Groobees kind of love

The Groobees' Susan Gibson wrote the song that made the world sing. Well, at least fans of the Dixie Chicks.

There are literary theorists who propose that there are but a few basic stories in the world, perhaps little more or even less than can be counted on the fingers of both hands. Hence every novel -- or, for that matter, every story told by a movie or reported in a news event -- offers merely a different take on one or another of the same old basic tales. And even if one isn't so inclined toward literary analysis, or, on the other hand, schooled in Jungian theory, one can't help but notice that so many stories, from fact to fiction, seem to conform to certain archetypes.

That's definitely the case in the popular-music world, as so ably demonstrated in the mind-numbing sameness to the career trajectories traced in VH1's Behind the Music. This also seems to hold true with the music itself, where the themes behind the songs fall into certain basic categories.

And when it comes to these archetypal tales, it appears that the Amarillo pop-folk quartet The Groobees have steered themselves into a couple of major storylines in the progress of what was, until recently, a modest musical career. After all, if you start out in the Texas Panhandle, the Big Time isn't exactly looming on that 360-degree horizon.

But then along came the stories. The first one is indeed familiar, told time and again in verse, prose, and drama: A young woman strikes out on her own into the big wide world, carrying with her a bit of trepidation and leaving the folks behind sad as she follows her dream. And this particular telling of that age-old tale, this time in song, even acknowledges the universality of her quest in the opening line of its first verse: "Who doesn't know what I'm talking about?"

In case that phrase doesn't ring a bell -- which means you probably haven't been listening to country radio in the past few years -- just make note that some 10 million people own a copy of the song it comes from, "Wide Open Spaces," the title track to the album that skyrocketed The Dixie Chicks to major-league stardom. Written by Susan Gibson, lead singer of The Groobees, it is basically her own account of leaving home, scribbled into a notebook at the time and then forgotten. Yet it captures that experience for countless others ("many precede and many will follow," it knowingly acknowledges in the second verse), one good reason it was a No. 1 country chart hit, earned Single of the Year honors at the Country Music Awards, and became one of 1999's signature songs.

Gibson continues to be stunned at how a slice of her life became a major signpost within the current zeitgeist. "Every line in there is autobiographical. That's what makes me laugh that it went over so well with the general public, because every line in there is so personal."

And having the personal reflect the universal isn't just limited to the theme of the song. Each step in the process of its travel from mere notion to a potential standard plays like it was scripted is some sunny, Disney-esque dream factory, where wishing upon a star makes dreams come true, with a little bit of luck, of course.

Gibson wrote the song in the early '90s, when she was moving from West Texas to Montana to attend college. "So for the duration of the Christmas holidays, I was living with my parents again after having a semester of freedom," says Gibson, a pretty, strapping blonde whose husky, seductive voice and muscular guitar, banjo, and mandolin playing are at the core of the Groobees' sound. "My parents aren't bad people at all; they're awesome folks, but they're parents. And they want to know where you are and what you did and when you're going to be home. And I am so passive-aggressive that I wrote the song rather than saying anything to them."

It's also hardly the usual origin for life-changing songs. But when Gibson the budding folk singer hooked up a few years later with a coalescing Amarillo band known as The Groobees, it started catching ears. And in one of those guided by the finger of fate tales, "Wide Open Spaces" eventually tumbled into the right hands.


"I had an inkling that 'Wide Open Spaces' was a strong song," recalls Scott Melott, the songwriter, keyboardist, and guitar player who started The Groobees in 1992 as "an outlet for my songwriting." He heard enough in Gibson's tune to make it the first song on a demo the group cut after she joined the band in 1995. "We knew it was strong...I never thought it was going to be No. 1."

When Melott sent the tape to producer and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, then living in nearby Lubbock, "Wide Open Spaces" charmed him so much he passed along copies to his wife and daughters -- one of whom, Natalie, just happened to be a singer who had recently joined the Dallas-based Dixie Chicks. By the time the Chicks were preparing to record their first major-label album for Sony, Natalie Maines had already incorporated the song into their stage show.

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