Lee Roy Parnell: not your flavor of the month

Jeffrey B. Remz, June 1997

The fact that Lee Roy Parnell isn't part of the flavor-of-the-month country club was foreshadowed when he was a senior in high school in his native west Texas.

Two weeks before getting his sheepskin, Parnell decided to call it quits.

"You have to understand. I grew up in rural Texas. It was tough," he says with a laugh during an interview from Nashville. "If you let your hair grow down below your collar, they sent you home. A lot of people didn't think I'd amount to anything. Being Scot-Irish, the worst thing you can ever do to me is tell me no. That's just an invitation enough for me to make sure it gets done. It was a rebellious thing."

He may not be quite as much of a rebel these days, but Parnell, 40, does country music his way.

And that means a combo of blues and country with healthy doses of honky tonk thrown in. Of course, Parnell lets his slide guitar - one of the most distinctive instruments in country today - do the talking too.

Parnell's country isn't the manufactured sound seemingly omnipresent in pop-oriented country these days where the emphasis is on scoring hits.

On Parnell's new disc, "Every Night's a Saturday Night," out June 17, he continues to follow his own musical instincts.

"I wanted to get a sound similar to what we have live on tape," Parnell says.

"One of the things that I've always gotten from my fans was 'I love your albums, I buy your albums, but seeing you live is so much more exciting. I kept thinking, 'what are we missing in the studio? What are we doing or not doing in the studio that's removing that element of excitement?'"

Parnell says he thinks the record is successful in capturing the live feel. "Most of the songs were done on the first take or the second take. It just didn't take very long to get that done. We recorded the whole thing in about four days...Mixing was all done in four days. If you notice, there's very little processing on that record of any kind...It's just as dry as an Al Green record. It's right in your face."

"All the records that I tend to live with and listen to over time have had that feel, not some canned record," he says. "Bob (Wills, the father of Texas swing and a family friend) called it canned music too."

Like his previous four albums, "Every Night's..." musically diverse.

"When I go to make a record, I really try to make an album," says Parnell. "I don't try to make a record that has four hit singles and a bunch of filler on it. It needs to make sense to me from the top of bottom. There should be a specific mood to the middle. Somehow it has to take you on a musical journey, forget about what you're dealing with or whatever or help you with whatever you're dealing with by ensuring some sort of positive (message)."

"It's about real life, and real life is never rosy, but there is always hope if you look for it in the right place," Parnell says. "That's what I strived to do lyrically with it. Musically, I tried to make it feel good, make it fun to listen to."

"It's often said music is just medicine, it's nourishment for the soul," Parnell says.

Optimism runs throughout the album. A few album titles - "One Foot in Front of the Other" and the first single "Lucky Me, Lucky You" - demonstrate that.

Parnell had a hand in writing half of the 10 songs, including a few with well known writers Gary Nicholson and Bob McDill. The entire band wrote the closing instrumental "Mama, Screw Your Wig on Tight," a lively burner they do in sound check.

Perhaps the most touching song is "All That Matters Anymore," penned with Nicholson. The song talks of chasing after money and what it can buy, but "the more I had the less I was satisfied." Parnell then sings of having "seen my children grow away from me/Knowing I was not the best dad that I could be."

While depressive sounding, Parnell grows optimistic: "I've almost found the peace I'm longing for/Taking comfort in your sweet love."

Parnell describes the song as "probably the most autobiographical song I've ever written and probably hits home more than anything I've ever released. I know this has hit home with a lot of people. We've been playing it on the road. There are a lot of fellows out there who don't have a dry eye."

"I always have a yearning in my heart and a constant need to be with my children. But I can't because I'm on the road so much," says Parnell who has a son, Blake, 16, and daughter, Allison, 12. "That was the center piece in that song...You find out that (with) money or fame or whatever it is that you're apt to get in life, if it ain't about love, family, fulfillment of the soul, then it's a waste of time. We have to have enough money to live on, but anything past that is greed."

Parnell definitely is not of the country musician variety who craves the riches of life. "These guys (may have) all the money, but they got no life," he says. "The yacht does not impress me in the least. The big car, the big house doesn't impress me because I've seen those unhappy son of a guns. I don't care to be one."

"If this thing was about money, I'd have quit a long time ago," he says.

"I just don't think that any of us are going to be on our death beds and say 'I wish I made another dollar,'" Parnell says.

Not that Parnell is rolling in riches. Born in Abilene, Tex., he grew up in the Stephenville area on his parents' ranch in west Texas.

And it was ranching that led Parnell to his career. On the first Friday of every month, all ranchers met to play music together. The men brought fiddles and guitars, while the women hauled covered dishes. Sometimes the women sang.

"The kids would play outside, except for me. I stayed glued. I loved every minute of it. Music was all around us when we were kids."

Parnell's father was friends with a neighbor, Bob Wills. The pair ran away from home in their youths and worked for a travelling medicine show, doing blackface comedy and singing country oriented tunes.

Parnell made his first appearance on any sort of regional level at six when he sang on a radio program featuring Wills. "I was there, and he called me up, and I did an impromptu version of 'San Antonio Rose.' We found the tape just this year."

An attempt was made to clean it up. "It had been recorded off a little radio in mono and baked in the Texas sun for about 30 years, and it was just about gone. We kept most of it."

Parnell hopes at least snippets will be used in a Bob Wills tribute album, which may be recorded this winter.

Parnell continued playing music, and at 14, he started gigging at dances with his mother driving him. He quickly decided music was his life.

He was influenced by the likes of slide guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. While still in his teens, Parnell did a short stint with Kinky Friedman as a member of the Texas Jewboys.

He went to Nashville in the early '70's for about 18 months to check out the scene, but returned to Texas where he played music full time. He also tried his luck in Los Angeles, but that didn't work out.

Parnell hung out in Texas for about 10 years before returning to Nashville.

Country had changed over the period away from the pop sound to the new traditionalist movement with musicians like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett getting record deals.

Weighing several offers, Parnell inked with Arista where he developed a close relationship with label head Tim Dubois. His debut came out in 1991, yielding several mid-level chart singles.

"I feel like I'm a lucky son of a gun because just about anybody else would have dropped me after that first album," Parnell says. "It stiffed."

Parnell, who speaks in a laid back style, says, "I have a Moses, and his name was Tim. Tim respected me I think for knowing what I wanted. So many artists walk into this town, and they want to be stars. They don't care. They'll do whatever you want them to be a star. Being a star is nasty product of your job."

"The deal we made was 'you don't make me put out anything I don't want to, and I won't make you cut anything you don't want to," Parnell says. "My records do pay for themselves. They make a little bit of money. They will always do that because the core audience is always going to be there."

Parnell enjoyed more success with his 1992 follow-up "Love Without Mercy" where he rode near the top of the charts with "Tender Moment" and "What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am."

The following year, "On the Road" came out with the title track and "I'm Holding My Own" becoming hits.

Parnell may have gained his greatest exposure through his slide playing on Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Shut Up & Kiss Me." He was featured prominently in the video for the big hit.

Parnell, who has always recorded a chunk of his own songs, co-produced his last disc, "We All Get Lucky Sometimes," a musically diverse, but top-notch effort.

This time around, his backing band, The Hot Links (James Pennebaker on guitar, Stephen Mackey on bass, Kevin McKendree on piano and Lynn Williams on drums), co-produced. "We knew what we wanted. We didn't need anybody else...I take their input too. I could have said I produced the record. The truth of the matter is I took everybody's input. Why be a hog about it?"

One of the hottest songs is Merle Haggard's "Honky Tonk Night Time Man," a song he recorded about 25 years ago.

Haggard and his wife wrote Parnell a letter, sent a tape of the song and said they thought it would be a good song for him to cut.

"I had been doing the song off and on for about three years," Parnell says. "I got to thinking about it - we really ought to cut that song. What you hear is the very first take of the song. The first take was the best. I got to play for Merle. When he gave me the affirmative on it, man, it sure made me feel good."

"It was so gracious of him to extend that offer. This is like a blessing from the pope."

This was not the first time Parnell did Haggard. He collaborated with Steve Wariner and Diamond Rio on "Workingman Blues" on a Hag tribute album.

Parnell, who will escape Nashville for his home state in about six months, doesn't exactly seem fretful about how the new disc will fare.

"My stuff doesn't sound like anything (else)," says Parnell, who despises the soundalike quality of today's newcomers. "I'm hoping that's what will save me. Sooner or later, somebody's going to say enough of the sameness. The originals out there are going to have the only chance to be remembered. We don't remember the second guy. We always remember the individuals who come along and create something."

"I'm sure Fabian sold more records than some of our records, but do we remember Fabian?" Parnell says, adding, "People are getting hungry for some originality."

"We live in the flavor of the month," Parnell says. "It doesn't have to be that way."

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