Lee Roy Parnell's new album "Tell The Truth" represents a giant career change. After a run of big country radio hits from 1992-1996, Parnell found that the format no longer welcomed him.
So, he's moved to a small label (Vanguard) and recorded a blues album. People who know Parnell only from his hit singles may consider that a huge musical leap as well. People who've actually heard Parnell's previous albums realize it's more of a small jump.
Now Parnell's got to overcome that pesky perception of him as "Hot New Country star" while also hanging on to some of the fans he developed through his hits.
"That was my greatest fear. How would I get people to know the truth about my music. When I played at the Handy Awards (an annual award show for blues), I realized my fears were unfounded. The reaction was very positive."
Parnell is a slide guitar whiz who has always had a blues side. His first Arista album - which landed no big hits - wasn't all that different in style from his new one. It was produced by Barry Beckett, who has also produced Delbert McClinton. McClinton, who sings a duet with Parnell on his new album, and also did one on his second album in 1992, is a very comparable artist to Parnell's overall musical blend.
Interestingly, moving to Vanguard isn't such a big move either. The label is owned by Welk Music, the publishing company which Parnell signed with in the late '80's (although they did not own Vanguard or sister label Sugar Hill at that time.)
"It's a terrific label to be associated with because of the caliber of artists they sign. They don't throw things against the wall to see what sticks. They look at the long range plan and stick with the project."
Parnell points out that most of his Arista albums are out of print now that he's no longer turning out hits for them, which wouldn't happen at a smaller label like Vanguard.
Not that Parnell is negative about his time at Arista, which for years was one of the best labels in Nashville. "I was lucky to be with Tim DuBois because he was such a great label boss. And Clive (Davis) too. When they left, it was time for me to go too. Going to Vanguard was like closing a chapter and starting to write a new one."
Parnell found the move to a small label somewhat liberating.
"This record was the most fun, even though we worked harder than on any other record. 'Hits' was never even brought up. There's some songs on here that are 7-1/2 minutes long. I've always been a fan of stream-of-consciousness in music. I like to paint outside the lines and let the players work in a more freeform style. I think that comes from being around Western Swing as a kid."
The Texan acknowledges that the album isn't as removed from his past as some might perceive. "If there had been a huge difference, it would be like saying everything I did in the past was null and void, that it wasn't honest. It's a natural growth pattern. It's just that this record has total abandon. It's very spontaneous. Solos were done live. A lot of vocals were kept live, with bleed. I don't think you can create that same kind of feel in a sterile studio environment."
The early part of Parnell's career is laced with ironies. After an abortive stint in Nashville in the '70's, he returned for good in 1987 at the urging of his cousin, Robert Earl Keen, who said Nashville had really opened up musically.
Keen soon retreated to Texas, where he has carved out a pretty large niche for himself, while Parnell's success at country radio came long after most of the idiosyncratic success stories of the '80's like Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle had been given the boot by the format.
Parnell jokes that if he ever writes an autobiography, it might be called 'I Was A Teenage Jewboy.' Indeed he was, hooking up with Kinky Friedman's band in the 1970's. But in another irony, the two Texans got together while both were living in New York City.
"I was 18 and wanted to get as far away from west Texas as I could, so I went to New York green as I could be. I got linked up with a guy who was a talent agent for William Morris, I was doing more of a blues rock thing at the time. I had big plans for me. The guy asked if I was willing to take a guitar gig to tide me over for a while. I knew Kinky - I had seen him play in Texas - but he didn't know me. We met in Chinatown for lunch, and he hired me. I toured with him for a year based out of NYC. We had a regular Sunday night gig at the Lone Star when just about anybody would show up. (Kinky's) book 'Musical Chairs' talks about a lot of those people."
Although Friedman has a reputation as difficult, Parnell says "We've stayed pals all these years. I loved his sense of humor. He can come off as incredibly irreverent, but when I lost my folks, he was the first one to call me."
Parnell's desire for a music career goes back to his early childhood. "I got the fever at a young age. I grew up in west Texas on a ranch. There was an old abandoned schoolhouse in the middle of all these ranches, and the ranchers kept it up to have a musical get-together once a month. It was like the old ranchhouse parties of the Bob Wills era. We couldn't get television out there. It was the end of an era when people relied on their talent for entertainment."
Parnell had a musical background. "My father and Bob Wills had grown up together. They ran off and joined a medicine show together. So, I learned those songs early on. (My father) had an old guitar I could barely get my arms around to get the chords. When Bob came back from California, he had a Saturday afternoon radio show from Fort Worth. We used to go and watch. When I was six, Bob called me up to sing one day. I knew most of his songs."
His path was set from that point. "I never wanted to be anything else. I wasn't real involved in my high school years. I spent a lot of time skipping out and playing guitar at a friend's house. It was all I was good at. It gave me confidence."
He was still in high school when he heard a record that sent him in a new musical direction.
"'The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East' totally turned my head around. I was playing all kinds of different music at that time searching for where I belonged. I was intensely interested in (blues guitarist) Freddy King. We could see him play almost every weekend. But when I heard (The Allman Brothers') 'Statesboro Blues' - I had never heard anything like it. I started a pilgrimage to squeeze notes out the way Duane did. (The slide guitar) came easier for me than the finger leads. I was a natural at it. The slide's a tricky instrument because you're not dealing with frets. It's much like the violin, which can be the most beautiful thing or the worst damn thing you've ever heard. It took a couple of years, but by 1974, when I recorded in Muscle Shoals, I was playing slide."
"Tell The Truth" brings Parnell's career around full circle. He recorded it back in Muscle Shoals and was reunited with one of the same musicians, Jack Pearson. Back in the early '70's, "we did a pickup date in Murfeesboro, Tenn. A kid walked in with a guitar case and asked if he could sit in. He started blasting out incredible guitar licks. He obviously had the gift. He was with us for a couple years. He went on to The Allman Brothers after Warren Haynes left. He developed tinnitus from the sheer volume they were playing at, and he just couldn't take it any more. We partnered up for the first time in all these many years and wrote 'Takes What It Takes.' That's the seven-minute jazz thing (on the new album). He plays the closing solo. After all these years, we're back to playing music together."
The new album also gave Parnell a chance to record a duet with Bonnie Bramlett, whom he considers to be "along with Aretha, the Queen of Soul," and work again with blues artist Keb' Mo', whose music Parnell is "crazy about."
And there's another duet with McClinton. "He's 60 and has as much energy as ever. We played together recently. It was just like when I used to go see him in Austin. I've known him since before I left for New York. There was a club in Fort Worth called The Hop where he used to play. It held about 75 people. He successfully held together country, blues and rock in a way that made perfect sense to me. It was all the great elements stirred into one big pot, and it seemed just right."
Parnell has written hits for country artists as diverse as Pirates Of The Mississippi and Collin Raye, as well as most of his own. He's played on hits by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Trisha Yearwood.
But between writing and playing music. "I can't separate. It's all one voice. I write songs because I seem to be the only one who knows what's in my heart to say. That gives me a framework to play guitar, which is still my true passion."
His mutual abandonment by and of country radio doesn't bother him. "I never thought in terms of hits. I just wanted to play music for a living. If I was going to do it to make money, I would have chosen something else. I do it for the love of it."
"At the end of the Arista days, my candle was not so bright. I wanted to grow and needed more space. Today I have that space. It's like being a kid again. As long as I'm growing, I tend to be inspired and happy."