Gary P. Nunn may not be the most prominent musician in Austin’s progressive country movement of the 1970s, but he is among the most revered.
Nunn – who is performing in San Antonio this Saturday as part of the Chaparral Music & Heritage Festival – was an original member of the Lost Gonzo Band, a 70s ensemble that backed icons such as Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Michael Martin Murphey.
Beyond that, Nunn wrote “London Homesick Blues,” a Texas jukebox favorite whose “I Wanna Come Home with the Armadillo” kickstarted countless bar songs. Recorded in 1973, it remains a Lone Star State standard and has served as a long-running theme song. for PBS Austin city limits.
After launching a career as a singer-songwriter in the early ’80s, Nunn blazed a trail for DIY long before the so-called “independent revolution.” He continues to release acclaimed albums on his own label, runs his own song publishing companies, and manages his own career with the help of his wife Ruth.
Nunn will perform at 7:30 p.m. at the 4th Annual Chaparral Music and Heritage Festival. The free one-day Fiesta event in Hemisfair also includes Jon Wolfe, the latest Bandoleros, Kaitlin Butts, Madelyn Victoria and the USAF Band of the West.
We caught up with Nunn before the show to ask him about his pioneering journey in the Texas country, his DIY spirit, and an effort he led to keep local venues open during the pandemic.
You led the Texas Masquerade Party, a nonpartisan advocacy group that promoted mask-wearing and social distancing as a way to help Texans get ahead of the pandemic and ensure music venues stay open, especially State classical dance halls. Why was this important to you?
Well, it’s such a part of our heritage and our culture. Of course, most of them are German and Czech rooms. And the early settlers built these buildings as community centers and places for dancing and family gatherings. They are part of our Texas culture. And it would just be a shame if some of them just couldn’t stay open and continue, because there is currently a lot of effort to preserve and restore these buildings. So we’re glad most of them survived – all I know. I haven’t heard of any of them being closed, so we’re grateful for that. But it’s historical value, and they remind us of our past and the story of how Texas has developed over the years. And it’s great that these communities are keeping these old places alive and maintaining these traditions.
Do you see similarities between these rooms and your own music? In a way, what you do is very steeped in tradition. Yet at the same time, it continues to evolve and find new ways to reinvent those traditions.
I do. I have made an effort to include traditional songs and classic country and western swing on my show and then also try to be relevant to the times we live in and the newer, younger audience that is a fan Texas music. days.
Whenever you look at a biography of Gary P. Nunn, it always prominently mentions that you wrote “London Homesick Blues”. I’m sure everyone would love to write a song that becomes so iconic. But have you ever wished people would say, “And by the way, he also wrote great songs like ‘The Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning’ and ‘Macho Man From Taco Land’?”
Yes. I do. You are quite right. But, on the one hand, I’m so thankful and thankful that this song has stuck and stood the test of time. And it’s difficult, because people, when they come to see you, want to hear what they know and what they know. And a lot of times, if they hadn’t been following the recent recordings that I’ve made, and I’m trying to bring in new stuff, they’re like, ‘Well, what about this? what about that?” They date back to the early 80s when I started. “Then why don’t you ever play this song?” I do not know. It’s a balance there. You want to do the ones they know and love and make sure they hear it, and also be able to produce new ones.
Did you have any idea when you were writing ‘London Homesick Blues’ that you had written something special, something that people would still be listening to decades later?
In fact, I didn’t. I just wrote this song to kill time and kind of document the situation I was in at the time. But no, I didn’t really pay attention to it, because it’s quite far from classic country. And I had no idea he would get the answer he got.
Over the years you’ve worked with people like Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker. You’ve written songs that Willie Nelson and other music legends have recorded. Looking back, were there any great artists you’ve never worked with but wish you had?
Well, I hear some of my songs and I go, “I wish Ray Charles did that.” Of course Willie did “Last Thing I Needed”, and I think Ray could have done a great job with that too. But Ray was always my hero, because I was kind of a hidden pianist. And I kind of gravitated towards pianists, like Leon Russell, Ray Charles and some of those guys. Elton John. But damn it, I don’t know. There are so many that you would be thrilled and honored if they took notice. Chris Stapleton has picked up “Last Thing I Needed” for the past couple of years and still did very well. No. 2 when he released it as a single. So I get another run with her from Chris.
I read an interview from a few years ago where you said you wished you had seen music as a profession rather than a hobby. When did you finally shift gears and realize that this could be a lifeline for you?
Well, that was right after the Lost Gonzo Band. And, by the way, we had three concerts in the recent past where we got the Lost Gonzo Band together and played songs from them. And gosh, the response was just awesome. … We have sold Gruene Hall. We had 900 people there. We just played Luck Family Reunion, the Willie Nelson thing. And then we did a fundraiser at the Paramount Theater and sold it out just a few weeks ago.
But, anyway, the band joined Jerry Jeff [Walker] in 1973, when we cut this ¡Viva Terlingua! disk. They had already moved and joined Michael [Martin Murphy]. But after they got me to cut that song, it got such a great response that the manager asked me — because I was still with Michael — “You gotta come and join this band, because we’re gonna put that song on the record. So you have to be there to sing it.” But we played that, and we went wild and flew all over the country with Jerry Jeff. And it got too weird and too wild. Jerry Jeff was always on the verge of flirting with danger and pushing the limits all the way. And so, it got to a point where you started worrying about your personal safety.
And so, at the end of 1976, we left the group. And then we spent about three years there making records with the Lost Gonzo Band. We just didn’t have the record label support we needed. It seemed like they only cared about us, if we were with Jerry Jeff. But at some point, and at the beginning of 1977, we moved there. And that lasted about three years until the summer of 1979. Lost Gonzo Band, we were all moving musically in different directions and in our own personal lives. And the musical goals we had were going in different directions, you know?
And that was the start of your solo career, right?
So I wanted to stick with the Texas progressive genre because that’s what turned out to be a hit. But that’s when I didn’t have a gig and I could just say, “What the hell am I going to do?” That’s when I decided, “Well, you better keep busy and try to do something on your own, rather than looking for someone to back you up, like I did. always done.” But I said, “You’re right. You better take care of yourself.” So I got into music publishing. I started making my own records. I was probably the first in Austin to do an independently produced record.
Obviously, a lot of people these days are going that route. Even some people, who have spent time in major labels or whatever, have chosen to get out of stuff. Any advice for young musicians looking to chart an independent path?
Well, one thing, you gotta have more than one job. Although, in my case, I chose jobs that were involved with the music, like the editing aspect of it – making sure the writers kept their editing rights. If you can afford to produce your own recordings and have full control, do so, because I’ve managed to have full control of every property I’ve ever created. Everything I’ve written, everything I’ve released and everything I’ve recorded, no one else has a piece of it. So in the long run it’s a slow road, but it’s a road that ultimately I think is more beneficial, because when you go out and sign record deals, sign publishing deals, signing agent deals — everything — by the time it happens to you, there’s not much percentage left.
Chaparral Music & Heritage Festival, free, noon-11 p.m., Hemisfair, 434 S. Alamo St., saparksfoundation.org/event/chaparral-music-heritage-festival.
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