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Pop culture is littered with archetypal success stories -- Lana Turner turning a producer's head at a Hollywood malt shop, the Beatles sweating their way into screaming teenage Liverpudlian hearts at the Cavern Club -- and now the Groobees have become part of the yarn. The Amarillo pop-folk quartet has its own discovery tale, which is quite an accomplishment considering the big time doesn't exactly loom over the "wide open spaces" of the Texas Panhandle.
If that phrase doesn't ring a bell, you probably haven't been listening to country radio the past few years. Simply note that some ten million people own a copy of "Wide Open Spaces," the title track to the album that skyrocketed the Dixie Chicks to stardom. Written by Susan Gibson, lead singer of the Groobees, it is basically one person's account of leaving home, scribbled into a notebook at one point in time, then forgotten. Yet the song, like so many good tunes, articulates an experience that resonates for many people, succinctly encapsulating that bittersweet feeling of wanting to get away. It's not surprising it was a No. 1 country hit and earned Single of the Year honors at the Country Music Awards last year.
Gibson continues to be stunned at how a slice of her life has become everyone's fairy tale. "Every line in there is autobiographical," she says. "That's what makes me laugh that it went over so well with the general public, because every line in there is so personal."
Gibson wrote the song in the early '90s on her way from West Texas to Montana for college. The song started catching on after she joined the Groobees in 1995. 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 his tunes. He heard enough potential in Gibson's song to make it the first track on a demo the group cut after she joined. "We knew it was strong.I never thought it was going to be No. 1."
Melott sent the tape to producer and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, then living in Lubbock. "Wide Open Spaces" charmed Maines so much he passed along copies to his wife and daughters, one of whom, Natalie, just happened to be a singer in the Dallas-based Dixie Chicks. By the time the Chicks were preparing to record their Sony debut, the song was already part of their stage show.
To date, the song has generated about $600,000 in writer and publisher royalties, to say nothing of record sales receipts. Believe it or not, Gibson isn't the only Groobee reaping the benefits of these "Wide Open Spaces."
The tune is published by Pie-Eyed Groobee Music, which is equally owned by all of the band members. 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.
Credit Maines for this stroke of genius. While talking to him about producing an album, the Groobees were considering selling their publishing catalog to finance the recording. Maines urged the band to hold on to its publishing rights. "And we're glad he did," says drummer Todd Hall, who with Gibson, Melott and guitarist Gary Thomason constitute the band.
As for Gibson, she seems happy to spread credit and profit all around. "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 came into the picture. Guitarist Thomason, who had played folk gigs with Gibson, suggested that the band have her add some harmony vocals. After hearing her sing, Melott knew right away he wanted her in the group.
Once the band and singer joined forces, whatever cachet the Groobees had in the tenuous Amarillo music scene only increased. "Wide Open Spaces" first appeared on the band's self-released CD, Wayside, which Maines produced. The song's subsequent chart success for the Dixie Chicks helped the Groobees land a deal with Blix Street Records, a Los Angeles-based Celtic-music label looking to expand its repertoire.
The new eponymous Groobees disc, released late last year, was 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. But what isn't captured on the album is the organic charm and creative interplay that the Groobees deliver live. Though Maines has helmed superb recordings for nearly everyone from Terry Allen to Terri Hendrix, he somehow fails to bottle the particular and rare magic this group can generate on stage.
Not that anyone's really complaining, since Maines has been the band's angel in other ways just as vital. And the band members are ready and willing, they say, to go out on the road and find their special niche. "We're in the best position ever, because we've got the best of both worlds," says Gibson. "[The record] 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."
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