Groobees kind of love

The Groobees swear singer Susan Gibson's (third from left) newfound wealth hasn't strained their relationship.

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?"

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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.  

Which brings us to yet another classic show-biz scenario: artist stands up to the powers-that-be and is eventually vindicated. Chicks co-producer and Sony exec Blake Chancey didn't want to cut "Wide Open Spaces." But Maines was adamant. "From my understanding," notes Gibson, "she was the one who pretty much drew the line in the sand, and said, 'Look, we've been playing this song live, we get a great response to it, people ask for it, it's us, we love singing it.' From the beginning they were pushing for it to be on there, and I am so glad."

The rest is, if not history, certainly finance. To date, "Wide Open Spaces" has earned some $600,000 in writer and publisher royalties from most of its chart-topping radio play and some but not yet all of the 10 million in record sales. Or in other words, it's bound to top out at somewhere around a cool million over the next year or so. Add to that the annual annuity from catalog record sales, golden oldie airplay and, one imagines, Muzak, and there's a healthy little chunk of cash to follow for years to come. If it ever gets sold for a TV commercial -- the number is a natural SUV theme -- there's the potential for yet another six-figure check, maybe more.

Or in other words, Susan Gibson has hit the jackpot. And she didn't even have to sit in a chair before countless TV viewers answering trivial questions to reap her million-buck windfall.

And here's where one might expect another of those same old stories: a singer in a band gets singled out for attention. Despite the group's all-for-one-and-one-for-all declarations, he or she eventually leaves the group behind, with bad feelings rippling in the wake. Will the Groobees conform to that age-old archetype? They protest not, vigorously and convincingly. But then again, to do so is part and parcel of that archetype. So when Melott insists that "what I love about it is that we are a band," his fellow members immediately take up the same tune.

Guitarist Gary Thomason chimes in with the old saw about how "we've played together for a long time, and it's like a family. I can't tell you how many bands we've played with, and the next time we come to town, it's a whole new line-up. It's like a revolving door for bands. I just love the fact that these same four people have played on all three albums; we've made $400 a month together..."

"Slept on the floor together," adds Melott.

"We've played the same crappy gigs together," notes Thomason.

"The proms..." interjects Gibson with a slight sneer.

"And I think that, in and of itself, creates some intangible thing," Thomason speculates. "In fact, when I look over at Scott and Susan, I've got all those years of playing with those guys at my side. I feel like everyone in the band is indispensable."

But for all the band-in-a-van clichés they offer, Gibson also points out some particulars in this group's interrelations that she values. "I know it wouldn't sound the same if it weren't for Gary's ears hearing his part, or Todd stretching out to bring a new sound to a new song. Because I'm definitely playing the same three chords over and over again. So it has to be these guys fluxing and shifting and changing that brings a little originality to our original material. Because otherwise, I get in ruts. And it's their musicianship that brings my material out to the edges."

It all sounds so positive, one really wants to believe it. And in the case of The Groobees, there's a key factor that actually generates some abiding faith in their words of esprit. "Wide Open Spaces" is published by Pie-Eyed Groobee Music, which is equally owned by all of the band members. Hence half of the royalties from the song flow into the band's coffers, which goes a long way toward easing the great financial divide between the haves and have-nots in this makeshift family.

Part of that is due to Lloyd Maines. While talking to him about producing an album for them, The Groobees were at the same time entertaining an offer to buy their publishing catalog to finance the recording. Maines urged them to hold on to their publishing. "And we're glad he did," says drummer Todd Hall.  

As for Gibson, she seems happy to give credit and profit all around when it comes to her hit song. "It's bigger than what I wrote for sure, and I know that's from the collaborative effort of every single person who had a hand in it since it first got out there."

The Groobees had all but completed their first CD of what Melott calls "'60s-influenced modern rock" when Gibson initially came into the picture in 1995. Guitarist Thomason, who'd played folk gigs with her, suggested to his bandmates that they have her add some harmony vocals.

At first, the boys in the band were hesitant. "They were all kind of like, 'I dunno; we don't need a girl,'" recalls Thomason. "And then she came in, and she's reading the words for the first time as she's singing them and doing these awesome harmonies."

Melott knew right away he wanted her in the band. "Just the way the voices blended, it was such a neat sound," he says. "It was obvious that she had tremendous talent and was a great writer with a great voice."

Once the band and singer joined forces, it added to whatever cachet they had in the tenuous Amarillo music scene. "We had a little bit of a following in Amarillo already, and Susan had a bit of a following too. So right off the bat when we did our first show, all of her fans came out to see her new band, and all of our fans came out to see our new singer," says Melott. "There was some crossover between the two, but still, all of a sudden, at our first show, we were a very popular Amarillo band. Right off the bat we were playing to 100 to 150 people."

"Wide Open Spaces" first appeared on the band's next self-released CD, Wayside, which Maines produced. The song's later chart success for the Dixie Chicks helped The Groobees win a deal with Blix Street Records, a Los Angeles-based Celtic-music label looking to expand its range. "We shopped for quite a while," explains Melott, "but we didn't get anything big that wouldn't have required us to give up our publishing or something like that. We already knew we could make a career of this. We don't have to have a label."

The new eponymous Groobees disc, released late last year, is also produced by Maines, and again features the original version of "Wide Open Spaces," which sounds like a fairly true blueprint for the eventual hit. However, what the album doesn't capture is the organic charm and creative interplay of the genuine band sound that The Groobees deliver live, in spades as a matter of fact. Though Maines has helmed superb album recordings for everyone from Terry Allen to Terri Hendrix, somehow he fails to bottle the particular and rare magic this group can generate on the stage of a club.

But that's OK, because he's been their angel in other ways just as vital. And the band is ready and willing, they say, to go out and work their way from the road into their own musical niche after being lucky enough to get this big windfall. "We're in the best position ever, because we've got the best of both worlds," says Gibson. "It affords us to play wherever and play in front of however many people, and not stress out about stuff like, are we gonna make $300 tonight, because there are only 15 people here? It's really been a luxury for us to do both."

Indeed, it seems like The Groobees are blessed, at least in Melott's view. "So many things that have happened with the Groobees I feel like are being in the right place at the right time. I mean, how many coincidences can you have? How much luck can you have," he wonders. "I feel like some of it has just been destined to happen."

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