By Jeffrey B. Remz, September 1999
hat started off as recording songs for a new album turned into a greatest hits plus package for Lee Roy Parnell. And that suited the Texan who pumps some blues and lots of slide in his country tank, just fine.
Well, that was the case until the reception at radio to one of the two new songs on "Hits and Highways Ahead" - "She Won't Be Lonely Long" - was less than stellar. The man who has had 7 songs reach the Top 10 from his first five albums only made it into the 40's on the singles charts.
And while Parnell may come across as having the case of sour grapes, he says what's on his mind more matter of factly than bitterly. "It didn't do much, which is really a shame because the record came off real well," he says. "You got to roll with the punches as hard as it is."
Parnell recorded six songs in LA under the production of Ed Cherney, who worked with the Stones and Bonnie Raitt. He cut the tracks at Jackson Browne's home studio and got the chance to work with drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Fred Tackett.
Parnell says he did not expect the negative radio reception.
"It was a surprise to me really. They certainly did slam the door shut on me the last couple of years. It left me at a loss of what to do and how to make a living with my family."
"My expectations were we would be able to get back on the radio with a song that...had integrity and was also worthy of being on the radio, which is two traits that don't often come together," he says from his home in Nashville.
"But with the way things are with playlists being shorter..." Parnell says, adding, "And some record companies are willing to spend a whole lot of money on doing wild promotional things, which is not the way I think to ethically promote a record. My boss, Tim Dubois, won't buy a record. He just won't stoop down that low. That's not the case with the rest of them. They do whatever it takes to get on the air."
Parnell always has spoken warmly of his relationship with Arista, particularly label head Dubois. He signed Parnell after seeing him live in Nashville at the Bluebird in the late '80's. That was the second go-round for Parnell in Nashville.
Parnell's future in music was sealed two weeks before he was supposed to graduate high school. In fact, he didn't, so he could go on the road and play. He gigged with Kinky Friedman as a Texas Jewboy for a short while before basing himself in Austin for many years.
Parnell, 42, has not been too happy with the state of country music and radio for a number of years. He just feels too much of it is calculated and programmed.
This comes from a guy who had Number One hits with "Heart's Desire," "A Little Bit of You," "I'm Holding My Own," and "Tender Moment." And he came close with other songs - "What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am" and "On the Road."
But when it came time to put out singles from his last studio album, perhaps his best, "Every Night's a Saturday Night," radio wasn't listening. The lead-off "Lucky Me, Lucky You" only made the mid-30's.
"For many years, country music was the one genre of music where the heritage played a huge part (on) the decisions that were being made in these executive places," he says. "If there was a chance to play a Merle Haggard record, man, they'd jump on that like crazy because he's Merle Haggard or George Jones. And now it's flip-flopped."
But he still has some hits.
Parnell says there wasn't much problem picking the 12 songs for the disc. "Most of the songs that were hits were obvious things that should be on there, that people would expect to be on there," he says. "With 'John the Revelator,' I put that song on there because it was very important to me. I believe it was the best piece of work that I've ever done. It was the most impromptu, off-the-cuff, magical moment I've ever experienced in a studio. Ever."
""I didn't intend to cut that song that day," he says of the song from a gospel album, "Peace in the Valley: A Country Music Journey Through Gospel"
"I was doing a little thing with Flaco (Jimenez)," he says. "We had maybe 30 minutes left on the studio (clock). We could have walked. Our job was done for the day. I was sitting down, and I had my old Nashville steel body guitar. I just pulled it out. I'd been thinking about the song for a long time. From the first time I heard Son House do it, it really touched me. I mean deeply. Like music is supposed to."
"I just began to run it down by myself. "It was obvious to me and it was obvious to Bill Halverson who was producing the record, that there was something going on. It was one of those magical moments. I stopped about half way through the first verse, and I said, 'you better run tape.' He said, "It's rolling.'"
The other musicians joined the song as it progressed. "They were running to get to their instruments because it was rolling. There were no second takes. There was none of that."
One week later, Parnell brought in the Fairfield Four to record backing vocals because he thought the song was missing something. "One thing I thought it deserved was those voices,"he says. "I could just hear those voices on that record."