Photos by Mike Yawn
In the late 1960s, Gary P. Nunn was a college student at the University of Texas, trying to find his path in life. A pharmacy major by day and musician by night, Nunn admitted he was living one day at a time, with no real dreams of making it big in the music industry. Little did he know, he would not only find his path but create one for so many other Texas artists. Writing and singing one of the most well-known songs about Texas – London Homesick Blues – and co-writing one of Willie Nelson’s biggest hits are just two of the many accolades that have made Nunn an icon of Lone Star Music.
Wearing a quintessential bandana tied around his neck, Nunn sat down with Postcards Magazine before his recent show at Huntsville’s Old Town Theatre. The Texas living legend shared a timeline of memories and milestones and answered a question he continues to ask himself: After more than 50 years in the music business, what’s next?
You originally moved to Austin for school, not music. Why did you decide to be a pharmacy major?
For a lack of knowing what I was going to do, I chose pharmacy. My family wanted me to be a doctor because I had pretty good grades in math and sciences. I just couldn’t see myself as a doctor, because I always get queasy and think I’m going to faint when I see people in pain or bleeding or something. That wasn’t right for me; I was too sensitive.
While at UT you decided to give music a try. What were your goals?
Gosh, I didn’t even have enough sense to know what my goals were. You dare to dream, but I didn’t even dare to dream of going to Los Angeles or Nashville or somewhere like that, seeking to be a star. It was just such a frightening thing, and I just didn’t have the confidence at the time to think I was capable of something like that. I just played music for survival.
Survival… like busking?
No, we always had gigs in college. There were college clubs around the University of Texas, and there was a lot of club work to do. So, we could always come up with two or three gigs a week. Usually, they’d pay about 300 bucks a piece, but in 1967, if you could make a couple of hundred bucks a week, that was a living wage. And, you could do that and still go to school.
What was the first thing that attracted you to this business?
I was that kid that, anytime there was music going on, I had to be right in the middle of it. I was always kind of interested in songwriting, but I didn’t know how to go about it or what the process was. I was just trying to make up songs. My folks gave me a good background and everything, but they didn’t really instill any sort of vision, you know. They were schoolteachers and had no other experiences besides school teaching to impart on us kids. So, I just kind of went from gig to gig, and that was fun; then I looked for the next gig.
During the 70s in Austin, you teamed up with guys like Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Martin Murphey. Tell me about the relationships you had in the music business.
The first ones that you always have relationships with are the bands, and musicians are kind of temperamental, sensitive, artistic people, and they all have their own eccentricities. They’re not really what you call normal, friendly relationships, because you’re always dealing with that tension. I just considered myself a normal sort of guy. My band became the Lost Gonzo Band, and we backed Michael Martin Murphey and played on Jerry Jeff’s stuff. So, we played for both of them that summer. I guess it was ’72 when they first came to town.
During that time, you recorded London Homesick Blues on Jerry Jeff Walker’s ¡Viva Terlingua! album. It became the theme song for Austin City Limits and has become one of the most well-known songs about Texas.
Yeah, it was just something I wrote to pass the time while I was in London with Michael Murphey. I never imagined anything would come of it. But, sometimes it’s the little things in the great scheme of things that can become significant.
Another big highlight of your career is writing the Willie Nelson song – The Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning. Tell me how that song came to be?
Well, a friend – she was my girlfriend’s sister – would come over with her husband and visit regularly. She walked in one day and said, “I was driving down North Lamar, and I had the greatest idea for a country song.” And she reeled off that title, and I just immediately went (singing), “The last thing I needed the first thing this morning was to have you walk out on me.” So, I said, “Go explore it, write something down, and I’ll see if I can make a song out of it.” She went and wrote some things and came up with the first verse. Then I said, “Let me take it from here.” I wrote the second verse and the chorus, and there it was. That was in 1972. It wasn’t until ‘83 that Willie recorded it.
It truly is an amazing song.
Well, thank you. And, you know, just knock on wood, as time goes by, it’s kind of risen to be one of Willie’s classics. You hear that as much as you hear anything else that Willie’s done. So, I mean, gosh, to have a Willie Nelson classic, if you permit me to characterize it as that, is pretty cool.
Chris Stapleton recently recorded it as well. It’s kind of like the George Jones song, Tennessee Whisky. Stapleton gave it a whole new life. What are your thoughts about that?
Of course, it was exciting to have a guy of his caliber record it. He’s way up there – one of the top artists. So, I was thrilled he did it. They had a reception in Nashville at RCA Studios, and all the press were there. I got to meet and visit with Chris. He said, “You know, man, I always loved that song, it was always one of my favorites… I thought Willie wrote it.” And I said, “You just paid me the highest compliment you could’ve possibly paid me.” So, there you go. You know things like that, milestones, happen…and then you’re thrilled about it…but you know you just stick it like a feather in your cap and go on down the road. You don’t dwell on it like, “Well I did this, and I did that.” I’m always looking for what’s next.
What are your thoughts when you hear “Texas Country Music” today?
Well, it’s just incredible how it’s developed from the time we started. And I think we had a hand in setting examples and building the roads and kind of giving the younger ones a vision of the possibilities. There wasn’t a Texas Music industry; we created it. And now, they are promoting it to the max and doing great, like Cody Johnson right down the road here. I mean, he’s knocking the lights out. He’s selling out the biggest halls in the country. I think he’s great. There are others that kind of sound the same to me. They have good songs and everything, but I hear very few things that are going to last for 50 years, in my opinion. It seems there are a lot of songs that are written just for the commercial party scene, rather than being an artistic, eclectic thing that comes from the soul. I also hear some pretty good stuff, I really do.
You’ve been recognized several times by different Texas governors and recently by the Texas House and the Senate. What was that like?
Well, as you can imagine, it was quite an honor and just a humbling experience to sit there and have them reading resolutions and the whole house standing up and the gallery standing up, you know getting standing ovations. It was just great because I really love Texas and I love Texas history. And, Sam Houston is my absolute hero in the whole world.
Have you been to the Sam Houston Memorial Museum here in Huntsville?
No, I haven’t. But I’ve read just about everything I can get my hands on about him. He’s a very over-looked character in American history. He could’ve been president in 1860, except for the Civil War.
You said you are always looking for “what’s next.” So, what is next for you?
I’m kind of looking forward to a semi-retirement in the next couple of years. Music just requires so much of your time, and you work on weekends. You just don’t have the opportunity to do normal things, you know, like go on vacation with your wife.
So, what does semi-retirement look like in your mind?
Well, there are so many songs I’ve written that I haven’t recorded, and there are so many unwritten songs that I need to finish. I’m looking forward to working on that because it’s what I enjoy doing. Then I want to travel with my wife. Before she married me, she was a world traveler. She’s just been in Oklahoma and Texas, out in the country, since she met me. She just stays home and takes care of the place and our business. I’ve got three young grandsons. I just want to be a grandpa and do all those kinds of things – just rest, relax and play golf.
In September, the Texas Country Music Association will present Gary P. Nunn with TCMA’s prestigious “Trailblazer Award.” He has certainly blazed the trail for other artists and is a true Texas gem.
Visit garypnunn.com to learn more about his contributions to Texas music and where you can catch him in concert.