Home with The Armadillo: a chat with Texas country royalty Gary P. Nunn


Gary P. Nunn (Courtesy photo) Texas country singer, songwriter and picker Gary P. Nunn was right there at ground zero for the outlaw country explosion of the 1970s. And the man was far from an innocent bystander. From playing with Jerry Jeff Walker's best backing crew the Lost Gonzo Band, to gigging with Willie Nelson and Michael Martin Murphey, to penning some damn fine tunes of his own; Nunn, now 69 years old, has embodied the spirit of Texas outlaw country for decades. He's been honored with a star on the West Texas Walk of Fame, named as a Lone Star Great by the state department of Commerce and Tourism, chosen as the official Texas Music Ambassador in 2007 by Governor Rick Perry and inducted to the Texas Hall of Fame. He's a living legend as a musician, a witness to history and an advocate of Texas music. Now, as he divides his time between the road and his homestead north of Austin, Nunn is working on a few photo projects chronicling his earlier and rowdier days, even as he continues to write and record with a refreshingly purist and uncluttered approach. Nunn talked with the Current over the phone ahead of Saturday's show at Floore's Country Store. Among our topics of discussion were The Beatles, simplicity and universality in music, the joys of music publishing, the mess of contemporary mainstream country and, generally speaking, how it feels to be an outlaw when you're no longer on the run. Read the full Q&A below and be sure to check him out on Saturday night.   Tell me a bit about your day-to-day existence these days. What is life like for Texas Music Ambassador Gary P. Nunn at 69? Well, you know, after a while you tend to get into a bit of a routine. Working on the road, mostly all around the state of Texas, three or four days a week. You do that on the weekends, then rest a bit and take care of business; we do all of our own business, and then the bank and the post office. And after that, I'll go up to the little rehearsal space I have here [his home north of ATX] and practice. I've been working here lately on getting my piano playing chops back again. And right now I've got a few projects with photographs that I'm working on. See, I started taking photos of everything and everyone around me back in 1976 when my first son was born and I've had a lot of people request that I do something with those pictures, so I've been busy with that the past couple of weeks. And then I'm always working on a new record, but that's always an issue of finding time to go in the studio and record. It's a regular work routine in a bunch of ways.   How do you go about keeping the work that you do feeling fresh to you after all these years? Well, the easy part is that I really enjoy the performing aspect. And I love to travel and to socialize. I always have some new tunes, for better or worse, that I'm trying to push forward. And people, you know, I've discovered that people really wanna hear what they have already heard. So that may be my downfall, that I'm always looking for new tunes. But it keeps things fresh for me. And then, musicians come and go and it's a process to get everyone acquainted with all the material. I mean, I have 150 tunes that I consider strong contenders for every set list, because I wouldn't have put them on record in the first place if I didn't think they were good and didn't plan to use them.   How do you deal with the audience's desire for the old stuff? I never get tired of doing any of the older songs, because for me the joy in playing is in seeing and feeling the audience's reaction. I love the positive response from them. Like "London Homesick Blues," I try and play that one early in a show so I don't catch gripes for forgetting it.

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In what ways would you say that the crazy and prolific days in Texas in the '70s have continued to shape your work over the years? Those were such incredibly heady days, you know. We didn't know what we were doing we just went and did it and then we learned what we did afterwards by reading about ourselves in newspaper articles. [laughs] I had a vision of what people in Texas responded to and I've always tried to stay with that. I just don't want to leave the one who brought me to the dance. Back in the Gonzo days we were all into The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. We really wanted to infuse that with something that had a Texas cultural feel to it. And then from rock we were folk-rock and country-rock, then cosmic folk with all sorts of eclectic influences. Now in my work I feel like I am going back to the classic and traditional approach to country. I'm not sure if that's a smart idea, but it's the one that appeals to me. After studying the classic music in the genre, I see that it's really not that hard—but it ain't easy. There's a powerful simplicity to a good country song, that can elicit all sorts of feelings and thoughts. There’s like a kernel of universal truth in the best of tunes. Once you get it right, it's really really effective. And you can grow older more gracefully playing country music than rock music. There aren't too many Mick Jaggers out there, who can strut at 75.   Tell me a bit about your songwriting process and how it has changed through time. You know, it sort of comes naturally, but it’s not something that I’m really disciplined at, still. I don’t sit down and go to work to write a song, you know, if one forces its way out then I go ahead a let it come. Writing a song, to me, is kinda like taking a final Chemistry exam at UT. It’s something you really dread, but finally you have to sit down and study and knock it out. I consider myself more of a publisher guy, really. You know, a guy who finds tunes wherever they may be. I have several songwriters that have written for me and others who I’ve come by through a publishing company I started back in 1973 or ‘74. Michael Murphey showed me the ins and outs of the publishing world and I became interested in it, not only from a business point of view, but artistically. I find it very satisfying to find a song and get it recorded and have it do what I hoped it would do. Or even more gratifying is finding a song and having another artist record it and have it be successful. That’s the process with publishing, that I really enjoy. That’s what really comes naturally to me.   What do you look for in those songs when you’re searching? Whether from a well-known writer or a nobody? Simply put, I look for something that I personally can relate to. I feel like I am the average guy from Texas who has a pride in the state and honors traditional values to a great extent. I love a good song about grandpa, you know. I view myself as a traditional cowboy sort of guy so I try to find tunes or write tunes that would be acceptable and relatable to that demographic of folks. As time goes by, my writing and song selection changes. I used to always focus on being different. Now I’m just concentrating on simplicity. You know, just try to find thoughts that have universal appeal and universal truth about them and just crank those out there and find you a good hook line and repeat. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.   I can tell how important and valuable country music is to you. Can you tell me what some of your thoughts are on the current state of mainstream country? Well I’ve got a song called “Where’s the Country in Country Music?” It seems like the city folks have taken over country music and kinda turned it into a semi-rock, pseudo country. It’s hard to criticize people who are incredibly successful it’s a blend of star fever, everybody follows whoever they perceive to be the biggest star at the time You know, I haven’t heard anything it’s all just ‘let’s go party’ or ‘who’s got the biggest truck’ or ‘my girl’s got the tightest britches’ or ‘I’ve got the coldest beer in my truck.’ It’s kind of juvenile and teenybopperish in my opinion. It doesn’t really go to the heart. I mean, that’s my take on it. I’d like things to move a little bit more towards tradition.   Gary P. Nunn $12-$15 9pm Sat, July 5 Floore’s Country Store 14492 Old Bandera Rd, Helotes, TX (210) 695-8827 liveatfloores.com

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