Parnell needs no luck this time

Jeffrey B. Remz, November 1995

Lee Roy Parnell did not take the easy way out this time around.

And who knows? Maybe it worked to his benefit, at least based on the success he has enjoyed thus far from his latest release, "We All Get Lucky Sometimes."

The easy way would have been to keep within limited musical confines, not challenging the listener too much.

Another easy route would have been to utilize the usual assortment of Nashville session musicians to record the disc as he has done in the past.

But the Texan did no such things on his fourth disc.

The disc starts with his big hit, "A Little B it of You," a mid-tempo song before going into the honky tonk rough-and-ready stylings of "Knock Yourself Out, the soulful "Heart's Desire,"recalling Bonnie Raitt, and current single "When A Woman Loves A Man," a touching ballad with Trisha Yearwood providing backing vocals.

Parnell's trademark slide guitar playing is evident, but he does not abuse his immense talents.

And that ain't all given the inclusion of the barnburner "If the House Is Rockin'" with hot harmonica licks from brother Rob Roy Parnell and the spiritual, emotional "Saved By The Grace Of Your Love."

Parnell said the musical divergence did not concern him one bit. "I don't think I ever thought about it really,"he said. "I think it just kind of happened."

With an eye towards the current state of music making, Parnell indicated he had a different concept in mind than producing a hit or two off an otherwise throwaway disc.

"I wanted to find 10 or 12 songs that would create an album," said. "Take someone through. So many times these days, people make records that got 10 songs, but they're not albums. People in the '70's used to make records. You bought an album of songs. Most of them fit together with a theme. It took you on a trip...I've always tried to do that."

What holds the album together is the artist, according to Parnell. "The common thread was me,"he said. "It didn't concern me. I didn't really hear anything back from either critics or consumers saying, ' wow, it sure seemed like maybe you didn't have anything in mind when you did it.' It really felt cohesive to me. It felt like it all came together. But then again, our live show is like everywhere. We do everything from Merle Haggard stuff to, hell, you never know. We'll put out an Allman Brothers thing or a Rolling Stones thing."

Parnell said his favorite cut was "Saved By the Grace Of Your Love," co-written with Mike Reid. The quiet, tender vocals of Parnell are about a person's love for God in what almost amounts to a confessional. "I think it feels right," he said. "The lyrics are probably the best lyrics I've probably ever had. I just love the feel of that song. I'm just proud of that song as anything I've ever had."

"It wasn't hard to write, but it took a long time to write," he said, adding, "We spent a lot of time philosophizing between lines, and we dug very deep to write that song. It didn't come overnight. There were a lot of overnight hours put into that song. It wasn't hard because it was telling the truth."

"It's really a song about God's love, and it's the perfect love," Parnell said. "This applies to the relationship between a man and a woman, you see. If a man and a woman could somehow connect the way that God intends for that love to be, then it would be the perfect love."

The Neville Brothers will cut the song on their next album.

In yet another musical departure, the closing track is an instrumental, "Cat Walk," co-written with Flaco Jimenez, a huge figure on the Tejano music scene. Instrumentals are a rarity among country albums save for Mark O'Connor, of course. The track was originally recorded for Jimenez' album. "Flaco and I are old friends from Texas," Parnell said. There was no thought about putting it on his own disc until people at his record label, Arista, wondered about doing so.

Now for the musicians. The aptly named Hot Links, Parnell's backing band, provide the musical chops. That's rare on Nashville-made albums where the Paul Franklins and Matt Rollins of the world dominate.

In fact, about the only other artist recording with his back-up band is Dwight Yoakam.
The usual reason given for employing the usual suspects is that they get it right quickly saving time in the studio.

Parnell said he thought using the Hot Links - a name coined by former football great Earl Campbell when he went on Parnell's tour bus once for a visit - made a big difference.
Parnell said Arista, in effect, needed to sign off on the deal. "It took the record company having talks with us. I'm an artist that has always kind of been hands on when it comes to producing my records. Even when we could use studio musicians, I'd select the studio musicians that we would use."

Parnell said he had building to this moment for awhile in his search for just the right band. "My dream was to build a band we could record with and a band we could tour with. I come from kind of an old school of thought. I'm a band guy. I just enjoy being part of a band. I think over the years, I've won Tim's (label head DuBois) confidence, and the proof's in the pudding. "

The Hot Links include James Pennebaker on guitar, Lynn Williams on drums, Stephen Mackey on bass and Kevin McKendree on piano. Former Links Reese Wynans also played organ.

Prior to actually recording the formal album, Parnell et al holed up to record eight tracks. "It knocked everybody out," he said. "Here's your next record."

"We went from there," he said. "Everybody said 'we don't touch this.'"
The record definitely has a live feel to it. "Most of the time, we would take the first, second, in some cases, the third take," Parnell said. "You run into trouble when you start trying to get it too perfect. Then, it's all uninspired. Once you played through 15 times, it's like...'can we go onto something else now?'"

While the basic content has remained the same over the years, Parnell is singing with more confidence. "The longer you do something, the more confident you become," he said, adding, "It's just being acclimated to being in the studio and not being afraid, let it all hang out."

It has taken Parnell, who is 39 in December, a long time to reach his current status. Like seemingly many country musicians, music was in his blood from the start. He grew up in Stephenville, Texas.

Bob Wills was a neighbor and family friend. At six, Parnell performed with Wills on a radio show. Wills and his Texas Playboys often came by the Parnell ranch for a visit.
On the new disc, in fact, the fiddle used by Wills was played by Pennebaker on "A Little Bit of You." During the rest of the recording, the fiddle was kept in view, sort of as a shrine.

As a youth in the '60's, Parnell was turned on by The Beatles, for awhile anyway.

That was until he became a blues fanatic. "The first time I heard BB King, I put all my Beatles records in the trash," he said. "It was over. Forget that. It's like I didn't like no looking back."

Even when he was young, Parnell had no illusions about what he wanted to do. "I never had another thought of anything but this," he said. "There was never a question. By the time I was 14, I was playing dances. My mother would drive us to dances."

The band changed names a number of times, but "mostly it was just Lee Roy & Them."

A key influence growing up was the late Duane Allman, who apparently steered Parnell to the slide. "It was a feel thing," he said. "The first time, I heard (the Allman Brothers Band Live) At the Fillmore East, (I thought) oh my God, he's doing something with his guitar, and I don't know what he's doing. I went on this crusade for next 20 years trying to figure out how the hell he did it. I'm still trying to learn. It's strange, 38 year old and I feel like a baby boy."

Parnell did a stint with the eccentric Kinky Friedman as one of his Texas Jewboys (you didn't have to be Jewish to be a Texas Jewboy).

In the early 1970's, Parnell trekked to Nashville to check out the scene. He didn't stay too long - about 18 months. "I was just drinking beer and trying to play guitar in bars," he said. "I was looking (and) wanted a record deal, but for all wrong reasons. I didn't develop I until I was in Austin."

And that's where he went back to from Nashville. The Texas musical mecca was what Parnell referred to as his "proving ground."

He played music full time, "if you call $35 a night making a living. We were poor. We were broke, but everybody was."

He played the clubs for another 10 years before heading up north once again to Nashville. "It was time to bring the apples to the market," he said. "I had developed myself to some extent."

"The climate in Nashville was much different at that point," he said referring to the revival of a more traditional sound. "Steve Earle was being signed. Lyle Lovett was being signed. (Parnell's cousin) Nanci Griffith. Robert Earl Keen was here. The climate was good for Texas singer/songwriters. It was opened up, of course, The path had been paved by Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark. So, it looked like the right place to me."

Parnell received several record offers, but had developed a relationship with Dubois. "Tim was the only (person) I felt would allow me to do whatever it was I needed to do," he said. "Make the mistakes."

His self-titled debut in 1990 yielded several mid-charting singles including "Crocodile Tears" and "Oughta Be a Law." Even then, Parnell did most of the writing, helping write 7 of the 10 songs.

The follow-up, disc "Love Without Mercy" found Parnell near the top of the charts with "What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am" and "Tender Moment."

His career was headed on the right track with"On the Road" with a few more hits: the title track and "I'm Holding My Own."

During this period, Parnell received a huge career boost from Mary-Chapin Carpenter. Parnell lent his slide guitar and good looks to the video for "Shut Up & Kiss Me." His face was plastered all over television. Carpenter returned the favor on "We All Get Lucky Sometimes," singing backing vocals on the title track.

When asked about the effect of the cameo, Parnell said, "Big. I think it was big. It was the nicest thing. She's been good to me."

Parnell also aided himself by writing "That's My Story," which didn't fit with his disc, but became a big hit for Collin Raye.

While different from much of what's going on around him in Nashville, Parnell indicated the timing may have been just right. "It's a funny climate out there right now," he said. "I will put it this way. If I was sitting in Austin now and the climate looked the way it did, I probably wouldn't come. It's going to change, but right now the emphasis is not necessarily on the singer/songwriter as you know if you're watching at all. There's always a cycle, and it will pass. What's happening right now will pass. There's some good music out there now. Don't get me wrong. Especially our female artists - Trisha, Chapin, Martina McBride. These people are making great records."

"I'm a musician," he said. "I'm a writer. I've never been into this thing for the money. I don't give a damn about flavor of the month, trends. I don't give a damn about any of that. I just love playing music."

"What else am I going to do?" Parnell said.

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