Susan Gibson- The Hard Stuff review

Susan Gibson The Hard Stuff

She wrote one of the biggest country songs of the last quarter century, but most of us are still unfamiliar with Susan Gibson.

“Wide Open Spaces” hit #1, is among the Dixie Chicks’ signature songs, and—while obviously great—quite frankly isn’t even Susan Gibson’s best song. That distinction may go to “Clumsy Hands” or “Company Man,” depending on mood, or “The Best of You” if I’m feeling particularly wistful. “Put The Shovel Down”? “Remember Who You Are”? No, definitely “The Wood Wouldn’t Burn.”

Susan Gibson has some really good songs, no doubt. She’s written with Jim Lauderdale and Carrie Rodriguez, her songs have been picked up by folks like Brandon Rhyder, and I just realized she sings a bit on one of my favourite Mark Jungers albums. When you listen to Gibson’s recordings, you feel like you are hearing the real deal.

Her voice is terrific, and her songs have a personal element that just sound better coming directly from the source. In the words of Lloyd Maines, “When I listen to a Susan Gibson song, I know she is sharing a piece of her heart and soul with me.” Damn straight, I’d suggest.

If you haven’t heard Gibson, The Hard Stuff is a better than fine introduction.

Straight-ahead, honky tonk country? Maybe not, but these essentially honest, matter-of-fact, and genuine, human-element types of songs work for me. There is barely any pedal steel on the album, only minimal fiddle and banjo. Producer André Moran and Gibson have pushed her envelope, with some horns, B3 and the like included. Less Texas dancehall perhaps than previous albums, but it all works and makes for a cohesive, entertaining sound.

“The Hard Stuff” (“If you’re gonna be stupid, you’d better be tough”) will be cut by someone, and could be a hit, I suppose: it would be nice if radio noticed Gibson, but the chances of that are too slim for hope. A high school trip of Texas misadventure (“2 Fake IDs”) and “Wildflowers in the Weeds” introduce us to folks we’ve known our entire lives: sometimes laughing, often stumbling, always enduring. A bit wordy sometimes, Gibson doesn’t limit herself to two verses and a repeated chorus, and reminds me—at times—of Nanci Griffith and Eliza Gilkyson.

Gibson changes things up a bit, dropping some 5-string into “8 X 10,” the album’s closing number, a song of tangible love that feels like home. I’m guessing the collected images are selected from memories of her mother, and the refrain of “I never thought to ask you, Why?” is ideal.

“Imaginary Lines” perhaps delves into the gap between art and business (“stuck my foot in the door ‘cause the door was ajar,”) and the cost paid walking away the unexpected route. “Looking For a Fight” and “Diagnostic Heart” are seemingly lighter than other included songs, but are just as masterfully constructed.

Susan Gibson came along at just the right time, I’m sure she would agree. But…but, I can’t help wondering what might have occurred had she had the chance to ride the major label and radio train as did Mary Chapin Carpenter, the singer-songwriter that may be the most apt comparable.

Literate, discreetly sharp songwriting, with an intense yet easygoing manner of presentation is Gibson’s hallmark. The Hard Stuff is a great album. Let’s hope it is noticed: she’s held in the highest of esteem for a reason, but peak regard doesn’t pay bills.

Review based on provided CD.

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