Lee Roy Parnell goes back to the well

Holly Gleason, May 2006

Lee Roy Parnell's voice is a little tired. He's just in from a two-week sweep on the road, re-adjusting to the timing of home life in Nashville, and he's caught in the catch-up mode of two very different internal clocks not quite syncing.

Still, Parnell - a true Texas roadhouse texture as versed in the stinging blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan as the swirling swing of dear family friend Bob Wills - has a voice that blankets songs and emotions with an ease that comes from living, not forcing the moments he's inhabited.

With his new "Back To The Well" CD, the sandy-haired guitarist takes the sum of that life he's lived so fully and brings it to the songs he's collected for the project.

"You know, I'd gone down every path I needed to go down," confesses the singer/songwriter. "Every song we wrote for this one was deeper...it came from the deepest places."

"I wasn't trying to make a record, either, so I tricked myself...I wasn't trying to hit a home run, where you roll up your sleeves, and it's all about the hits. 'Breaking The Chain,' 'Back To The Well' - those are from very very real places."

"After all these years, you realize: this is forever. So these songs...these were messages, letters to the people I'd want to leave 'em, too. All these songs went to someone - so that I know they'd know."

One of the earmarks of Parnell's singing was always his ability to weave a spell of intimacy and vulnerability over even the most rough-hewn beats.

Whether it was the crack through the resolve of former Amazing Rhythm Ace Russell Smith's "The Rock," the searing passion of "Love Without Mercy" or his own pride and freedom manifesto "On The Road" that felt like a bit like John Steinbeck in Springsteen's back 40, the expatriated Texan - to borrow from his own title - had a true gift for "Holding My Own."

And so it was that in the early '90s, when Alan Jackson, Clint Black and George Strait were making croon-centric traditionalism the earmark of mainstream country, the now 46-year-old songwriter figured out how to turn up the soul, bring the raw and burning guitars and use his juke joint credentials to make room for a whole other kind of country.

It was funky. It was rugged. It packed the kind of emotional wallop that made Merle Haggard's dry-eyed sentimentality so potent - and even when it was conjured to cohere to mainstream radio, some of Parnell's Texas ardor shone through,"What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)," "Tender Moment," "Heart's Desire," "Take These Chains (From My Heart)," which featured Okie/Texas vocal scorcher Ronnie Dunn in a rare duet, and "She Won't Be Lonely for Long" populated the dial, but Parnell yearned for something a bit tougher, more real.

When his tenure with Arista Nashville came to an end - Tim DuBois had been lured from the label and New York chairman Clive Davis moved on - the winds of change blew cold.

"I found out - like a lot of the acts that were right around the margins, acts like me and BR-549 - that I was dropped from the newspaper. Literally. A friend of mine called me up and said, 'Have you seen The Tennessean?' I told him I hadn't - and he's like you better get the paper."

Still with the journeyman's mettle, Parnell - who didn't move to Nashville until 30, and then only at the urging of his cousin Robert Earl Keen and good friend Lyle Lovett to pursue songwriting as a way to get closer to the music business - punched through the confusion, disappointment and most likely hurt to recognize the opportunity he was being presented.

"When that whole era ended, I knew exactly where I was headed," confesses the man who's had songs recorded by Patty Loveless, Delbert McClinton, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. "And I think it's what makes Texas musicians so hard to pigeon hole, too..."

"You know, I don't even try to explain it any more. When people ask me, 'Well, what kind of music do you play?' I just smile and tell 'em 'Listen to it, and if you can figure it out...You tell me!' Because in Texas, especially playing out live, you have to be able to play so many things: blues and rock and Western swing, honky tonk and country - and you have to treat them all right, too."

"So, it really teaches you about songs and styles. It really gets you inside the music."

Inside the music for Parnell - who went to Muscle Shoals with Nashville songwriter/blues denizen Gary Nicholson to record "Tell The Truth" - meant reacquainting himself with soul, Southern rock and a deeper kind of rhythm & blues.

Always an incendiary guitarist, the lyrical voice of his playing began to truly develop into a voice of its own. 'In getting let go, Parnell also got set free - and it sent him on a journey to places he'd not been since he was banging around the beer joints of Texas and later living in New York and serving his time as one of Kinky Friedman's Texas Jewboys. If it was a vast horizon, it was also a thrill ride through what so many would regard as utter devastation.

Laughing, Parnell admits that while he knew the music would bring him, the shift also came with its own slippery slope of trepidation.

As he explains, "We borrowed money against the house to keep going until things turned around...I come from a ranching family, and if you don't get rain come the first of the year, you're going back to the bank - so you understand those cycles."

"It's just when you lose a record deal, suddenly it gets really hard to get booking agents on the phone...your publishing deal kinda evaporates for some people 'cause it's based on putting records out...Everything just closes in on itself."

"I got lucky, though, 'cause when I was going through that rough patch - and it was - Willie (Nelson, who is Yoda) gave me some really wise advice. I was up on his bus, and he looks me in the eye - way deep in my eye - and he says, 'You'll be surprised how quick you become a living legend instead of a has been. But you can't quit 'cause you won't get there then...'""I don't know about the legend part, but he sure was right about the quittin'. That's the gift: you can't see it any more...you're just going on instinct and survival - and those things will carry you to where you need to be."

For Parnell, it was clarity, songwriting and heroes that turned out to be friends. Having been ignited by the sound of Duane Allman's slide guitar, it wasn't long before the soft-spoken musician/writer was going to the source of his inspiration.

First making friends with Dickie Betts, who invited Parnell onstage at Detroit's Pine Knob, then getting to know all of the Allman Brothers - including stints sitting in with the legendary Southern band that fuses jazz and blues, rock and gospel underpinnings during their legendary runs at New York's Beacon Theater, it was a spark that carried over to a world without rules.

The Allmans friendship led to a kinship with Warren Haynes, the reflective hub of Government Mule - and out of those impromptu stages shared, the seeds for Parnell's deal at Universal South were sown.

For it was after marketing head Van Fletcher saw Parnell jamming with his friends on several occasions, he approached former Arista head Tim DuBois about signing his former artist.

"I wasn't looking for a deal," Parnell admits with a laugh. "And when I got the call - because we'd been living on the songwriting, during all of this, always, it was the writing that kept us fed - I figured they've got a good roster...there's probably a song or two they want a lyric change to. You know, something sensitive like that..."

They wanted songs alright - and the guy singing them. But Parnell, who'd made five albums in the confines of the Nashville record business, knew that he couldn't do what he'd done before. He explained that he'd be happy to make a record, but it would need to done on his terms, and it wouldn't be something that was designed to be worked in the traditional country radio mode.

DuBois, Fletcher and artist development head Susan Levy were in agreement. What they wanted was Parnell, heart and soul.

Re-teaming with producer John Kunz, who'd engineered his Arista releases and co-produced "Tell The Truth," Parnell scraped his soul wide open, threw the doors and windows of his life up and let go of any sense of reservation about how far to go.

"Old Soul," a song about the sacrifice a mother makes - with joy - for her children, resonates with love and wisdom, while "Daddys & Daughters" offers his own Allison a mirror into how strong his bond to his only girl is.

"Something Out of Nothing" is a devotion of gratitude to a woman who saw what was inside the man who'd lost his own sense of self, as is the redemptive "Saving Grace."

"As writers, as artists, I think we spend the first half of our lives growing skin in layers, like an onion," he offers of his creative process. "You obtain and grow them, keep adding and learning... and then, you spend the second half of your life pulling 'em away."

"I've been trying to (stand naked) for years," Parnell continues looking for the words. "I like things organic, simple, deep. To me, that's where the soul is. I mean, there are no secrets between Gary (Nicholson) and I - or Tony (Arata, best known for penning "The Dance")."

"As you get older, different things are revealed to you about what you want to accomplish - and you start to realize: songs are forever. Songs are your legacy...those are the things that will stand long after you're gone."

"In all of that, it's pretty simple: if it touches me and is real - I'm a pretty common fella - then it's a pretty good shot, it'll touch somebody else, too. In the end, we're all pretty much the same, you know...and the way we feel is pretty much the same, too."

"So if I can touch you, tell the truth about what I'm feeling... and you've felt it, too, then we're connecting. That's the thing, really...connecting. So, what if you cry? Maybe that's just what you need to do - and if we can do that together, then we've done something."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com