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Susan Gibson still making a name for herself after ‘Wide Open Spaces’

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Many musicians go their entire careers searching for that one hit, that one piece of music that strikes a cord and connects with millions of people across the world. Some are lucky enough to do it once or twice after years of toiling in anonymity. Some never get that chance.

Susan Gibson
Susan Gibson

But, what happens when an artist catches that lightning in a bottle at the very start of his or her career?

Such was the case for Susan Gibson, a Grammy-winning singer/songwriter in Texas with lots of ties to the Treasure State.

Gibson is best known for writing the hit Dixie Chicks song “Wide Open Spaces.”

After writing the song in 1993, Gibson had it produced by Lloyd Maines, father of the new lead singer for the Dixie Chicks in the mid 90s, Natalie Maines.

Gibson returns to Montana on Friday to play a free show at the Mighty Mo Brewery at 5 p.m. She’s also playing a private house event this weekend, which was what allowed her to come play a free public show, also.

Even if she never reaches that level of success again commercially, Gibson said in an interview with Big Sky State Buzz that she’ll be forever grateful for the doors that “Wide Open Spaces” opened for her.

After coming out on July 28, 1998, the song hit No. 1 on the U.S. Country Singles chart, where it stayed there for four weeks.

It was named the Country Music Association Awards Single of the Year in 1999 and won Gibson the American Songwriter Professional Country Songwriter of the Year award in early 2000.

“I had been writing songs since I was going to school at the University of Montana right at the beginning of my career, but it wasn’t really even a career yet, just an expensive hobby,” Gibson said. “(Wide Open Spaces) put me on the map as a songwriter and that affirmation is really kind of indescribable because here we are, 17 or 18 years after that song was No. 1 in on the country music charts and I’m still getting to talk about that song and the doors it opened for me. One of those doors, for example, was the ability to work with some pretty cool folks.”

While Gibson’s career hasn’t reached that level of mass appeal since then, to say she hasn’t written anything as authentic or as high-quality would be a mistake.

Since 2003 Gibson’s release four solo albums, “Chin Up” (2003), “Outerspace” (2005), “New Dog, Old Tricks” (2008) and 2011’s “Tight Rope.”  She also released an album of live tracks titled “The Second Hand” last year.

Gibson plays acoustic country with folk elements. She said most of songs tell a story that touches on some kind of thought or feeling that she had while writing it.

“I love telling stories and about kind of how I got to the song or how the song got to me,” she said.

Being a songwriter, she said that immediately after “Wide Open Spaces,” she felt that pressure to produce another hit that was just as popular, if not more so.

She said eventually she came to the realization that what mattered to her more was writing songs that resonated with her and her audiences rather than the millions of people who only knew her from that single track she wrote as a college kid.

“I had to go through a period where I would try not writing ‘Wide Open Spaces’ again and just let every that song be exactly what it was,” she said. “Because when I wrote that song, I wasn’t a songwriter, I was a college student who played open mics once and a while, and really I hope I’m always getting better as a writer.

“The fact that I had that song right out of the gates by no means means it’s my best song I’ve ever written. As I’ve grown, too, I think my goal is now to have, you know, 20 years from now, a body of work that I still love to sing that still resonates with people, that is timeless in a way.”

Gibson added that as long as she has new stuff to perform to mix in with her old tunes, she’ll always love coming back to Montana to play.

“My dad is from Missoula and he has cabin on Flathead Lake, where we spent all of our summers and … so I’ve always felt very connected and at home in Montana,” she said. “I have a nice career going for me down in Texas, but man, I would love to live in Montana all the time. I think it’s a great state.”

She said she’s also excited to play a small venue such as the Mighty Mo because it’s a much more intimate experience for both her and her audience.

“In a show like this one there’s more accountability, and in a sense the rewards are greater because there’s really no separation between you and the audience,” she said. “I don’t know how else to put it but it’s very direct. There isn’t a big stage with big sound and big lights that feed your ego as a performer, it’s ‘here’s this song in its most bare-bones form,’ because it shouldn’t be all about me. It’s about bringing songs to people and putting that out there and having an experience with them.”

Along those same lines, Gibson said while many of the songs she performs are personal in nature, she said once they’ve been written, they have to stand on their own, meaning she can’t take offense if that song doesn’t reach someone as much as other songs do because music is so subjective.

“If I get feedback from people, no matter what it is, say someone laughs at a line or they poke their boyfriend after hearing a line or they whatever, I need that kind of feedback and that’s why I care more about playing live than I do about selling records because I want to be in the room with you and I love getting a reaction from people who hear my music,” she said. “I think one of my biggest strengths is in that kind of relationship and connection I get with my audience when you know, you’re able to open up and show the puppet strings on your songs.”

For more information on Susan Gibson, check out her website here.

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