PHOTOS BY PAULINE STEVENS
You might think that someone who has written one of country music’s most recognizable songs – a song that rocketed to No. 1 on the charts, stayed there for a month, and was embraced as an anthem for a generation of young people – might let success go to her head. But in the case of Susan Gibson, the exact opposite is true.
Susan wrote that now-famous song in 1993, while visiting her family over her Christmas break from studying forestry at college in Missoula, Montana. When her parents wanted to know why she had stayed out late the night before, Susan tapped into her youthful angst and furiously scribbled out the early stages of the lyrics that would one day rise to the top of the charts:
She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes
The words sat forgotten in a notebook at home, until Susan’s mother mailed the pages to her in a care package. Seeing the song’s potential, Susan finished “Wide Open Spaces,” started playing it around her college town, then brought it with her when she moved to Amarillo in the mid-1990s to become a nanny for her sister.
Soon, she was the lead singer of a popular Amarillo band called The Groobees, which recorded the song on an album produced by the renowned Lloyd Maines. Maines liked it so much, he introduced the song to his daughter Natalie’s new band: the Dixie Chicks.
“Wide Open Spaces” soon became one of the most beloved songs in country music history, and was named the Country Music Association’s Single of the Year in 1999.
“That song was in the first dozen songs I ever wrote,” she says. “It was way before I knew anything about the craft of songwriting. I was just trying to put down a true feeling. It’s not my best-written song, and it’s not my favorite, but it was true.”
Hearing the Dixie Chicks passionate version of “Wide Open Spaces” makes Susan proud, but the song’s meaningful role in people’s lives means even more to her.
“The biggest success was getting that truth down and connecting with people,” she says. “When someone says they played that song at their graduation, or at their best friend’s funeral, I don’t even know if proud is the word. It’s a super connection to people.”
The runaway success of “Wide Open Spaces” earned Susan BMI’s Songwriter of the Year award and opened endless doors for her career.
“That song changed my life,” she says. “It was exciting and beautiful and scary.”
Susan could have ridden the wave of success into a songwriting career in Nashville, but instead chose to go where she felt she belonged: the Texas Hill Country. She bought a nearly five-acre parcel of land in Wimberley in 2003, which is still home base for her and her five dogs. Together, they tour in her Sprinter van, clocking thousands of miles on the road each year.
Named the West Texas Music Hall of Fame’s Entertainer of the Year in 2009, the 44-year-old singer/songwriter now has five solo albums in addition to four recorded with The Groobees.
While she occasionally assembles a band for bigger gigs, her main focus now is playing house concerts around Texas, where she shares the stories behind her songs with small groups of people in private homes.
“It’s intimate,” she says. “I get to hang out with the people who are facilitating my career. We’ll have pie and coffee together. It feels like an evolution, to go back to the time of traveling minstrels, going home to home, playing for your supper.”
If you’re not lucky enough to see Susan at a private house concert, you might be able to catch a performance at a fundraising event supporting dog rescue. Her love of animals and training in working with dogs led her to volunteer with Wimberley’s WAGS animal shelter, where she works to socialize and train dogs to make them more adoptable.
Susan also plays many fundraisers to fight cancer, having lost her mother to lung cancer in 2013. She is grateful that her Mom, a piano teacher, gave her a childhood surrounded by music: She grew up singing, harmonizing, and playing “name that tune” while doing dishes, which led to violin lessons, and eventually, learning guitar from a high school friend, one song at a time.
Decades later, Susan is still writing songs, drawing inspiration from all aspects of everyday life. Ideas come from everywhere: reading, driving, or simply overhearing conversations that spark metaphors for her own life experiences.
“Lyrically, I think the definition of ‘songwriter,’ and by extension, ‘artistic,’ is just paying attention to the world with the idea that you want to make something out of it,” she says. “Songwriting is a ‘make something from nothing’ craft. You just have to be open and ready for inspiration.”
It’s not a talent she wants to keep to herself. Susan teaches songwriting workshops, serves as a one-on-one songwriting coach, and has been a mentor at a children’s songwriting camp, helping others learn the process and structure of piecing together lyrics and melody.
“I write songs for me,” she says. “I would love to have 25 more cuts on different records, but my goal for myself is to have a body of work that I love and am proud of. It’s not without hard work, but I consider longevity to be its own success in this business. Sticking with it is success enough.”
Her creativity isn’t limited to music, flowing into other art forms as well.
“Painting always has been and still is a release for me,” she says. It has also supported her music career: When her touring van was destroyed by a drunk driver, she launched “The Van Go Project” and began creating paintings for fans who pitched in to help her buy a new one. Today, her Sprinter is covered with the names of people who came to her rescue and kept her and her music on the road.
With her sister and her partner moving to the Hill Country from Amarillo, her niece and nephew going to UT Austin, and her father moving into assisted living in San Marcos, Susan’s future is happily focused on family and home.
“I am so looking forward being in my family again in regular, day-to-day way,” she says. “That is a big adventure for me. It sounds like it’s a slowing-down thing, and probably that is a little bit true, but it’s just really clear to me how important family is. Most of my songs have an element or inspiration from someone in my family. It will be nice to eat dinner together, to do the fun stuff and the hard stuff.”
She’s looking forward to spending more time at home, writing more songs, and making more records – including two EPs and an album she plans to release by this time next year.
“I’m loving every minute of it,” she says. “I am so lucky to have wonderful place to call home, and that the thing that makes me leave home is something I love to do. I have blessings all the way around.”