Parnell stays true to his musical desires

Jeffrey B. Remz, September 1999

What 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."

"I imagine not a lot of people heard it. I wanted the world a chance to hear something I had done that wasn't calculated. It wasn't thought out. It wasn't anything. It was just music, and it happened."

"You put the blindfold on, you play what's in your heart, you roll the tape." People work so hard to get things perfect - what they believe to be perfect. What's necessarily perfect for some people isn't necessarily people for others."

Parnell, who grew up on a ranch as a neighbor of the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills, says he was most surprised about the success of "Heart's Desire."

"I wrote that for fun," Parnell says. "I wrote it for my little girl because they were dancing to this little groove that I had going. Then, it turned out to be the biggest song we've ever had. Just goes to show...if they let you get in the game with something you do naturally and you do it from the heart, you're probably going to win. The problem is getting into game."

"To me, it sounded like a Memphis R&B classic," he says. "It didn't sound like 'Friends in Low Places.' It didn't sound that way. But guess what."

And what song most surprised Parnell in not becoming a hit.

"Back in My Arms Again," which Kenny Chesney cut too. "I felt like that was a hit. There's a song of mine that I think still could be a hit for somebody, 'Night After Night' (from "Love Without Mercy"). I think that's one of the finest pieces I've ever written."

Another surprise was the failure of "Lucky Me, Lucky You." "It really surprised me when it wasn't a hit, but it was in England." Parnell says he has attracted a good following in Europe despite having played a grand total of one show there. None of the songs is on the new album.

Acknowledging his difficulty in getting radio play nowadays, Parnell has turned his attention elsewhere - movies and the blues.

Parnell spent the day of the interview writing a song with Mike Reid for an upcoming Farrelly Brothers movie "Unconditional Love," starring Kathy Bates.

"I'm finding it to be satisfying," says Parnell of soundtrack work. "I don't find the constraints. In the last couple of years, country radio has not left room for guys with edge. If you got an edge, they kind of edged you out."

"I don't think anybody does," Parnell says. "Most of the big stations have been bought up by these consolidated whatever they are. They've got two or three consultants telling them what to play. I find it hard to believe that a guy in San Francisco is going to be able to tell someone in Boston to play (a song)."

'I think it's part of the homogeneousness of America that's going on," he says. "I hate to see that happening."

"With these soundtracks, it's okay if my guitar tracks are two minutes long," Parnell says. "It's okay if I write something that sounds like a Tony Bennett song, and I write something that sounds like a Rolling Stones song. It's okay."

A song Parnell recorded with blues artist Keb Mo' appears on the "Happy, Tex." soundtrack. Julia Roberts' "Undying Love" included "Oughta Be a Law," from his first album. "One Foot in Front of the Other" was on the "Varsity Blues" soundtrack.

Parnell got the bug for soundtrack work after a trip this past March to Havana as part of a cultural exchange to write songs with Cuban musicians. He met a woman who places music in movies and encouraged him to do so.

"I began submitting music to them, spending more time in Los Angeles and less time in Nashville," says Parnell.

"There's a trend going on - those of us being pro-active with our music see a need to stretch out beyond the city limits of Nashville, Tenn.," says Parnell. "Mike (Reid) goes to New York. I've gone to Los Angeles. I've been spending about half my time out there."

As for the blues, Parnell plans on that becoming a more active part of his music. He always has maintained a bluesy edge to his country, made all the more obvious given his fluid slide guitar playing, probably one of the most recognizable sounds in country.

"The next Lee Roy Parnell record I make will be more blues based," he says. "I don't know that I'm going to come right out and make a blues record, but that side of me will be much more prevalent of me in the future. Much more prevalent."

"I've always had the reigns on me to fit into country radio. Now they don't seem to want to play me, it doesn't seem to do any good to fit in their little format. It's a big world out there. To tell you the truth, I'm sort of glad that this has all come down the way it has because it's freed me up to let me do other things I've always wanted to do."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •