Two veteran Texas singer-songwriters, Gary P. Nunn and Lee Roy Parnell, team up Thursday night for a Waco Hippodrome concert and one would never guess that’s an uncommon event.
In a joint phone interview, Nunn speaking from Austin and Parnell from Nashville, the two warmly traded compliments, good humor, their insights on what makes a good song and why staying true to one’s voice is essential, and, their songwriting ears always in action, caught phrases that sounded like a song needing to be written.
Waco is a well-worn stop on Nunn’s regular musical travels — he played to a full Hippodrome last February — but it’s been awhile for Parnell. Playing with the musician that inspired the Abilene-born, Stephenville-raised Parnell to get into music himself was reason aplenty to make the trip.
“I’m a major, major Gary P. Nunn fan,” he explained. “It was Gary’s music, to me, that exemplified what Texas music was all about.”
Nunn’s early career in the 1970s with what became known as the Outlaw Country movement, time spent playing with Michael Martin Murphey, Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band and near-eternal Texas fame with Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues,” persuaded Parnell a decade or so later to jump in the musical waters himself.
While Nunn’s career found fertile pastures in Oklahoma and Texas, Parnell established himself in Nashville as a talented guitarist and slide guitarist as well as a songwriter with such Top 10 singles as “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am),” “Tender Moment” and “A Little Bit of You.”
That career record led Nunn to reply in kind. “You’re making my day, Lee Roy, but let me echo the sentiment about Lee Roy,” said the 72-year-old Nunn. “We kinda lost him and he went off to Nashville and he became a big star.”
Parnell, 61, remarked how watching Nunn in concert impressed him with his ability to win over a crowd, branding them as fans with his songs and onstage charisma. “He had them branded with ‘Gary P’ on their asses by the time they left,” he said. “Maybe that’s what we need (for Thursday’s show) — a special brand, with Gary P on one side and Lee Roy on the other, though just a dye.”
Asked what audiences can expect at their Thursday show, both seemed comfortable with inventing it on the fly, Nunn with his full band, Parnell with his trio. “We’re pros — we can pull it off, I’m pretty sure,” Parnell said.
“He has a three-piece band that’s just outstanding,” Nunn said. “Lee Roy is one of the best guitar players on the planet. He can roll with us if he needs to.”
Retaining their voices
Their music comes from the same Texas mix of country, rhythm-and-blues, rock and Americana, but the Lone Star brand shows in their ability to retain their individual songwriting voices through the years.
“We’ve stuck to our own guns over the years,” Nunn said. “To try and be anything else would be acting and wouldn’t be real.”
“The real deal will last a lifetime,” Parnell agreed. “It has so far.”
For Nunn, that meant holding on to a career in Texas and Oklahoma during lean years, with commercial success returning in recent years. For Parnell, it meant resisting Nashville’s pressure to conform. “When I got here, they wanted to change everything. ‘Those Levis 501s have got to go for Wranglers. That slide guitar has got to go,’ ” he said. “But then you find our stumbling blocks become our stepping stones.”
“That’s a great line,” Nunn observed. “I may have to use that.”
Fans often talk how a song brings back a specific memory whenever they hear it. Do songs that they wrote and play night after night carry a different set of meanings?
“Really, a song is like a photograph, like a look back in time,” Parnell said, noting that the Texas sensibility in some of his songs came when he was outside of Texas. That led Nunn to talk about a time in New York City when Jerry Jeff Walker told him, “That’s a hell of a deal, to go to New York City and write a country song.”
“That’s a good line,” Parnell said.
Songs become characters, Parnell said, just as people they know and meet often become songs. He mentioned a family member known for her toughness. “We don’t know how many husbands she buried. Probably as many as she married,” he said.
“I’m going to have to use that line,” Nunn said.
Craft of songwriting
Writing a good song is more than sticking a melody to a relatable subject. There’s craft in economy and connecting with listeners, Nunn pointed out. “You relate to where you are and the situation you’re in — that’s a memory. But you have two and a half, three minutes to make a point. Each word has to count,” he said.
“Economical writing is essential,” Parnell agreed. “Sometimes it’s a lot easier to write a novel than a short story . . . It all goes back to Johnny Mercer. The great ones last forever. Every word has to have a point to it.”
“It has to mean something and it has to mean something right up front,” Nunn chimed in. “You can’t expect (listeners) to figure out what it means. When you’re writing, you have to become like family to the listener . . . They have to relate to and identify in their own lives.”
“They have to bring the ‘I’ into it,” agreed Parnell.
Anything else readers need to know?
Nunn mentioned his memoir, “At Home with the Armadillo,” published earlier this year and his album “Friends for Life,” a collection of duets with such Texas stars as Robert Earl Keen, Cody Johnson, Roger Creager, Kevin Fowler, Wade Bowen, Lyle Lovett and Dale Watson.
And Parnell? He’s got an album out as well, “Midnight Believer,” released last year. “I always feel funny hawking things, but if we don’t, who will?” he said.
The phone interview ended when Nunn said he had to leave for an appointment with a dentist. “You too?” asked Parnell. “I’m waiting here to go to the dentist, too. Something to be said about taking care of a good set of teeth.”
Sounds like real life waiting to be captured in a song. By two men who know just how to do it.