Picture Austin, Texas, in the Seventies and its most enduring image may not be so obvious: an armadillo. Those hard-shelled, four-legged desert critters were the unofficial mascot of Outlaw country, and immortalized in song by one of the era's unsung heroes, Gary P. Nunn, who penned the 1973 cult classic "London Homesick Blues."
"It seemed to be earthy. Its nose was supposed to be close to the ground. It's practically indestructible," says Nunn, who, now 72 years old, cuts an unmistakable figure with his Stetson hat, purple-lensed glasses and kerchief tied around his neck. He laughs, and adds, as though with a note of self-deprecation, "It's a dinosaur, of sorts."
Forty-five years later, the armadillo is again proving its staying power, lending its name to the newly opened Outlaws & Armadillos: Country's Roaring '70s exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. For Nunn, who performed at the opening concert last weekend, it's a belated honor. After all, many people don't even know that his signature song is his own.
"It was on that Jerry Jeff [Walker] record, so that made it kind of weird to begin with," says Nunn, referring the release of "London Homesick Blues" on Walker's 1973 live ¡Viva Terlingua! LP. The song became the theme for the Austin City Limits TV show for more than 30 years. "It was a great honor, I guess, but most people, in the early days especially, thought it was a Jerry Jeff song and that it was Jerry Jeff singing it."
Not that Nunn can take full credit for the significance of the armadillo. When he sang in the song's refrain, "I want to go home with the armadillo," it was a reference to Armadillo World Headquarters, a club that opened in 1970 and served as the hub for Austin's then-burgeoning music scene. Then again, Nunn's tenure in the city predated even its most influential concert venue.
"Austin had this huge university presence that just kind of spilled out into the streets," says Nunn, who arrived in the state capitol in 1968 as a pharmacology student at the University of Texas, having transferred from Texas Tech in Lubbock. "Every day, there were hippie artists lined up down Guadalupe Street. People were busking out there and down on 6th Street, when there was only like one store opened down there."
Before Armadillo World Headquarters opened, the popular venues in town were places like the Jade Room and Club Saracen. They were booked by promoters like Mike Lewis, a popular radio DJ, and Charlie Hatchett, who was himself a law student at the time. "Hatchett had a handle on all that. He created this whole music scene around the fraternity houses and local beer joints in town. They all catered to the college students," says Nunn.
Landing jobs with rock groups the Georgetown Medicine Band and Lavender Hill Express, Nunn recalls that most bands played covers, like Jimi Hendrix and Cream. "You had to do the latest rock & roll songs to get gigs," he says. Singer-songwriters like Steve Fromholz, who wrote their own material, largely played a separate coffee shop circuit.
Then, in 1972, Nunn helped convince Michael Martin Murphey to move from California. "He brought a professionalism and experience with him that we were not accustomed to. We hadn't had dealings with promotion companies or record companies in L.A.," says Nunn, who became Murphey's bassist and band leader. Crucially, their ambitions aimed them toward the West Coast, not the East. "Nashville represented the old school, the old square thing. All this stuff was happening, it was the new age. We were all becoming 'high culture' and it all pointed to L.A."
That same year, Murphey appeared at Armadillo World Headquarters — now booking country acts as well as rock ones — alongside Walker's Lost Gonzo Band and Willie Nelson, all three of whom Nunn played for. That mix of sensibilities is what helped foment change in Music City. "They were getting quite a bit of attention. The progressive country thing was going on in Texas, and Chet Flippo was writing about it [in Rolling Stone]. That was the key to it, because every hippie in the country was reading about it," says Nunn.
The music coming out of Austin was referred to by various names, among them "progressive" or "outlaw." But none were more fitting than "cosmic country." "It's that classic idea of the country boy who comes to town and gets enlightened – but he's still that guy, like me, the country kid who grew up in a rural city very much tied to the land and ranching and farming and all that," says Nunn, who was raised in Oklahoma. "Maybe the hippie guy put on a hat, and the cowboy let his hair grow. He was smoking pot, too."
Nunn would be inspired to write "London Homesick Blues" after a trip to England with Murphey in the winter of 1973, but the most memorable part of the visit was an encounter he had with an A&R exec. "It was life-changing because I'd been drifting along all this time. I'd never planned to make a living out of the music business, it was just something to pay the bills as I was going through school," he says. "It started to dawn on me that you might have something to show at the end of a career with a body of copyrights rather than a string of gigs behind you."
Starting up his own publishing company upon his return to Austin proved a shrewd decision: As recently as last year, Chris Stapleton recorded Nunn's song "Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning" for his Grammy-winning From A Room: Volume 1 LP. "There was so much going on in Texas and Austin that it seemed like, 'Why do we have to go there? Why can't we just build the business here?'" Nunn recalls. "It was an experiment to see if I could survive in Texas without having to compete, because I knew I'd never have the money to compete with them."
Though Nunn, who released his first solo album in 1980 — the same year that Armadillo World Headquarters closed its doors — wasn't destined to be a household name, he was a trailblazer for fellow "band guys" in Austin and Texas country alike. This year has helped him bring that legacy full circle, first with a memoir, At Home With the Armadillo, and a new album, Friends for Life, featuring new versions of his songs performed with fellow Lone Star State natives like Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Cody Canada.
The Austin of today may not bear much resemblance to the days of the armadillo, but Nunn still — mostly — feels at home. "It's been amazing to see it grow, how big it's become. There's a whole industry down there now," he says, proudly. "The kids roll around on their buses. They run me off the road!"