Born in Oklahoma, Gary P. Nunn found his heart’s true home in the Lone Star State after his family moved to West Texas when he was in sixth grade. In the town of Brownfield just outside of Lubbock, he was an honors student, excelled in athletics, and started his first band soon after arriving. When he landed in Austin in 1967 to study pharmacy at the University of Texas, he presaged the “cosmic cowboy” movement to come with one of Austin’s favorite bands, The Lavender Hill Express, with the late Rusty Weir. After Willie Nelson, Michael Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker all moved to town, Nunn was such a pivotal figure on the scene that at one point he was playing bass with all three artists. His talents on keyboards and vocals were also heard on many of the legendary albums from that era.
When Murphey arrived in Austin in 1972, he immediately asked Nunn to help him put together a band. While in London recording Murphey’s Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir album, two key events occurred for Nunn. One day in his hotel room, wishing he were back in Texas, he wrote “London Homesick Blues.” As Nunn recalls, “I just wrote it to kill time, and as a humorous exercise in writing a country song. I never thought that anything would ever become of that song. No one is more surprised than me at what it became.”
At Abby Road Studio, he also met an English music publisher who at the time had 90 songs on the British Top 100. It inspired Nunn to start his own publishing company when he got back to Austin to funnel songs he liked by songwriters he knew to the artists he worked with as well as others.
Nunn was a key figure in The Lost Gonzo Band when they recorded Jerry Jeff Walker’s landmark ¡Viva Terlingua! album, on which “London Homesick Blues” was a breakout hit. During his time with Walker, Nunn recalls, “I was fortunate enough to have some good songwriters come my way, and I channeled some of their tunes to Jerry Jeff. And they became some of his more popular songs, even today. I seem to have always had a knack for finding a tune.” And Nunn’s own songs have always served him well, being recorded by stars like Willie Nelson (“The Last Thing I Needed, The First Thing This Morning”)which hit #2, Rosanne Cash (“Couldn’t Do Nothing’ Right”), which hit #15 on the country singles charts), David Allen Coe and many other artists.
After four years and six albums with Walker, The Lost Gonzo Band struck out on their own in 1977 to record three critically acclaimed major label albums. Then in 1980, Nunn went solo when the Gonzos called it a day, and he hasn’t looked back since.
He started his own label, Guacamole Records, and was finally the full master of his own musical fate. His unflagging popularity in and around the Lone Star State has kept the houses full for 30 years whenever and wherever he plays. And Nunn has also made numerous visits to Europe, where he’s considered a Texas musical legend. Along the way he has appeared on TV shows like “Austin City Limits,” “Nashville Now,” TNN’s “Texas Connection” and many others as well as on national broadcasts of Texas Rangers baseball games singing the National Anthem.
In 1985, Nunn relocated to a family farm he inherited in Oklahoma, running an 800-acre cattle ranch at the same time as his musical career. He established the Terlingua North Chili Cook-Off and Music Festival there, where now popular acts like Pat Green and Cross Canadian Ragweed played early in their careers. “It seems every time we had a young and upcoming band up there, it was like they hit a diving board and just sprung into the air,” Nunn notes. And within today’s thriving Texas and Red Dirt music scene, he’s a revered elder statesman to countless performers and songwriters who teethed and grew up on his music. “They’ve let me know I inspired them and showed them how it could be done.”
In addition to the many gold albums on which he has played and/or written and published songs, Nunn has earned a number of notable awards and honors over the years. He was named an Official Ambassador to the World by Texas Governor Mark White, and years later Governor Rick Perry also declared him an Ambassador of Texas Music. In 2004, he was inducted into the Texas Hall of Fame, and he is also honored in the West Texas Walk of Fame in Lubbock as well as the Texas Department of Commerce and Tourism’s roster of Lone Star Greats who are leaders in the fields of art, athletics and music. As well, the Oklahoma House of Representatives recognized Nunn for his contribution to the preservation of the unique Southwestern style of music.
“The thing I’m proudest of is being a member of the West Texas Walk of Fame in Lubbock with Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills and Roy Orbison — guys who were my heroes. To me that’s just the greatest thing,” he enthuses. “And then today, turning on Sirius/XM radio and hearing myself played next to Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Willie Nelson and Johnny Bush. I’m just so proud and pleased to be there among them.”
For Nunn, who in 2003 moved back to the Austin area, the secret to all his continuing success is deceptively simple. “My focus has always been on the audience and showing then a good time, and perhaps they will take a little Texas pride home with them,” he explains. “What I’ve tried to do is incorporate the musical genres that are indigenous to Texas, along with some neighboring styles. My goal is to paint as much of a Texas picture as I can with the music and just immerse people in that culture. I think it’s great, and I just love it and want to promote it.”
And now, more than half a century since he first started playing music, Nunn enthuses, “I’m having more fun now than ever. It just feels good. When you have a great band behind you and the audience is out there on the dance floor, you just say, ‘Yeah! This the reason I got into this in the first place.’ I love it more than ever.”
Gary P. Nunn’s album What I Like About Texas is available at Icehouse Music.