Texas music icon Gary P. Nunn is quick to turn to the wisdom of another songwriter when talk runs to his long career.
“There have been a lot of low moments, but Leonard Cohen once said, ‘success is survival,’ ” he said in a recent phone interview from his Burnet County home. “It’s amazing how many of us have survived. I was going to retire several years ago, but (manager) D (Foster) told me, ‘you haven’t even started.’ ” Foster, Nunn added, was right.
With a new book “At Home With The Armadillo” out last month, an album of duets with “the cream of the Red Dirt crop” due in March and a steady stream of gigs for Nunn and his band, life is good for one of the Founding Fathers of the Austin music scene of the 1970s. “I’m 72 and enjoying it immensely,” he said.
Nunn and his band, no strangers to the Waco area, hold court at the Waco Hippodrome with a Friday night show. Joining him are Gary Groves on guitar, Ric Ramirez on upright bass and Russell Patterson on drums.
Those attending may be surprised to find Nunn at the piano or keyboards in addition to guitar, but that’s part of who he is. “The piano is a major part of my musical thing. That’s what I played when I was with Jerry Jeff (Walker),” Nunn explained. “And, I’m not half bad at accompanying myself.”
He grew up in Oklahoma, the son of two school teachers, and moved to Brownfield, Texas with his family when he was in the sixth grade. The thought of music as a career only emerged after dreams of cowboying, then baseball. His father encouraged him to play guitar and drums and once Nunn started earning money for gigs when he was in eighth grade, music started calling. “I didn’t ask my folks for money from that time on,” Nunn remembered. “I wanted to be where the action was and where the girls were.”
In 1967, he found the action in Austin where, after years at Texas Tech University, he had moved to study pharmacy at the University of Texas. Nunn began playing bass guitar with Texas country singer-songwriter Rusty Wier. Soon, the sideline became full time in an outlaw country music scene that had attracted Willie Nelson, Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Nunn was performing with Murphey in London when he wrote “London Homesick Blues” and its memorable “I want to go home with the armadillo” chorus that enjoyed lasting fame as the theme song for the long-running television series “Austin City Limits.”
Nunn was a member of the Lost Gonzo Band, which became Jerry Jeff Walker’s backing band for several years before the Gonzos went on their own in 1977. Nunn went solo in 1980. He created his own record label and recording company, blazing a trail for musical independence that a later generation of Texas musicians would follow. “Now everybody pretty much does it the way I did it,” he said.
The lack of a major label or radio airplay made life tough, he admitted. “In the ’80s and ’90s, I couldn’t get a band to stay with me or stick with me. For them, it was a temporary gig or a subgig with ‘the Gary P. Nunn project,’ for lack of a better term,” he recalled. “It was difficult up to the last few years, but things have turned for me. The last couple of years have been phenomenal.”
For 18 years, Nunn and his wife Ruth lived on a cattle ranch near Hanna, Oklahoma that served as a touchstone for young Oklahoma and Texas musicians in the Red Dirt movement. In 2003, they picked up and moved back to Texas, settling near Austin. “My wife told me she hadn’t moved to America to be a g--damned Okie all her life,” he laughed.
The singer-songwriter kept writing and performing even as many turned to him as a mentor for advice on how to succeed and survive in the music industry — a role that resonated with the son of school teachers. He was inducted in in the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2004 and three years later Texas Gov. Rick Perry named him Musical Ambassador for Texas.
He’s a newly published author these days, too, with his memoir “At Home With The Armadillo” released last month.
Old friends added their two cents to Nunn’s memories. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons wrote the book’s preface while Willie Nelson, Michael Martin Murphey and Robert Earl Keen contributed “right good things” in comments. “I’m kinda savoring that right now,” Nunn said.
Nunn is promoting his book in the weeks ahead, but has a new album of duets set for a March release. His partners are a Who’s Who of today’s Texas country: Cody Johnson, Roger Creager, Kevin Fowler, Wade Bowen, Sunny Sweeney and Cody Canada, plus seasoned vets like Dale Watson, Bruce Robison and cowboy poet Red Steagall.
“They put their own twist on it and their style,” Nunn said of his collaborators. “I was really pleased. It was just kind of a sidebar project, but it turned out really good.”
One of the highlights: Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett singing, you guessed it, “London Homesick Blues.”
“That’s a hoot,” Nunn laughed.