Gary P. Nunn is a household name to people for whom Texas is a state of mind — say, those who feel a mystic attachment to small critters with leathery armored shells or whose trips for migas at Cisco’s Bakery on Austin’s Sixth Street become a way of life.
But to those for whom Texas is more geographic location, the celebrated musician’s new memoir At Home With the Armadillo fills in the blanks. The autobiography is set for release from independent publisher Greenleaf Book Group on Jan. 23.
A pioneer of Texas’ independent music industry, whose best-known songs include “London Homesick Blues,” “What I Like About Texas” and “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning,” Nunn says simply telling the story of progressive country music wasn’t his motivation in writing the book.
“I originally wanted to write a manual, a sort of rules of the music industry as I experienced it,” he said during a recent phone call. “It’s about things I learned that I wanted to share with others, particularly my son, who is a musician, too.”
Written over a handful of months last year, the resulting book appears at first glance to be straightforward chronology of Nunn’s life. But attentive readers will find flecks of wisdom glimmering like gold in a fast-moving stream.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas from age 12, Nunn is considered a founding father of what sometimes is called Texas music. It sounds like country, blues, folk and rock. It looks like its boisterous figureheads, singer-songwriters who raucously embrace the “outlaw” name.
A founding member of the Lost Gonzo Band — the outfit that famously supported Jerry Jeff Walker in the 1970s — Nunn witnessed the birth of that scene as a bass player, organist and, as he would later memorialize in song, jack of many musical trades.
But Nunn’s book proves that not all outlaws raise hell.
The son of rural educators, Nunn grew up as what he calls a “teacher’s pet” and conscientious student. At the University of Texas, he trained to become a pharmacist, reveling in the mysteries of biology and becoming at times unpopular, he says, for blowing the grading curve with stellar marks.
But the required necktie and short hair he dutifully wore to class had none of the allure of Austin’s nightlife. He found himself drawn to music and especially the feeling of being in a band.
This dichotomy is what makes Nunn a unique star. The genre is flooded with puckish scamps and scowling savants. Nunn is more like a whispering voice of reason on progressive country music’s rascally shoulder.
In the book, Nunn comes off a stable soul who — often literally — had to steer less levelheaded allies out of fire and flames. He calls himself “a band guy” at heart, one who sometimes “went along to get along,” believing success for the whole more important than individual recognition.
That neighborliness did not buffer Nunn against disappointment and heartbreak. He is frank when detailing his mistakes, misadventures and the occasional misguided belief that others were aboveboard and would act accordingly.
That’s what makes Nunn’s take on the Texas music story different.
He’s not the first to tell it. Walker’s delightful autobiography, Gypsy Songman, related several of the same tales back in 1999, at least the portions of them that the reformed rapscallion could remember. And Oak Cliff-raised Ray Wylie Hubbard’s rousing collection of autobiographical essays, A Life... Well, Lived., released in partnership with biographer Thom Jurek in 2015, offered a glimpse into the mad poet’s stream-of-consciousness.
But those narratives tend to have a similar arc: They feature entertaining romps through romantic wildness punctuated by their heroes’ eventual life-saving conversion from substance abuse.
There is a rock bottom of sorts in Nunn’s story as well, but it is not about self-destruction as much as self-worth. He must claim it — and maintain his sanity — in an industry that has never played fairly, he writes.
In the book, Nunn candidly details one particularly low period during which he found himself breaking up with his band, his first wife and live music itself. Thinking he could achieve more success in publishing and producing than songwriting and performance, Nunn embarks on a series of handshake deals that soured without warning or explanation. For awhile, it looks as if the nice guy is going to finish dead last.
But Nunn’s tale is one of faith. He weathers the hardest times by putting his head down and grinding onward with a stalwart belief in his maker, himself, and the music. Ever the attentive student, he draws encouragement from what he calls “little Hershey kisses of truth” left along the way.
One such lesson arrives during a serendipitous elevator ride with musician-sage Leonard Cohen.
“Success is survival,” Cohen tells him. Nunn doesn’t remember anything else from their brief conversation. Those three words from the late Cohen were enough.
When asked what they mean to him, Nunn says “well, I think still being here, alive, and that I’ve been able to make a life from music, or mostly a life for us from it, means I have been successful.”
He says creating music he can share with others is the reward he’d been seeking all along. Now, he finds duty in relaying such truths to others.
Though he has yet to receive the same level of recognition other giants of the genre have enjoyed, right now, everything’s coming up armadillos.
Earlier this month, Nunn was named Tribute to a Legend honoree at the 33rd annual MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colo., a celebration that lasted until dawn. In fact, our recent afternoon phone call was postponed because Nunn slept through it. Manager D. Foster said Nunn had been kept awake all night by a succession of established artists who wished to honor his influence.
On Saturday, Jan. 20, Nunn will be honored at the Texas Musicians Museum in Irving during the unveiling of an exhibit featuring memorabilia from his personal collection, including original handwritten lyrics and a pair of his signature dark glasses.
In March, he’ll release a duets album called Friends for Life featuring more than a dozen artists, among them Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett and Cody Johnson.
Beginning May 25, he will feature prominently among a host of influential Texans in the just-announced exhibit Outlaws and Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ‘70s, which will run for three years at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
It figures to be a capital year for the long-patient Nunn. Seems it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Plan your life
Gary P. Nunn will perform in the Crossroads Music Lobby, an indoor space in the Texas Musicians Museum at 222 E. Irving Blvd. in Irving on Jan. 20. The event runs from 6 to 9 p.m. and includes an unveiling of the museum’s new exhibit, a book signing and a meet and greet with Nunn. Space is limited, and tickets run from $30-75. Purchase tickets.