By: Thomas D. Mooney
It’s not everyday you get to see or speak with a living legend like Gary P. Nunn. The singer-songwriter has seen just about as much of the music industry as anyone–or had as much impact and influence.
At the same time, Nunn is one of the most underrated and overlooked artists that came out of the 70s outlaw and progressive country movement. Sure, guys such as Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings get most of the press, but artists like Nunn (and Billy Joe Shaver) were able to contribute their fair share of gems.
2010’s “Taking Texas To The Country,” Nunn’s latest studio album, shows that the Texas singer-songwriter hasn’t anything since early days.
Nunn plays this Saturday (Dec. 10) at The Blue Light.
New Slang: One of the things that’s great and interesting about guys like you, is just how varied your audience is. For instance, my grandparents will listen to you as well kids my age. What do you think about being able to pull in such a diverse audience?
Gary P. Nunn: Well you can imagine, it makes me feel good that I can appeal to a wide spectrum of folks. I mean, do I have universal appeal [laughs]? I don’t know, but of course it makes me feel good. I don’t direct my music to anyone group as far as age is concerned.
NS: Now back when you were playing with Jerry Jeff Walker in The Lost Gonzo Band, people started labeling that sound “progressive country” or “outlaw country.” But, I’ve read in an interview with you, that what influenced you guys wasn’t a country scene at all. It was more folk and rock music. Do you think people find that strange and surprising?
GPN: You know, you’re right. The early guys were–Jerry Jeff and Michael Murphy, who I had most of my early experience with–they had been more or less, folk singers types. Coffee house singer-songwriters. And then what kind of made it new and different was the fact that they came down here and we would put these semi-ex-rock and roll band guys behind them. They’d sing their songs and we’d play the music behind them and the result music was what it was. Of course it was new and different. But you’re right, we really didn’t have what you call “hardcore country” or “C&W (country and western)” backgrounds. It was just an amalgamation of folk and rock.
NS: I guess what bands and musicians are “changing” the music landscape, they’re never worried about what it’s going to be called. They don’t really care what it’s labeled. It’s just the other people (the media primarily) who care. Do you think that was true with you guys?
GPN: Well, I guess you’re right. You know, the business people and the people who write the articles and cover it, and review it, they need some sort of label. They love to put you in a pigeonhole. That also probably sometimes makes it easier to disregard you [laughs].
NS: I mean, when you guys were making this different kind of “country,” you guys weren’t exactly trying to change music. You were just playing.
GPN: No, we weren’t trying to change anything. We probably didn’t even think about that. We were just trying to do something. Course what we did was what we knew how to do. But it was interesting the way it came out, especially interesting in the response–the large audience that responded to our kind of music. I think it had to do something with the time that we were in. We were coming out of a very conservative time so to speak. We’re all aware of the cultural and social changes that were going on in the late 60s and early 70s. I think it’s something that had to do with the times and the changing of the times, that made it right for the acceptance of that kind of music. The thing about Armadillo Headquarters, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willie Nelson, these were country guys and country is traditional and very conservative. And then, you had these guys who were obviously not conservative, but playing country music. And then the so-called “hip” society–the long-haired society–they related to that, I think, because a lot of them had country backgrounds. And so that music was right that and obviously, they could relate to it.
NS: For the longest time, you were in the band playing bass for these various artists. Then you made your way to the microphone and started singing your own songs. What was that like, going from being a backing member to lead?
GPN: Yes, it was a painful transition to walk up front. It’s been like an ongoing process of trying to not think of yourself as a backup guy. I think just here in the past few years, I’ve begun to become more aware of who I am as an artist and getting over viewing myself as someone who backs up everybody. Although, I really do enjoy that role and I’m very good at it. But you know, you need to have that absolute confidence. It takes a while if you’re not born with it. It’s a long process and I’m sure most people go through that when they’re trying to advance themselves–no matter what business they’re in. Having self-confidence is important to selling yourself.
NS: Now, at this point in your career, you’ve got a lot of signature songs, that I’m sure, when you go places, people want to hear. But at the same time, you’ve got new material that you’re wanting to play as well. How do you balance that out?
GPN: That’s a good question. Course, everybody wants to hear what they’re familiar with. That’s just a natural thing. I think it kind of reaffirms their own existence. It’s like “well, I’ve heard this song before, then I go see him and I hear it again, and that makes me real.” Know what I mean? It’s the kind of thing that verifies their own existence. They naturally want to hear what they’re familiar with and they expect it. And, they get a little upset when you don’t play what they want to hear. What I try to do, is a mix where I will start off with a familiar song and then do a few [new songs]. Then every so often, I’ll throw in, as you say, signature songs, to try to keep their attention. If you play a bunch of songs they’re not familiar with, they go “well, I’ve never heard that.” And so it becomes a thing where it’s about the audience more than it being about you, when it comes right down to it. So yeah, you should try and do everything they expect to hear and everything they want to hear. I think they’re more pleased with you when you do that.
NS: “The Last Thing I Needed, The First Thing This Morning,” is easily one of my favorite songs. How exactly was that song written? Where were you and everything?
GPN: My girlfriend at the time, her sister came in for a visit and she said, “I just have the greatest idea for a country and western song” and I said “what is it?” And she said “The last thing I needed, the first thing this morning was to have you walk out on me” and I immediately responded, “The last thing I needed, the first thing this morning, [singing]” So I just sang it right out, and I told her to go write that out and bring it back to me and I’ll write it. So she came back with the first verse, and I felt in my own mind, from there on, she kind of lost it a little bit, so I dropped in there and wrote the second verse and chorus and finished it off. And that’s how it came to be. Her name is Donna Farar. And so, it’s just one of those things that just happens in a very short period of time and worked out great.
NS: I’ll get out on this one. If you could give a line of advice to new songwriters, what would you tell them?
GPN: I would just say, first of all, write from your heart. Don’t make it up. Course, a lot of people make up a bunch of fantastic songs, but that would be my advice. Write from the heart, try and make it simple, and try and put yourself in the audience’s position.