Written by Susan Gibson
When songwriter Susan Gibson began writing “Wide Open Spaces,” she was living out the experiences of the girl described in the song. A forestry student in Montana, she began writing the lyrics while home for the holidays. Her mother found the notebook after she’d returned to school, and mailed it to her as part of a care package, inspiring her to complete the song.
Gibson began performing the song in the clubs around Montana while still in college, and when she became the lead singer of Americana band The Groobees, she included it on their debut album. The producer of those sessions was Lloyd Maines, who thought it would be a perfect fit for his own daughter’s band, who were getting ready to leave the Texas music scene for some broader horizons of their own.
The Dixie Chicks had been regionally popular for several years and had released three independent albums before Natalie Maines became their lead singer. The band already had a development deal with Sony when they made the switch, but Maines’ aggressive vocals and youthful energy made the band instantly more palatable for mainstream country music in the late nineties.
While recording their Sony debut, the assertiveness that would become their calling card first surfaced in relation to “Wide Open Spaces.” The producers didn’t want the track on the album; the band insisted. They didn’t want to include banjo on the track; the band insisted. Far from burying the song on the album, they made it the title cut. After a top ten debut single and a #1 follow-up (“There’s Your Trouble”), it was sent to radio in August of 1998.
By the time it started garnering spins, the album Wide Open Spaces was already platinum. But the theme of a young girl going out into the world on her own struck a deep chord with listeners across the country, and album sales skyrocketed, selling a stunning seven million copies in the year that followed, en route to total sales of twelve million copies. “Wide Open Spaces” won CMA awards for Single and Video, just two of the five trophies the Dixie Chicks earned from the organization during the lifespan of the project. They also earned a pair of Grammys and two ACM Awards, including Album of the Year.
By the turn of the century, the Dixie Chicks commanded a following of young girls and women that has yet to be matched, and they did so without pandering to them. “Wide Open Spaces” was an anthem for that fan base, and has accrued an impressive legacy of its own, having been named among the RIAA’s “365 Songs of the Century” in 2002.
Meanwhile, the band that the song launched to superstardom has lived out the spirit of the song ever since, quickly leaving behind the conventional country of that first album and aggressively pushing the boundaries of the genre ever since. Fittingly, when the band launched their 2006 tour, the set list was fully comprised of songs from their more ambitious albums Fly, Home, and Taking the Long Way, with only one exception: “Wide Open Spaces.”
“Wide Open Spaces” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.