The Lost Gonzo Band, which played on some of the most influential albums of Texas music of the early 1970s — backing Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker — is playing the Luck Reunion 2022 festival Thursday at Willie Nelson’s ranch outside Austin, marking the group’s 50th anniversary.
The performance brings together bandmates Bob Livingston, Gary P. Nunn and John Inmon, along with drummer Freddie Krc, and follows their first reunion show at Austin’s Gruene Hall in October. Murphey will join them on the festival bill.
“It if weren’t for Gary P. Nunn, there might not have been a South by Southwest,” says conference co-founder Roland Swenson, recalling when he first learned to drive in the ’70s and attended Nunn’s shows around Austin — a decade before helping to launch SXSW to showcase music and ideas.
Coinciding with SXSW, the Luck Reunion festival takes place in Luck, Texas, 30 miles northwest of Austin, a movie-set town originally built in 1985 on Willie Nelson’s ranch as the backdrop for a film adaptation of his classic album Red Headed Stranger. For a decade, the festival organizers, Luck Presents, have hosted an all-day celebration of music, food and crafts on the site.
“I can’t imagine that 50 years have gone by,” says Nunn, who recently shared his recollections by phone and email with Billboard.
As Nunn recounts, Austin in the early 1970s was a rowdy, rock ’n’ roll town when Murphey, then Walker arrived with their singer/songwriter sensibilities. “Michael was the first artist to come to Austin with a major record deal; he is responsible for starting the Texas country music scene that we know today,” says Nunn.
It was a music scene that melded country, folk and rock with a Texas spirit, which Nunn describes as “rebellious, fiercely independent and proud of our culture and our history, that makes it different from other states.”
In 1972, Livingston and Nunn backed up Murphey on his debut album Geronimo’s Cadillac, the title track of which reached No. 27 on the Hot 100, and its 1973 follow-up Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir. In 1975, Murphey reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 with “Wildfire.”
“Sadly,” says Nunn, “Michael never got the credit he deserves for starting the fire” under the Texas music scene, which was centered around what Nunn called the “cowboys and hippies” who gathered at the Armadillo World Headquarters, a music hall and beer joint, south of downtown Austin.
“Chet Flippo, [then] a stringer for Rolling Stone [and later Nashville bureau chief of Billboard] covered the Armadillo and Austin music scene and gave nationwide publicity to what was going on here,” recalls Nunn.
For Nunn, as a songwriter, his collaboration with Murphey led to one of the most enduring compositions of his career. He accompanied Murphey on a promotional trip to London, staying in an apartment where the heat “kind of automatically went off at 6 a.m. and didn’t come on until 6 p.m. So the average temperature was about 48 degrees in those rooms.”
Playing on a Mexican gut-string guitar he’d brought along on the trip, Nunn began with the lyrics: “Well, it’s cold over here/ And I swear/ I wish they’d turn the heat on.”
The lines became part of “London Homesick Blues,” a love song to Texas and its music that became such an anthem that it served as the theme song of the Austin City Limits television series for nearly three decades.
Meanwhile, Walker, who made his name as the songwriter of “Mr. Bojangles,” had moved to Austin from Key West and enlisted Nunn and his colleagues to record his first self-titled album for MCA Records, which contained his version of “L.A. Freeway” by revered Austin songwriter Guy Clark.
“From that point, it happened that we played numerous shows with Michael and Jerry Jeff sharing bills, from Austin to Boston to New York, with us backing both of them,” says Nunn.
Walker had been reading Hunter Thompson’s influential 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, which one writer had branded as “gonzo” journalism. That phrase, evoking “wildness and craziness,” says Nunn, was embraced by bandmate Livingston. “He said, yeah, we’re the Gonzo Band — the Lost Gonzo Band.”
Walker then came up with the idea of recording an album that would capture the unique atmosphere of Texas. “He said he had discovered a Hill Country hamlet where he felt the magic he was looking for — and the place was Luckenbach, and he wanted to record live in the old dance hall there,” recalls Nunn.
The setting led to one of more notable recording techniques in the history of the Lost Gonzo Band. “We needed some insulation so the sound wouldn’t reverberate all over the place and, driving into town, I had noticed that it was haymaking season. Producer Michael Brovsky and I went into a nearby field and filled up my pickup with square hay bales and created a square on the dance floor in front of the stage.”
That album was titled ¡Viva Terlingua! and is considered a classic of the progressive country movement of the 1970s. Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band played Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues.” (Brovsky called for a second take, explaining why Nunn is heard on the album saying, “Let me see if I can put myself back in that place again.”) The disc also included “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” by Ray Wiley Hubbard, Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” Michael Martin Murphey’s “Backslider’s Wine” and Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.”
The Lost Gonzo Band parted ways with Walker after a New Year’s Eve concert in Houston in 1976 and released their own albums through the end of the ’70s. Walker died on Oct. 23, 2020.
But his former bandmates paid tribute to him when they reunited in October for what was “truly a magical evening from start to finish,” says Nunn, noting that the Gruen Theater shows were recorded and filmed for later release. “There was just so much love in the room and it was so great that so many people still feel the same way about us and the music that we made.”