Being Gary P.
At 55, Gary P. Nunn has likely got only a few more years in the saddle before he puts himself out to pasture. He's at an age when the more settled life at the Grand Ole Opry or some rustic Branson palazzo begins to beckon, but one can scarcely imagine a renegade like Nunn at either of those Nashvegas-style hillbilly reservations. Perhaps some enterprising soul should kick-start an outlaw Lone Star answer to either of those institutions, but that's another story
But for all but the most dedicated and/or crustiest gypsy road dogs, the highway begins to lose whatever charms it may have had after the 50-year mile marker is half a decade past in the rearview mirror of life's tour bus. The question is, when the time comes to swear off the stage lights, rowdy crowds and motel rooms, will Nunn have enough career satisfaction to nourish him through his winter years?
Considered one of the founders of the Austin-based progressive country movement in the early '70s ("Aww, I may have been there helping out, in the beginning," he demurs), Nunn has been a solo act since 1980, honing his Texas dance-hall act to near-perfection, despite fallouts with major players along the way, a perceived lack of commitment from band members, and Willie and Waylon hogging the national limelight.
Nunn began his career at age 13 in Brownfield, Texas, and played in rock bands all through high school. Not surprisingly, he and his friends -- for a while calling themselves the Fabulous Sparkles -- cut their teeth on the popular sounds of the late '50s and early '60s: "We did the Ventures and Freddie King and Chuck Berry and little bit of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley and that sort of thing," Nunn says.
"In '64, the Beatles came along, and that just threw a monkey wrench in everything," Nunn says with a laugh. "Then the R&B thing -- the Temptations and the Four Tops. We did a lot of that Motown stuff in the band I played in up in Lubbock." Then came a 1967 move to Austin, where Nunn studied pharmacy at UT. Other segments of the student body were studying pharmacy of a more illicit nature, and these tendencies showed in their music. "The band I played [was] doing the Buffalo Springfield, kind of the beginnings of L.A. progressive country music," Nunn recalls.
In 1972 a rising young Austin singer-songwriter started turning heads with his considerable skills. Michael Martin Murphey, now most often a singer of cowboy songs and a keeper of western lore, was then more of a straight-up folkie. During this time of social and cultural upheaval, the folkies started hanging out with the rock and roll types (like Nunn). They crafted their own brand of country music, which turned out to be a classic case of two great tastes that taste great together. "[Murphey] asked me to play with him, and we went to Nashville and made a record called Geronimo's Cadillac. That was kind of the beginning of it all. It wasn't too long until we were playing the Armadillo World Headquarters."
Jerry Jeff Walker, fresh from New York and newly sprung from the psychedelic folk-rock outfit Circus Maximus, emerged around that time and helped to begin the cosmic cowboy movement, which attracted rednecks, longhaired students and blue-collar rock and rollers alike. Nunn, along with Murphey and Walker, formed the Lost Gonzo Band and began to develop a local following. But then along came Willie ("He obviously fit right in at the Armadillo World Headquarters," Nunn chuckles), who stepped in straight from the Nashville singer-songwriter scene and, with his big-label backing, carried the new outlaw country music into the national spotlight -- all but alone.
"Guys like Willie and Waylon really made it big because they had the big Nashville record companies backing them up, getting them national PR," says Nunn, who played with Willie his first night at the Armadillo. So is that the key to fame and fortune, then? Signing to a big label? "Money can buy anything," he says matter-of-factly.
With this knowledge, and his lifelong devotion to music, why hasn't Nunn pursued that goal? It seems part of the reasoning lies in that age-old concept of the Texas outlaw, blazing his own trail, equipped with little more than his own bravado and keen instincts. It would seem that the man who was recently inducted by the Texas Country Music Association into the Texas Hall of Fame (an honor he shares with the likes of Bob Wills, Willie Nelson and Floyd Tillman) and who was invited to perform at the "Black Tie and Boots" inaugural fete in Washington this past January would pretty much have the world at his feet.
But ask any of your Austin City Limits-loving friends outside of Texas who wrote the song most commonly known as "Home with the Armadillo," and only a handful will be able to tell you the correct answer: Gary P. Nunn. Even fewer will know that the song is really called "London Homesick Blues." The tune was first committed to tape in 1973 on Jerry Jeff Walker's Viva Terlingua, a live album that also spawned the Ray Wylie Hubbard-penned hit "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother." "They thought ['London Homesick Blues'] was Jerry Jeff," Nunn says. "I got a little mileage out of it; he got a lot!
"I never did feel prepared to go out and try to get a big record deal, plus I didn't want to live that kind of life anyway. Once you become a 'star,' you've got several other people telling you what to do. And I always preferred to stay in Texas. I always figured if I could make it big in Texas, I'd have it made." So it looks like Nunn's met his goal. Like they say, make a living, not a killing. But is that all he wants? Sort of.
"Frankly, I've had a lot of problems. I've been through like a zillion bands. I don't know why it is that I've been unfortunate in the people that come my way to play. I couldn't get them motivated to try to be successful. Either they were scared of success or they didn't want me to be successful because they were jealous or something."
A statement like that raises more questions than it answers: Are the various incarnations of the Sons of the Bunkhouse at fault for Nunn's lack of stardom outside Texas? Is he happy with simply packing houses across our fair state, or does he want a Willie-sized share of the pie? And is it really an issue of dodgy drummers and pedal steel-playing saboteurs, or are there deeper, more silent forces at work?
It ultimately matters not. Nunn has a good life, a happy marriage and two sons, in addition to owning a 1,000-acre ranch in -- irony of ironies -- his native Oklahoma. And he says he's content with where he is professionally: "I've got a good crew now," he says, which includes bassist Steve Lane, who recently returned from an eight-year stint with Junior Brown. "And they're all working for me and with me, and we're making progress by leaps and bounds. I'm really excited with where I am right now, because it's about time!"
And it looks like he got in just under the wire, too.
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