In 1973, Gary P. Nunn and Bob Livingston were in Luckenbach, playing backup on a live album recording by Jerry Jeff Walker, a stage-named New York native who had seen a modicum of success when his eponymous seventh album charted the previous year, bolstered by its now-famous cover of Guy Clark's "L.A. Freeway."
At the time, Nunn and Livingston held little aspiration to do anything with their music other than make a little money. Nunn was even on the verge of returning to the University of Texas in Austin to finish his degree and become a pharmacist. Fate had another idea. More than four decades later, the pair will pass down the creation mythology of the genre imperfectly known as "Texas country" during a night of "Songs and Tales of Texas" at Poor David's Pub on March 30.
When it comes to the genre's beginnings, Livingston is the one to ask. "Bob has an elephant's memory," Nunn says during a phone call in January.
Over the years, Livingston has talked extensively about his life in music, which began at Lubbock High School, in the mystical desert that reared Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, and first Lloyd Maines, then Natalie Maines, among its seemingly countless virtuosos. Later, Livingston's music took him to more than 30 countries as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. He is a robust storyteller who sounds as if he is on the verge of a side-splitting joke. During a phone interview, it's not long before he quips about Walker's rumored bad behavior in the '70s and '80s, saying, "If you ever knock out Jerry Jeff, he'll be your brother forever."
Nunn is different. His speaking voice is surprisingly melodious, even for a singer, as if every utterance could be the opening line of another brilliant song. Nunn sets up Livingston's great lines, and Livingston knocks them out of the park. Their friendship has always been this way, it seems. Though they haven't always worked together -- their Lost Gonzo Band played together just sporadically over the years, festival gigs and albums interspersed with solo projects and personal lives -- the pair's symbiosis was evident from the beginning.
It was on one summer day in Luckenbach in 1973 that Nunn found himself blindsided by his big break. Livingston did what he could to make sure no one would forget it.
"My particular situation was very unusual, you might say," Nunn drawls. It sounds as though he is choosing his words carefully, but then again, that's how he always sounds. "I like to say I'm the only person in the world with a hit record that's got someone else's name on it."
Making a hit album
He's joking, sort of. The record in question is Walker's Viva Terlingua, and its greatness is due precisely to how much it borrows from some of Texas' brightest shining talents: In addition to five of Walker's original tracks, it contains songs by Guy Clark and Oak Cliff-born Michael Martin Murphey, as well as another Oak Cliff-raised songwriter, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and none other than Nunn. It's almost as if the album were created by an informal committee, a five-headed beast routinely capable of penning a three-minute verse as riveting as a 300-page novel.
Unlike the others, though, Nunn was not only present during the recording session; he actually performed his contribution. But that's not immediately clear, at least not to a casual listener.
As the story goes, the band members were sitting under a tree that day in Luckenbach, waiting to take their places for the recording. Nunn offhandedly began playing a new song inspired by a tour in the U.K. He hadn't shared it with anyone yet. He picked it, just to pass the time as they waited to start the recording.
When it came time to make the album, the band played through the set with Nunn on electric piano and Livingston on bass. At the end, Walker looked over to Nunn and said he ought to play the new one again. He did, and it became the album's final track. Though the album notes of course give Nunn due writing credit, there's no indication that another performer is taking over the lead microphone, other than a subtle voice change from Walker's deeper tone. There's no introduction setting up the performance. Nunn simply says, "Got to put myself back in that place again," as the opening chords began.
What follows is "London Homesick Blues," a rousing seven-minute-and-43- second account of a traveler's pining to be "home in a Texas bar."
The song, particularly its chorus -- "I wanna go home with the armadillo" -- has become inseparable from the state's musical identity.
It has opened and closed every episode of Austin City Limits since becoming the long-running television program's theme song in 1977. The wry energy of Nunn's performance that day in Luckenbach is impossible to re-create, no matter how many times he or Walker -- or anyone else, for that matter -- plays it. That it happened to be caught on Walker's live album is kismet.
A genre is born
After Viva Terlingua, Walker -- and then Willie Nelson, Jennings and a host of other Very Important People -- received much of the credit for bringing an independent, artistic country music recording industry to Texas. Nunn says this doesn't bother him. Still, he admits there's a certain complication of emotion about its place on what is largely considered another artist's magnum opus.
"But, it got your name out there," Livingston says.
On Viva Terlingua, toward the end of the song, an exuberant voice chimes in over the crowd's cheering whistles and applause to say, "That was Gary P. Nunn!"
That disembodied voice is Livingston. Moved by the moment, the bass player leaned into a backup microphone to send up his bandmate. His remark -- then, and during our recent call -- was an off-the-cuff celebration of the instant and enduring legacy created by his friend's rousing performance.
Even now, the performance feels like a sacred document of creation. Like Athena from Zeus' skull, Texas artists willed their own genre into being.
Call it outlaw or progressive country, red dirt or what have you, it was Country and Western music, but more sophisticated than most of what you'd hear on top 40 radio.
Songs like "London Homesick Blues" would pull the troubadours out of Nashville boardrooms and call them back under the neon lights that fed their creativity. Nunn's armadillos galvanized a revolution in independent song-making in Texas.