Susan Gibson knows all about blessings. Roundabout 28 years ago, she wrote herself a wish that grew up and went off on its own to become one of the biggest country songs of all time. Smiling at its success from afar, Gibson went on to happily live her own best life, free to hit the open road with a van full of happy dogs and a heart full of songs to share with attentive audiences across the country — and all the room in the world to “make the big mistakes” that a wide-eyed dreamer kinda gal could ever ask for.
All that said, though, Gibson is not a lives-in-la-la-land kinda dreamer. Blessed as she’s been, the award-winning songwriter also knows all too well that in the real world, sometimes there’s just no avoiding “the hard stuff.” Mind, not the kind she consciously swore off way back on Valentine’s Day, 2010; after nine years of humble sobriety, it’s easy enough, relatively speaking, for her to resist the temptation of a bottle of wine at a friend’s table or politely decline the occasional unasked-for drink sent to the stage by a fan. But positive life choices and willpower alone offer no proof or protection against the kind of knock-you-on-your-butt shots that life itself can serve up on the regular. The best you can do, she’s learned, is take each hit as it comes, get back up again, and try to find your wits and center of gravity before the next wallop lands. Because as sure as hearts break, van transmissions fail, and loved ones (both two- and four-legged) pass on, you can always count on another one coming.
That’s the kind of stuff that Gibson writes and sings about on The Hard Stuff: the stuff that hurts. So why then do so many of her songs on the album — the follow-up to her 2015 EP Remember Who You Are and first full-length collection of new material since 2011’s TightRope — have the effect of leaving the listener feeling not depressed and beaten down, but wiser, lighter, and ultimately uplifted?
The production, by the talented Andre Moran of Austin band the Belle Sounds, plays a pretty big part in that. Rife with bursts of pop elan, splashes of funk (horns!) and even a flirty hint of jazz, it’s a bright, technicolor palette delightfully unbeholden — by Gibson’s own “no limits” request — to the minimalist constraints of her usually solo acoustic live shows. And because this is still a Susan Gibson record, there’s certainly the banjo factor to consider, too. Although she usually defaults to acoustic guitar for her songs, the banjo has been Gibson’s kinda/sorta “signature” instrument going all the way back to her salad days in the Groobees, the Americana band she joined shortly after coming back home to Amarillo, Texas from college in the mid-90s. To this day, she still takes one with her to every gig (with requisite banjo jokes in tow, naturally), even though she might only reach for it for a song or two — usually those where she feels the audience (not to mention herself) could use a life preserver to counter the undertow of a particularly sad lyric. “I feel like the banjo just brings an immediate lift to a song,” she says, “almost like it’s got a smile attached to it.” And sure enough, when Gibson plays the banjo on The Hard Stuff’s “8×10,” a heartbreakingly plaintive remembrance of her late mother, every note she plucks cuts through the grief like sunlight through cracked blinds into a darkened room.
And yet … it’s telling that “8×10,” the last track on the album, is actually the only song on The Hard Stuff to feature banjo at all. Which just goes to show that, however welcome and comforting it may be, the fact is that Gibson doesn’t really need her trusty five-string — let alone even help in the studio, however fresh and inspired — for “lift” any more than Dumbo needed that lucky feather. The real magic here is all in her songwriting, sewn right into the vibrant fabric of her buoyant melodies and illuminated throughout by her refreshingly clear-eyed perspective on matters of life, love, work, and death. But even though Gibson conveys it all with a disarming flair for colloquial breeze (“If you’re gonna be stupid, you better be tough,” she chastises herself in the title track, playfully tweaking a famous John Wayne quote from The Sands of Iwo Jima), the subtext leaves no doubt that she earned that perspective the hard way. Hard enough, at least, to bring her full circle back to the proverbial kitchen table where she wrote her best-known song more than half her lifetime ago — and seriously reassess just how important pursuing those “Wide Open Spaces” really was to her.
“I would have to say that in the last decade, my career became smaller in my list of priorities,” she explains. “It was just a real hell of a time for my family. I lost both of my parents, and dealing with that took up a lot of headspace and really shifted my focus on everything in my life.”
For the first dozen years of her post-Groobees solo career, still riding the pinch-me high of seeing the Dixie Chicks turn her homespun paean to independence into an anthem loved by millions, Gibson worked and toured her tail off, ever ready to load her gear and pack of beloved mutts into the back of a van and hit the road for weeks if not months on end. The windfall from the Chicks hit allowed her to buy a sweet little patch of land in the Texas Hill Country hamlet of Wimberley, but her cozy cabin there was really little more than just another rest stop where she happened to occasionally check the mail. And although she was always close with her family, she candidly admits that she was never really “present” when visiting her parents back in Amarillo over the holidays. Her default setting was always “blow-and-go.” But that changed with her mother’s diagnosis with lung cancer and subsequent passing in 2013.
“After my mom passed away, my dad moved to San Marcos to be closer to me and my sister, and it became real important to me to be with him as much as I could,” she says. Her older sister handled the nitty gritty details of scheduling their father’s many doctor appointments, and Susan did the “getting him there.” She continued to gig, but her tours became by choice and necessity a lot shorter and closer to home — with the notable exception of her annual run up to Montana. “I’ve done that tour every summer for years, so I just took him with me for that one — twice! But of course it had to be done a little differently, because he was 80 and the focus was really on, how long can we go?”
Gibson’s father passed away in 2017, but the time they had together in his last years was a gift she never took for granted. And the wisdom she gleaned from slowing down just enough to keep up with him did more than inspire one of The Hard Stuff’s most moving songs, “Antiques” (“Getting older ain’t for the weak / it only happens to the strongest ones.”). It also helped her over the hump in her long arc from devastation to … well, if not quite “closure,” then something close enough to make peace with.
“I feel like Remember Who You Are came out of a lot of really raw and immediate, direct grief,” Gibson says, recalling the EP she made not long after her mother’s death and her focus at the time on “the ache of loss and the balm of letting go.” A lot of that ache lingers still on The Hard Stuff, compounded of course by the loss of a second parent, but the sense of healing is palpable. “The difference with this batch of songs is, they’re not scabs anymore — they’re starting to become scars: scars that you can talk about and tell stories about, and even find humor in.” Or, as she puts it best in the title track (this time without help from the Duke): “Nothing lifts a heavy heart like some elbow grease and a funny bone.”
Of course, not all of the songs on The Hard Stuff are particularly funny ha-ha. Nor are they all about grief or even necessarily strictly autobiographical. But every one of them rings true, with a clarity of focus that sharpens the extended metaphors running through songs like “Diagnostic Heart” and “Hurricane” with every verse and reinforces Gibson’s longstanding belief that specificity of details, no matter how personal the subject matter, is the key to connecting to people through song (a discovery she made inadvertently when the line in “Wide Open Spaces” about her own dad telling her to “check the oil” proved to be the line that fans invariably relate to the most.) Her honesty is unwavering, too, fearlessly bringing her own emotional insecurities to the surface throughout the album but also bolstering her convictions in the opening “Imaginary Lines,” a co-write with friend Jana Pochop that captures the exhilarating freedom, however challenging, of making art and living life on one’s own terms. She later shines that same honesty and celebration of indomitable spirit outwards, adding layer upon layer of empathetic depth and texture to “Wildflowers in the Weeds,” a song Gibson wrote about (or more specifically, for) another dear friend and fellow Texas songwriter, Terri Hendrix. Call it Gibson returning a long-overdue favor for the song Hendrix wrote for her 20 years ago, “Goodtime Van”: “Susan headed out in her Goodtimes Van, she took off to good times land / With no plans and a dog for company …”
Gibson doesn’t have that same van anymore, having long since upgraded her wheels to a bigger, newer model with ample room for not one but three (only recently down from five) canine companions every time she hits the road — which, she’s happy to report, she’s back to doing a lot more of late than circumstances allowed her to for years. Bar the occasional special-occasion festival appearance, like the handful of 20-year-reunion gigs she recently did with her old friends in the Groobees, her venues of choice, be they across the country or in her own beloved Texas Hill Country, tend to be the kind of intimate listening rooms and house concerts where she can connect to listeners as directly as possible. She likens it to “fishing with a line instead of a net,” and it’s a philosophy for both performing and writing that she’s practiced — and, through the dozens of songwriting workshops she’s taught for everyone from children to veterans, preached — for pretty much her entire career.
“Basically, it’s just about being acute and being specific and intentional,” Gibson explains. “It’s about being mindful of the moment, whether I’m sitting alone and writing a song and focusing only on who that song is specifically for or about, or performing for an audience and trying to sing directly to the one person or however many people are paying active attention. I’ve really come around to the idea that I love this work, and I like knowing that I don’t have to hit a million people or a thousand people or even 100 people at a time. If I’m playing a room with 100 people and only 10 are really listening, I find those 10 people and throw my line right at them.”
Granted, that kind of strategy might be hard to sell to a lot of beancounters and skeptics in the music industry (such as it is today). But just go ahead and try telling Gibson that she’s doing it all wrong, that her way doesn’t work or that it’s just too hard to remain viable. Odds are you can find her at this very moment somewhere back out on the road, en-route to anywhere she wants to go in a van full of dogs for company, free to make her own mistakes and blessed beyond compare.
Written by: Richard Skanse