SINGER-SONGWRITER Gary P. Nunn has been associated with Texas music for so long — nearly half a century — you might not know he was born in Oklahoma, initially hoped to become a junior high or high school marching band instructor, and majored in pharmacy at the University of Texas.
None of that mattered, of course, because Nunn arrived in Austin smack dab in the middle of the so-called outlaw music scene. He was playing bass for Michael Martin Murphey, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson — at the same time; he was the leader of the Lost Gonzo Band that backed Murphey and Walker onstage and in recordings; and he’d honed his songwriting skills long before playing keyboards on Walker’s still famous 1973 live recording, Viva Terlingua. Never did he dream, however, that his self-penned tune, “London Homesick Blues” — with its “I want to go home with the armadillo” chorus — would become the theme song for Austin City Limits.
Inducted into the Texas Hall of Fame in 2004, Nunn is a Texas music legend from here to Europe. Former Texas Gov. Mark White named him an “Official Ambassador to the World,” and, not to be outdone, current Gov. Rick Perry named him “Ambassador of Texas Music.” However, Nunn cites another accolade as his favorite. “The thing I’m proudest of,” he says, “is the day [in 1995] I became a member of the West Texas Walk of Fame in Lubbock, with Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills and Roy Orbison — all those guys who were my heroes.”
Speaking from his home in Austin, Nunn discussed his career and what he’s up to now.
Your music seems to reflect Texas more than any other artist. Is that by design, or is that the real Gary P. Nunn?
That’s the real Gary P. Nunn. I’m a cowboy at heart, and I loved owning a ranch, riding horses, chasing cows. Since I first set foot here in sixth grade, I’ve been enamored with the people, culture, history and especially the attitude. You go to other parts of the country, and no one ever dances. People in Texas like to dance.
What does the “P” stand for?
I tell everyone patience or perseverance, but actually, it’s Phillip.
You’ve already made 16 albums. What’s next?
I always have a new album planned, and right now, I have eight songs in the works. I’m going to retool my band and do more traditional country swing music, with a Ray Price or Bob Wills sound. I’ve also taken hundreds of black-and-white photos on the road, and I’m planning to put them all together in a photo album book to document the outlaw era in Austin. I’m also working on a biography to cover my musical history.
The late Chet Flippo of Rolling Stone called the Lost Gonzo Band “Austin’s version of the Band.” Your albums were great, but not a big commercial success. Why?
We had the right attitude, and we all wanted the music to be good, but the band actually worked better when we had someone to work for. We didn’t have a leader or big name in the group, and that kind of caused our demise. Nobody would lead, and nobody would follow. We were also low on the record company’s priority list, so we got no support from them.
There’s a story out there that you and Jerry Jeff actually came to blows at one point. Did the band dissolve due to these tensions?
Well, there was an incident when Jerry Jeff momentarily lost control, and so did I. Tensions were high, but it didn’t create any lasting bitterness. He had a masochistic side where he’d seem to dare someone to beat him up, but he’d just laugh it off and make a funny story out of it.
Rumor has it you played in Willie’s first show at the Armadillo World Headquarters.
I have a bone to pick with Joe Nick Patoski. In his book on Willie, he listed the musicians who played that show, and he left me out. I also played with Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker at their first Dillo shows.
How did it come about that “London Homesick Blues” was used on Jerry Jeff’s Viva Terlingua?
I was technically still with Michael Martin Murphey as one of the Cosmic Cowboys in the summer of ‘73. The rest of the band had already left Michael and joined Jerry Jeff, but I ran into him at the Squeeze Inn. Jerry Jeff said, “I don’t want to go into the studio anymore. I want the studio to come to me,” and he invited me to play with him. We went to Luckenbach a week early to rehearse the show, and we’d sit around under the trees during the day and pick. Jerry Jeff heard me playing “London Homesick Blues,” and on Saturday night he told me to “play that armadillo song.” The crowd went wild. Afterwards, [album producer] Michael Brovsky told me, “We’re going to put your song on the album, and we want you to join the band.”
You were in pharmacy school at UT in 1967, and then started playing gigs with Rusty Wier, Michael Martin Murphey, Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker. Do you feel like you let Walgreens down by not finishing school?
[Laughs] No, not really. At that time, if you weren’t in school you were going to Vietnam. I was going into engineering or medicine, and settled on pharmacy, but the music won out.
In your song “Austin Pickers,” you sing “They don’t like me in Nashville.” That song was released in 1999. Do you think they like you now?
People in Nashville have always been guarded about people from Texas. I suppose they view us as maybe taking some of their business away. They’re sensitive about the Texas scene. I think it all comes down to dollars and cents. Any dollar that’s made singing country music in Texas is a dollar not made in Nashville.
You’ve played music for half a century. Have you seen it all?
I doubt I’ve seen it all, but I’ve seen a lot of it. [Laughs] I’ve seen it from a Texan point of view. I’ve watched this Texas music industry from its beginning, and I’ve seen it grow and grow. Even in the past 10 or 15 years, it’s really grown and developed. I think the music scene all over Texas is very special.
There’s no doubt you’re a Texas icon? Do you ever get teased about being an Oklahoma native?
I think I’ve been here long enough so that everybody knows where my loyalties lie. I did buy some property in Oklahoma a long, long time ago, and I had to go up there and take after my family’s place for a while. We enjoyed the country living and doing the ranching thing, but the music business is all in Texas.