About Lee Roy Parnell
Lee Roy Parnell’s new studio album, Back To The Well, was released in March 2006. A very personal work, this record finds Parnell back to his West Texas roots in blue-eyed soul. Back To The Well is a collection of songs with soulful depth…songs Parnell wrote about family, mature relationships, redemption, reflection, values and priorities. The bluesy collection is fueled by Lee Roy’s powerful, emotional vocal attack, which in turn is bolstered by his instrumental voice, the wailing slide guitar. Truly, this record reflects the artist Parnell has always been. Parnell plans to tour extensively in support of Back To The Well.
Born on December 21, 1956, and raised on a ranch in Stephenville, TX, Lee Roy was steeped in two factors which would have a deep and adiding influence on everything he would ever do – music and hard work. Early on, much of the music came literally at the knee of “Uncle Bob” Wills, who would regale young Lee Roy with tunes and tales and records from his collection on the boy’s visits to Wills’ neighboring ranch. The work ethic was all around him, instilled by the county’s no-nonsense populace of German and Irish immigrant stock. One took pride in work done well, but to revel in it was vain and a waste of time. There was, after all, always more to do….
Lee Roy got his singing debut with “Uncle Bob” at the age of 7 on a Fort Worth radio station. By the age of 14, he was playing in clubs, and in his later teens was a member of Kinky Friedman’s Texas Jewboys. By then he’d become a dedicated student of a number of musical styles. Western swing was almost a birthright due to the family relationship with Wills, but Lee Roy also immersed himself in the history of other styles, most notably country and blues.
“Blues music touched me from the first moment I heard it. It overshadowed everything else somehow. Then I heard the Allman Brothers, and I couldn’t believe it – here were six guys from the South infusing jazz, country and blues, all the same elements I’d grown up with, but they were playing it in a rock and roll way.
Duane Allman’s guitar work had a profound effect on Lee Roy, inspiring him to concentrate on slide playing. He was equally entralled by Merle Haggard’s writing and singing, and borrowed elements from each. By the time Lee Roy moved to Austin in 1977, his vocal, instrumental, and compositional styles were well formed. He spent time playing with Texas legends Joe Ely and Delbert McClinton, and also worked the clubs in Austin and Houston.
“I was an Austin writer, singer, and guitar player for ten years, making $25.00 a night. I could probably still be doing the same thing, either there or in some other place. The scary part is that if things hadn’t worked out in Nashville, I would still be in that situation, because music isn’t something I ever really had a choice about.”
“Back in Nashville, all of these creative people had started showing up, like Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, and Steve Earle. It looked like what I did might have a chance to be heard, so I came here. That was in 1987, and I guess I’d have to say that things have worked out pretty well.”
Things certainly have worked out well in Nashville. Within six months of his arrival with friend Cris Moore, Lee Roy had a publishing deal with Polygram, and was a regular artist at the Bluebird Cafe. Eventually he became the second artist to sign with Arista’s new Nashville division. (Alan Jackson was the first)
He says he has enjoyed his relationship with Tim Dubois, the head of Arista Nashville, because “Tim was the only person who would let me do what I wanted to do”. His first CD, “Lee Roy Parnell”, was released in 1990 and praised by critics but failed to catch on with radio.
Two years later came “Love Without Mercy” and it yielded three top five songs, including the self-penned number one “Tender Moment”. “On the Road” was released in late 1993, and it yielded three more top 10 songs. At the same time he was building his recording career, other Nashville artists called on Parnell to spice up their own tracks. His slide solos can be heard on songs by Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Delbert McClinton, and others. He also found success as a songwriter, with over 145 songs published to date, and “That’s My Story” was a number one hit for Collin Raye. Lee Roy’s reputation as an “artist’s artist” grew with each album he recorded. In 1994, he approached Tim Dubois with the idea to have his road band, the Hot Links, play on his albums, because he wanted to capture the live feel of his shows on an album. At the same time, Arista was creating a new spinoff label, Career Records, and Tim Dubois chose to make Lee Roy the flagship artist.
1995’s “We All Get Lucky Sometimes” yielded two number one singles, “A Little Bit Of You,” and “Heart’s Desire,” which was co-written by Lee Roy with friend Cris Moore. That success further secured his place as one of the industry’s most highly-regarded performers, respected not only for his singular talents, but also for his unwavering musical integrity.
After all the hits and critical acclaim, it came time for a greatest hits package in 1998. And while it’s not uncommon for artists to piggyback one or two “upcoming hits” on a “best of” package, for Lee Roy it just had to be done. His music is rooted in the work of many past masters, to be sure, but Parnell has one foot anchored firmly in the here-and-now and the other itching to step on ahead. Newly discovered influences, a constant flood of new ideas, and the urgency brought by time’s passing keep Lee Roy’s eyes fixed on the horizon.
When I get through recording a record,” Parnell confesses, “I’m done with it–that’s usually the last I hear of it; I’m on to the next thing. When you feel the clock ticking, you realize there’s so much more that you want to do.”
Thus, the “Highways Ahead” portion of the greatest hits package. The nine soulful, heart-rending chart hits speak eloquently for themselves, but the new arrivals–“She Won’t Be Lonely Long” and “Long Way To Fall”–amply display an artist who’s moving ahead with his foot pressed tight to the floorboard.
To finish the new tracks, Parnell needed to escape the pressing demands of Nashville, eventually finding solace in Jackson Browne’s Santa Monica studio. “It has all this great old tube gear,” raves Lee Roy, “and I’m still a purist when it comes to recording. It was great. Jackson was there every day, along with some musicians I had always wanted to work with.”
Little Feat’s Fred Tackett added his six-string wizardry to that of longtime Parnell pal James Pennebaker and Lee Roy’s chilling slide, and legendary drummer Jim Keltner was on hand to thump the tubs. Serendipity likewise played a part, as Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young were secretly recording a reunion record in an adjacent studio. “They would come in the studio,” recalls Parnell, “and Graham helped with some vocal arrangements. We stretched a little bit vocally on ‘Long Way to Fall,’ and a lot of that had to do with Graham.”
It shows. Written by Lee Roy friend/collaborator Gary Nicholson, “Long Way To Fall,” is quintessential Parnell. An aching country ballad at its center, it adds a swirling organ, a tasty country-rock guitar figure and soaring, high-as-the-western-sky harmonies to create a unique blend that’s at once fresh and comfy as your favorite flannel shirt.
Hall of Fame songwriter (and Lee Roy’s next-cubicle mentor at his songwriting office) Bob McDill contributed the extraordinary “She Won’t Be Lonely Long,” and if it conjures up the notion of Jackson Browne tearing into a Don Williams hit, well — given the remarkable circumstances — it comes by all that honestly.
Finally, witness “John The Revelator,” the previously unreleased curtain call on this sterling set. A traditional field holler, “John The Revelator” was originally set to music in the first quarter of this century by one of Parnell’s major influences, blues titan Son House. Recorded on studio time left over after Parnell’s recording of “Catwalk” in collaboration with Flaco Jimenez, this quaking, soul-stirring version features the haunting gospel testament of the Fairfield Four wrapped ominously around Lee Roy’s bone-chilling slide guitar and “seen a ghost” vocal. If the gem doesn’t raise the gooseflesh, don’t even bother calling a doctor, ‘cuz you’re dead already.
“It all comes down to this: we have these little gifts,” says Parnell, “and we share them with people, and if we can shed some light — like the preacher said, ‘If I can touch just ONE person!’ You win them over one room at a time. That’s the battlefield.
Hits and Highways Ahead is loaded with treasures. The familiar songs will reinforce their staying power; those new to you will quickly get under the skin. Go ahead and wallow in their diversity, their tunefulness, their deep-rooted soulfulness. Just don’t be offended if Lee Roy Parnell doesn’t hang back to enjoy them with you — he’s got work to do.