Susan Gibson, a talented Texas songwriter most well known for penning the Dixie Chicks’ smash hit “Wide Open Spaces,” takes time to reflect on her upbringing and some traumatic events in her life on her new EP “Remember Who You Are”
Lead track “Good News” will resonate well with a significant portion of the population that understandably wants to avoid all things politics and mass media after the tumultuous events of the last couple of years. (“Stare into the nightmare rectangle and watch society collapse in real time,” suggests a recent meme on smartphones I’m particularly fond of.) At its best, “Good News” suggests the value in activities like fetch and criticizes the media’s pattern of focusing on gossip and leaning heavily on talking heads. It is, however, a little difficult to embrace the song’s celebration of ignoring or at least not participating in political debates that have some very real consequences for ordinary people.
As Gibson notes in her interview, most of the music on this EP isn’t traditional bar fare. The other five tracks on the EP deal with bad news and negative messaging on a much more personal level. The topics, which include cancer, alcoholism and a deadly flood in the town where Gibson lives, are painful but all addressed in what feels like just the right way. “Little Piece of Heaven” strikes the right balance between celebrating and mourning Wimberly, Texas while sounding absolutely beautiful. It brought comfort to this survivor of Superstorm Sandy and, though it was formally released in March, will surely do the same for the residents of Houston.
The title track comes from a phrase Gibson’s mother would always repeat to her growing up. Some of the details like her etching those words onto a banana peel with a toothpick seem made for a country song, but Gibson informed me they’re all real. Her mother’s motivating spirit is present in “Best of You,” a song meant to lift the spirits of those suffering from cancer and “Put The Shovel Down,” a track penned to a drunk driver that hinges on a bit of grim but moving wordplay. It’s harsh, but there’s tremendous empathy in her words to someone who put her life in danger.
I spoke with Susan in anticipation of her performance at Long Island HC, the type of house concert series where the hosts’ kids write “Remember Who You Are” on the driveway ahead of the show.
So, Susan, tell me the significance of the phrase “Remember Who You Are.”
Well, that was something that my mom would always tell me and my sister and I have a song called “Remember Who You Are” on the E.P. I wrote that after she passed away when I was kind of in a state of like “who’s going to who’s going to remind me to remember who I am?” And when I play that song at my shows I like to introduce it by saying how she would say that all the time. It talks about all the little places that she would leave me that note. She would write it on the mirror and she would stick it in my lunch and all that kind of stuff. Just how important that was for me growing up. I think sometimes she meant it as “be true to yourself” and then when I hit my teenage years she probably meant it as “don’t embarrass your father and I” and so it was a phrase that was kind of this thread through my whole growing up having heard from mom and just what a fun and important thing that was for me to hear.
I had a feeling when you said writing it on the bathroom mirror in lipstick. My first reaction to hearing that was “that it is a detail so unusual it has to be true.”
Yeah. And not just lipstick. Mary-Kay lipstick. She had a brief stint as a Mary-Kay makeup lady. She had two kids that were home and so she wanted to be at home and have a job that she could do. So yeah, all of those details are true. She used to take a toothpick and write it in the peal of a banana and then by the time that was our lunchtime that the writing would be brown. So it was kind of like a reverse invisible ink trick. You know what I mean? She was an elementary school teacher so she was very game oriented. And you can make anything fine if you make a game out of it. So she was great and all of those details are true. That would have felt kind of false to put in details. I wouldn’t have made up details for that particular song. I’m not saying I don’t do it for other songs, but for that song it was all of the little moments that I got to have with my mom.
You are coming all the way up north to play a house concert?
House concerts are so great for singer-songwriters. They just are the perfect fit for singer-songwriters more so than other bar or venue gigs. As far are getting to go up and really be in front of people and and make connections with people which I think that’s what all songwriters are trying to do when they’re sitting in their house by themselves scratching their heads over if they should use the word ‘only’ or ‘just,’ It’s all to connect to people. That’s that’s my perspective on it. It’s just it’s such a great community to be in.
This came out well before Harvey or Irma, but listening to “Little Piece of Heaven” at the same time that’s going on in the news is touching, especially when you urge folks to grab onto each other because it’s the only way to survive the flood.
Yeah. I live in a little town called Wimberley about four hours away from Houston to the west. We have we have a river that goes through town called the Blanco River. And in 2015 we had a flood of biblical proportions. Nowhere on the record books had they had this kind of a flood before. We’re seeing that more and more, we’re breaking records all the time. But in 2015 that’s when it hit Wimberley and kind of this whole Blanco River Valley just got nailed. So that was a song that I had written for my neighbors in Wimberley right after that flood event that we had. Texas has pretty crazy weather just like everywhere. It was a Memorial Day weekend and so there were people out and vacationing and Wimberley is a little tourist town so we had you know people from all over that had come to kind of hang out this weekend at our in our cute little artist colony town. Then we got nailed with one of the worst flood that I think we’ve had on record. And so it was it was devastating we had people in Wimberley that lived there all their lives that lost their homes. Like 13 people that died in this flood and six of them were in one family that was here from Corpus Christi. I had never lived anywhere that was considered a disaster area. FEMA helped and there were refugees who thought they were not ever going to be a refugee from anywhere. It was pretty amazing. It was incredible the power of that weather and that water and then it was really incredible to the power of the people that were helping people get back to normal. I think about that with all the stories that I see about Harvey and Irma. When we are fighting each other we seem like real rotten a-holes and when we are fighting mother nature we are at our best.
You also have this song that takes quite a dark twist thanks to some wordplay called “Put the Shovel Down.”
Yeah, that’s a dark one. That’s one that is tough to play in the bars where you’re about trying to talk somebody in stopping using whatever they’re using — in this song particularly the alcohol. Full transparency, I’ve had my own trouble with alcohol and so I I definitely have some empathy there but in 2016 I got hit by a drunk driver. I mean it was a head-on collision and he was in a SUV and I was in my big touring van. We both were able to walk away from this collision. And when he got out of his car he got his get two six packs of beer that he pulled out of the car and was standing there drinking a beer when the cops got there and I just thought, “man I just hope this is the worst day of your life.” Because when you’ve had the worst day you can have you have an opportunity to have a better day. And it seems like with alcoholism or drug abuse or anything like that you just can’t decide to pull out of that. You have to hit hard. You have to crash and bounce. So that was a song I wrote for the guy that I had an act drunk driving wreck with. I don’t know where he is right now but I think about him all the time because I hope that was what it took to turn him around a little bit. But it’s a dark song. I mean people die at the end. And I don’t have a lot of songs that do that. I usually try to bring it up by the end of the song but some things are just heavy.
Of course, since I’m talking to you there’s that one song I have to bring up. You wrote an incredibly influential song in terms of really where the country music charts went for a few years. I think really in terms introducing the world to the Dixie Chicks it was all “Wide Open Spaces.”
I’m glad you brought it up. It’s always awkward when I have to bring it up. That that still floors me sometimes because there are a lot of tangible rewards from that song but one of the intangibles is to have gotten to make a little mark on the music world. That song was one that I wrote when I was in college and it was probably in the first dozen songs that I ever wrote. And so it just had this spectacularly lucky blessed fortunate path to get to the Dixie Chicks. And then you know they knocked it out of the park and out of the galaxy. Now I get to enjoy rewards like going to a new place and having one song that people already know. I still hear it on the radio every once while. I can’t tell you why it’s a good song. Because again, I was I was 22 years old 23 years old and trying college again for the first time. And so it was just a moment in my life that I got to capture.