Singer/songwriter Susan Gibson was inspired to write her most well-known song “Wide Open Spaces,” the hit Dixie Chick tune, while in college in Montana. The song’s poetic lyric and powerful metaphors for youth and living life certainly gave listeners something to behold and much of Susan Gibson’s own music since then has given the artist much to be thankful for. In this feature interview, writer Stormy Lewis sat down with Susan Gibson to discuss her career, her recent car accident and how music helped her attain a fast recovery and her new album TightRope, along with much, much more.
Stormy Lewis: We may have something in common. I hear you went to school in Missoula.
Susan Gibson: I did.
SL: University of Montana?
SG: Yep, I sure did
SL: Me too.
SG: What did you study?
SG: Very cool.
SL: I thought I should stick with a language I know.
SG: That's probably good.
SL: So, after a childhood spent in Texas, how did you like those Montana winters?
SG: I was only up there three years going to school. I'll tell ya, I loved them. I love the cold. I sometime can't believe I live in Central Texas because we don't get the freeze that I need sometimes. And you know, Missoula was pretty mild compared to the rest of the state. I feel like up there I had that seasonal depression, but the cold and the snow didn't bother me at all.
SL: Do you miss having the four distinct seasons living in Texas? I miss that sometimes.
SG: I do too.
SL: I don't miss winter so much as I miss fall.
SG: Me too. And up there the falls are so beautiful, they are so gorgeous. We lived right behind Greenough Park, so we would walk Greenough Park four times a day.
SL: You were studying to be a forest ranger?
SG: I was. I was in the Forestry Department up there. You know there were parts of that I really loved and parts of it that I didn't like at all. And the parts I didn't like won out and I quit school.
SL: What were some of the parts that you loved about it?
SG: I loved the lab classes and the field classes and stuff like that. That's what made me choose it as a degree, being outside. I love being outside in that part of the country, and anywhere really. But I could have studied landscaping or something like that if I wanted to be outside.
SL: So what made you finally decide on music?
SG: It was something I did through college, just playing the open mikes. And then I moved back down to Amarillo, which is where my family lives, to be a nanny for my sister's baby. I started singing with a band. It kind of became something...I just said “okay, I'll try that,” and one thing lead to another. Pretty soon I was quitting my job at the credit union because we were traveling more. After I got a taste of traveling around and the fun it is to be in a new place everyday. There are so many parts about this job that I really, really love that aren't really music. Its the kind of the fringe benefits that I really love.
SL: You do get a chance to travel around a lot. Do you get a chance to get outside when you are traveling around?
SG: I do. I travel with my dogs, so any time we get a free moment we're out walking. We have a deal that says they'll ride in the car as long as I need to as long as as soon as I don't need them to they get to get out and run around. That's the deal. That kind of gets me out and gets me seeing places that I probably wouldn't if we were just loading in and playing the gig and loading out and going to the motel.
SL: What kind of landscapes do you prefer?
SG: There is a million different kinds of beautiful. I love the flatness of Amarillo. I love the hills down here and the trees and the water. Its all beautiful. Its only been through music that I have spent much time on the coast and I love that. The ocean is pretty magnificent. I just hope I get to appreciate all of it when I am there.
SL: Just a special insider tip from someone from the Pacific Northwest—If you get a chance to go to the Oregon Coast, don't go to Seaside or Newport, go to a little town called Oceanside. There is no one on the beach. It is right in between the two—no one on the beach.
SG: Right on. I will take your advice.
SL: It’s one of those things that only we Oregonians know about.
SG: Awesome. I won't tell anybody.
SL: Well, we're going to put it up on the website, so maybe I let the cat out of the bag.
SL: What part of being in Montana inspired Wide Open Spaces? How much of it was the landscape and how much of it was the situation?
SG: Oh man, I'd have to say 40-60 percent split there. I always used to say that in Montana the ground goes all the way up to the sky and in Amarillo the sky comes all the way down to the ground. You know what I mean? Amarillo is totally flat. It is almost so flat that you can see the curve of the earth, it is that flat. There is kind of a spatial thing going on there, both of them make you feel kind of small. They're both beautiful. I know when I wrote that song I was coming back to Amarillo. I was coming back for the Christmas break, being back to Amarillo from my first semester at college. And you know, that first semester of college is the one where you learn everything and all of a sudden your parents can't tell you anything. I think that was the situational part of it. And Big Sky Country, there's a lot of room up there.
SL: And its hard to describe to someone who hasn't been up there what it means when the sky is big, but it is bigger up there.
SG: There's a depth that you get because you have that perspective because those mountains are huge. And look how big those clouds are, those clouds are huge. There's so much to give you perspective. And that's kind of in juxtaposition, the Amarillo landscape—there's nothing on that horizon to give you perspective. You could be in outer space. And its huge too. Its really crazy how two totally opposite things can inspire the same feeling. And you're right about the Montana sky. You can tell how big it is.
SL: In 2009 you were named the West Texas Hall of Fame's Entertainer of the Year. What was that like?
SG: It was very cool. What an honor. West Texas has on their website—I didn't really see this before I won the award but the list all of the people who are singer-songwriters and performers or bandleaders and that kind of thing. And its great to be in that kind of company. Those guys are historical figures in this business. So to just have your name on the same page with them is really an honor. Its great.
You know I had my car wreck in February and I got my plaque for the West Texas Hall of Fame Entertainer of the Year the same day I got my ambulance bill. So it was kind of a bittersweet, welcome package in the mail.
SL: It was the universe trying to balance everything.
SG: Yeah, exactly.
SL: You were in that accident. You broke your arm, shattered your wrist and dislocated your shoulder, correct?
SL: Ouch. So how difficult was it to get back to where you could play the guitar and get back out on the road?
SG: It took a couple months. I was kind of glad...after I had the surgery on my wrist the doctor said “we were kind of scared when you brought us those x-rays from the emergency room. We didn't think there was enough of that wrist left to attach a plate to.” So, I'm really glad I didn't hear that before going into the surgery. I was really fortunate. I had my friend Jana Pochop that is my booking agent and travels with me and does my website stuff. She's a singer/songwriter as well. We gave it....The wreck was a year ago yesterday and our first gig was March sixth of 2010. That was all of three weeks before I was singing and Jana had learned a bunch of my songs and played guitar for me, so we could keep a couple of those gigs where it was appropriate. There wasn't everywhere we could say “Surprise, I'm not playing my own guitar,” but some of them let us in. That was really important. I think that helped me recover a lot faster because my identity is tied up in riding around and playing music. That was as scary as the whole physical will I be able to start my lawn mower again, or tie my shoes, the mental blow that was what will I do if I can't do this. I was really lucky. I had a lot of people around me who were cheering me on and supporting me, in every sense of the word. People were asking where to send flowers and Jana said “we don't need flowers right now, we need money.” So they helped me. They helped me get back on my feet. I think I played my first gig by myself in early May, and they had predicted that I probably wouldn't be playing until September or so. Physical therapy and wanting it really band. And God is a graceful Supreme Being and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that.
SL: How much do you think playing the guitar and having that physical exercise to strengthen your arm, helped out?
SG: A lot. I was fiddling around on the guitar, trying to get my strum back, and I was nervous because I hadn't been released by the doctor to try this stuff. I finally told my physical therapist I was like “Hey, I've got to admit that I've been trying to play the guitar.” She was like “That's great. You're therapy is going to be doing what you need to do in order to do what you need to do. So if its playing the guitar, absolutely, set your timer and play for a few minutes then play for a few minutes. Then tomorrow set it for 6 minutes, then the next day set it for ten minutes. Build into it and don't hurt yourself. That was really encouraging. I had a good physical therapist.
SL: That's good, because I've had a couple of family members who have had physical issues in the past year and I know that being inspired to do your physical therapy helps out a lot.
SG: Absolutely. They give you lots of exercises to do, and for a long time I did the lifting and the flexing and the rotating. But, by far, playing the guitar was the biggest inspiration and stimulus for getting back and getting it strong.
SL: I know your accident also lead you to get involved with Music Cares. Can you tell me a little bit about that organization?
SG: They jumped right in. I think it was through my publicist who contacted them. I am like a lot of musicians, there's not a health care plan benefits or a 401K. We're all out there putting thousands and thousands of miles on our bodies, a lot of times after all the drunks are driving home. And it can be dangerous. Music Cares is an organization that is set up specifically to help. I think, I'm not sure about this, but I think it started with helping with kind of depression issues and substance abuse issues. It has spread out into this organization that helps with medical issues like I had, where all of a sudden you are out of a job and you have medical bills coming in all from the same incident. They really helped me. And, I learned, when the flood happened in Nashville, they came out to my publicists house. I don't know what their criteria are except that you are active and employed in the music business in whatever aspect that is. I had another friend who lost all of their stuff in the flood, and they are just kind of a soft place to land in an otherwise harsh, unforgiving world. They just kind of stepped in and they sent me a thousand bucks and that was enough to pay off the rest of my ambulance bill which was huge. I had no idea how much that kind of stuff cost and they really helped lift the burden a little bit. That was a very expensive twelve minute ride. So....
SL: I don't think people sometimes realize how expensive the breakdown of medical bills can be. I have a sister who has Asthma, and when she goes into the hospital it gets kind of scary sometimes when you see the amount of money that goes through there. Now, you partnered with Music Cares for your next album.
SG: I did this with my last album with a portion of the proceeds going to a dog rescue in Austin that I've worked with pretty closely. So this record it just seemed appropriate that we would do the same thing and have the proceeds go to Music Cares. With the dog rescue it felt like I was paying it forward, but with Music Cares I'm definitely paying it back. They do a lot for musicians and I got to be on the receiving end of that. I would not be exaggerating that without that kind of thing out there and without a fan base that really cares about you as a person and really wants to see you do great—not just put out another record—wants to see you be happy and healthy. It just seemed like a very natural thing to do because they [her fans] are the kind of people who would give directly to it, but if they can get a CD out of it, that's awesome. Hopefully it’s something we're doing to promote awareness for Music Cares and not just promote my new CD, you know what I mean? They are a really valuable organization and they really did bridge a gap for me.
SL: I know you're dogs played an important part on this album. In fact, one of them even inspired a song. Tell me a little about your dogs.
SG: Well, I have three dogs. They're all mixes. Two of them came from Blue Dog Rescue, that's the organization in Austin that is a really responsible dog rescue. I'd had a dog named Jezebel that traveled with me. I had her since she was a puppy and she died when she was eleven. She was a really important person to me. I'd played benefits for Blue Dog before, and they let me go for about two weeks before they said “Alright Susan, you've spiraled down long enough.” And they brought Nick out to me. Nick is like a lab...maybe a lab/pit mix or something like that. He's a big goof ball. And then a couple weeks after that I started fostering a little girl named Gilda, who is....I have no idea. I say she's part Tasmanian Devil, part pre-pubescent teenage girl. It wasn't very long until I realized I'm not fostering this dog, she belongs with me and Nick. And then about two years we were visiting some friends in Winnsboro Texas who were about to go on tour and needed to find homes for their six dogs. And that's how we got Dub. He's the stray, there's a song called A Stray on the album. I don't really know how old he is. He has a bullet lodged in his shoulder from messing with some cattle when he lived out in Winnsboro. So he's kind of got this past. And he's the one I don't even hardly open up the car door without the leash on because I'm not really sure he'll come back to me. He's my—the other two have been my dogs since they were about a year old—he's the one who could take me or leave me.
SL: And dogs, when they have a certain history, get like that sometimes.
SL: One of my favorite songs on your album is “Wood Wouldn't Burn,” which I understand was based on a true story. Can you tell me about that story?
SG: Absolutely. I was playing a little folk festival up in Ontario Canada which is run by my friend Robert Marin. He had this old guitar sitting in his house and it had obviously been through a fire. It was all—the finish on it was all blistered and peeling and tuning pegs kind of missing. I asked him the story about the guitar and he said that he used to have this guy who would come up to his shows and he would say “Man, Roger I love the way you play! I have this great old Gibson guitar. You should play it. You'd sound great on it. Roger never really took him up on the offer. Then some time passed and he didn't really see the guy for a while. This woman comes up and she's got the guitar and its in this horrible shape. She gives it to Roger and Roger's like “What's this?” And she says, “Well, my husband always wanted to hear you play this guitar and he died this year and he died in a house fire.” And the guitar was stored away in the basement because he really didn't play that much. The song is the story that Roger told me. So, it was spared from the fire, and it was her husband and, I don't know if it was her only son or one of her sons that both died. She remembered that he always wanted Roger to play his guitar so she brought it to one of his gigs. Seriously, when I sing that song at least one point of the song I get chills, and just now when I told you that story, I get chills. There is just something about remembering someone in the song that is really powerful. I love that story and I can't imagine being that woman. Because I know if I had lost everything and here was this souvenir of my husband, I don't care how much he had wanted it to go to Roger Marin, I wouldn't have given it to Roger Marin. You know what I mean. It just seems like such a healing thing for her to do. I don't know. I can't put my brain around it. It’s a great story.
SL: I also know you wrote one of the songs on your album about the Volunteer Fire Fighters in Amarillo. Why did you want to write a song for them?
SG: Well, you know, Texas is a big state and you can be having droughts and floods at the same time in this state. We were pretty much under water down here in Wimberley and I was talking to my mother on the phone and they were having grass fires so bad that they were shutting down the highways. They just could not recruit enough people to be volunteer fire fighters and stay out in front of these fires. You know, Amarillo is very flat and very dry and very windy. So when those things get started there's nothing to stop them, they’re not a break point. It could just burn right into Oklahoma and beyond. You know, it’s compelling. The rest of the world is under water and we can't beg, buy or borrow a drop. It’s kind of a helpless feeling and they needed help. If I had been a forest ranger at the time I would have been out there with my shovel and my bucket, but I was a songwriter so I wrote them a song.
SL: I noticed you used some pretty unique instrumentation on your album. What was your favorite one and how did you come up with it?
SG: I have to say my favorite instrument on that album was Gabe Rhodes the producer. That was really at his direction. He has this cool studio—he and his mom have a studio together. His mom is Kimmie Rhodes who is a great singer songwriter and an amazing lady. Also he was raised by a songwriter so he is all about playing exactly what the song needs and not just the instrument, you know what I mean. He has this little room that is filled with noisemakers that in the right hands are instruments. To most they would just be pots and pans and kids toys and the slinky and all that kind of stuff. On the song “Evergreen,” on the chorus, you hear this kind of clicking sound and it’s just his fingernails on the guitar strings. And the little thing that sounds like a percussion part in “Hope Diamond,” it’s like a pencil eraser on a cigar box. And he's go through and hit the box with the pencil tip and then the eraser and he'd be like “Okay eraser!” He was just playing, and it was really cool. It made me realize you don't have to have a 6,000 dollar drum kit and a sound proof vocal booth to make a record. You have to have a creative producer and fearlessness to use things that aren't typically...you know there is a grand piano on that record but he is not playing the keys, he's plunking the strings. So everything is just a little bit quirky. On “It’s Raining Outside Today, Hooray!” the song that's the volunteer fireman song, he was tuning up the banjo to put it on there and one of the strings broke. I was thinking “Oh crap! Now we have to change all the strings on the banjo” and he was like “Oh, I wasn't going to use that string anyway.” Just fearlessness. I can't say enough good things about Gabe Rhodes. He is all about the passionate performance and not the perfect one. So, there were a couple of things I had to get used to hearing over and over again. We decided that it was really heartfelt and that was that was a good performance. And if you try to do it right you might make it more maybe more right but it’s not going to be better. So he gets the credit for the best instrument on the album.
SL: That's nice. In your description of “Passin' Through” you said one of the perks of being a traveling musician is that you get to travel to the neatest places. What is the neatest place you have ever been to?
SG: Oh, man. That's a hard question.
SL: I'm mean.
SG: You are a mean interviewer. I'll just preface it by saying we'll be in Dallas Texas on a Wednesday hanging out and looking at this great skyline. Then on Thursday we'll be on the River Walk in San Antonio and on Friday we're down on Port Aransas or Corpus Christi. In early fall we're in Northern New Mexico. I understand that there's a lot of people who will work all year so they can take a week off and go to Taos, and that's something that we just get to do in the course of the job. I can't narrow that down to one place. Every place has its merits. There are great people in every place. With that kind of landscape it is impossible to pick on. Montana is pretty killer though.
SL: Especially Missoula. It’s got the big city with the little tiny town all in one place.
SL: Of course, it probably feels bigger if, like me, you grew up in a town of 435 people.
SL: I went there thinking, this is so big.
SG: It’s all relative.
SL: It looks like in the next couple of days you’ll be at the 2011 Folk Alliance. What are you looking forward to there?
SG: Oh man, there are so many things. We were just going through their schedule of events. I don't know if you know much about Folk Alliance but its like a Conference where in the day time they will have a banjo workshop or they will have a blues—I'm trying to think of the guy's name. I'll think of it and I'll say it later. But, he's like this really legendary Blues player and you get to go and listen to him talk and ask him questions. There having, they do some film stuff there. They have all this stuff going on during the day. They have these booths set up, booking agents and publicists and folk stations and house concerts, you know. It’s like a mall for folk musicians. Then in the evening they have gorilla showcases so you can go and see Abigail Washburn play in room 1726. She'll be doing a half hour set from 10:30-11:00 and you'll be one of however many people they can cram into that motel room. It’s going to be awesome. I'm really looking forward to first of all meeting some of the people we have been hitting up for gigs all year long. I'm looking forward to being in the same physical location with all these people. We'll go to the venue and be playing and we'll see “oh they were just here last weekend” or “Oh they're going to be here next week.” We're crossing paths all the time but we don't even get to see each other play. I'm looking forward to that. Memphis is going to be fun. I have some friends out there I'm looking forward to seeing. Just being there in the thick of it all is going to be great.