Gibson as a 19-year-old atom, on her own, and confronting the biggest challenge of her adult life: leaving childhood. That was the impetus for the Grammy- and CMA-award-winning "Wide Open Spaces," a mega-hit song whose naked beauty lies in simplicity. Yet while most people rightly understood "Wide Open Spaces" as a declaration of independence, the most telling line in the song is less celebrated: "She knows the highest stakes."

The stakes rose pie-in-the-sky high once the Dixie Chicks made Susan Gibson something of a household name in 1998. The musician's life is always a gamble, and being the author of a smash hit carries a heavy load: What's next? Martina McBride successfully recorded "Cloud Nine," but wasn't as umbilically attached to Gibson's name as "Wide Open Spaces."

"Professionally, the biggest thing 'Wide Open Spaces' gave me was a business card," chuckles Gibson. "I was automatically defined as 'The girl who wrote 'Wide Open Spaces' -- like the sticker that says, 'Hello, my name is ....'

"But as soon as someone says, 'What else have you done?' it's like, 'Uh, crocheted this afghan and learned how to make baba ganoush?' Everyone in the music business knows a long shot is just that, unless you follow it with something good. I was lucky. Writing that song is an automatic résumé.

"It's not my favorite song. It's not the best thing I've written. I have 20 songs I think are better written, but they're not as universal, and that's okay. Having one [hit song] puts gas in my tank so I can write a million sincere songs that might never see the light of day. And that really is okay."

Still, it's hard to deny the anthemic spirit of "Wide Open Spaces." The yearning of the wistful lyrics is real, according to the countless young women (and sometimes parents) who relate to it and often take time to tell her what it means to them. That leaves Gibson pleased but still pragmatic.

"It was no anthem, it was a prayer. I really was talking about me, Susan Gibson, not the demographic of 14- to 22-year-old girls who wanna wear pink fuzzy cowboy hats and take banjo lessons. I was alone, lonely, lonesome at my mom's kitchen table when I wrote that song. That's the magic and beauty of everything falling into place at the right time."

As things fell into place and magic sparkled, a shadow passed over the Groobees, the Amarillo-based group Susan played with from 1996-2001. The irony of the Groobees was that Gibson joined the pre-existing band as just another member and midway through their life, she struck platinum with "Wide Open Spaces."

The Groobees performed "Wide Open Spaces" as a regular part of their set, but it was eclipsed by the Chicks' record-breaking version. Meanwhile, the profits of the song -- which she split with the band -- allowed Gibson to pay the Groobees well and travel in comfort. What seemed like an ideal situation was shaky, however. The stakes prophesied in "Wide Open Spaces" were very high and Gibson left the Groobees last year. Amicably.

"I'm kind of a goldfish," explains the singer. "I will grow as big as my tank will allow me. Not that there wasn't room for growth in the Groobees, but if you think of five goldfish growing to their full potential in a bowl, it's cramped. Being in a band was insulating. The good and the bad was softened by spreading out."

Not to mention spreading her proverbial wings. A new phase of Gibson's career began in September of this year with the release of Chin Up, her first solo album. The songs on Chin Up are every bit as autobiographical as "Wide Open Spaces," and take her well beyond the lonesome 19-year-old in her mother's kitchen. Life and career are moving so fast for Gibson.

"I can see 180 degrees across where I was just a year ago," she says thoughtfully.

Chin Up is patchwork, a cozy quilt of songs that are funny, thoughtful, bittersweet, and cathartic. Some are about love, but aren't love songs per se. Mostly, they exude a confidence that doesn't always come naturally to Gibson.

"When I seem confident, it's like trying to convince myself. Maybe the mark of the confident person is to accept consequences for acting. You're not afraid to act because you're not afraid of consequences."

Some of that confidence may be bravado, too. Gibson is blunt about Chin Up's commercial potential or lack thereof. She fears it's "not very radio-accessible." Some songs are paced slowly and many clock in at over four minutes. Success can breed confidence (and vice versa), but radio play is crucial to an artist in more ways than just airplay.

"The most important thing about success and what you put out is what you get back. It allows me to have these quirky songs. 'How about if I play this one on the banjo and talk about being a fat girl in the third grade?'"

That's Gibson revealing herself to the most tender degree. Chin Up is in large part autobiography, with many words to the worldly and wise, but none as sensitive as the title track, tucked unannounced after the 13 listed cuts. "Chin Up" confronts Gibson's lingering bad experience on the school playground with wry good humor that cuts to the quick.

"A P.E. teacher wrote into my Web site and said, 'I'm gonna play your song for [other] P.E. teachers,'" reports Gibson, adding that the letter reminding her of her own days behind the monkey bars and her failure to pass the President's Council on Fitness tests in elementary school.

"Hopefully, they'll think twice before saying, 'Hey, kid! C'mere, I wanna calibrate the fat on your back.' Not that you don't have to push someone, encourage them. But you get better results with compassion and being aware of the dents you put in people's brains that years of wind, water, and erosion won't wear down. That third-grader will always be there, always make me compassionate to anyone going through that, too."

There's a downside to letting music express your innermost feelings, of course -- the danger that audiences will assume they know the artist's foibles and weaknesses based on lyrics. Gibson is aware of that intimate trap.

"I would hope that anybody listening to Chin Up would never presume that was me all the time just like I'm not 'Wide Open Spaces' all the time. I'm not as lonesome as 'One Roller Skate,' and I'm not as happy-go-lucky as '84 Ford Good Times Estate.' When I break down, I'm stuck."

For someone who "hasn't spent more than three weeks in a row at home in over five years," Gibson is in the process of settling down. She's house-hunting outside Austin in the midst of a nonstop tour schedule that's taking her to a variety of venues across the country. As far as she's concerned, it's all about the luck of the draw.

"I hope I always deserve the good stuff I've gotten," declares Gibson. "God handed me this really cool loan and said, 'Pay it back when you can.'"

Talk about your high stakes! end story

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Susan Gibson, Groobees, Wide Open Spaces, Dixie Chicks, Chin Up

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