Lee Roy Parnell has never struggled to find a home, no matter where he’s at.
He’s as comfortable playing on the main stage at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas as he would be jamming at the Stax Museum in Memphis or on the bandstand at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
He’s as much at ease swapping guitar licks with The Allman Brothers Band and John Hammond Jr., as he is singing with Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
And to no one’s surprise, that’s just the way the ultra-versatile Lee Roy Parnell prefers it.
“I’m a blue-eyed soul singer and kind of an R&B/blues guitar player. That’s how I see it. There’s certainly country influences in there, as well. And rock-and-roll, too, for that matter. But by and large, I consider myself to be somewhere between roadhouse rock-and-roll and R&B. That’s how I see it, anyway. I love many different styles of music, but for me, it all goes back to the blues. Blue-eyed soul, jazz, rock and country all have the same daddy and that daddy is the blues. Muddy Waters said, ‘The blues had a baby and they called it rock-and-roll.’ And he was right.”
The Texas born and bred songwriter/guitarist/singer and bandleader’s latest album – Midnight Believer (Vector Recordings) – more than checks off all the requisite boxes. It’s bluesy, it’s soulful, it swings and most importantly, it’s straight from the heart. If there was any justice left in the music business – or if today’s corporate radio staffers had any of the moxy that program directors a few decades back had – a handful of cuts from Midnight Believer would be splayed across several different formats and would be in regular rotation on terrestrial radio.
You’d be forgiven if you have to stop and think for a minute about the last time that a new studio album from Parnell hit the streets. After all, more than a decade has lapsed between his last album – 2006’s Back To The Well (Universal South) and Midnight Believer.
“You know, I was talking with Jamey Johnson this morning and he said that he saw that I had a new album coming out. I told him it was my first one in 11 years … I told him I make one every 11 years, whether I need to or not,” laughed Parnell. “And then he said, ‘You know what they say about time flying when you’re having fun?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that several times in my life.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’ve found that time flies no matter what you’re doing.’ And I think that’s probably true. But I think that time just got away from me.”
Part of the reason that ‘time got away’ from Parnell over the last decade has a lot to do with his domestic situation.
“Yeah, I’ve got a young son that turned six recently and by the time that my last album had kind of run its course, I was really involved with him. My kids are spread out; my oldest son is 36 and then I’ve got a daughter that’s 32 and a grand-daughter that’s nine. And then little Jack came along. I was always present with my children, but as you get older, you view your time with them a little different,” he said. “So I just really focused on him. Well, he’s getting ready to start kindergarten this year and I looked up and wondered where the time had gone.”
In addition to your son going from crawling to walking to running, a lot of other things can happen in a decade, especially where the business end of the musical universe is concerned.
“Yeah, that’s another thing – the music business is so much different these days … whoa! Who’d have thunk it, right? (Record) labels are so much different now than they even were when we did Back To The Well. We had a fairly good budget when we went in to do that record – nothing like we did at Arista (Parnell was at Arista for almost a decade in the ’90s) – but we didn’t need that kind of a budget. This time, it was all out of what I refer to as ‘Hip National Bank,’ which is your wallet,” he laughed. “So I’d hit the road and go out and make some money and when I got home, if I had some left over, I put it into the record. So all those things kind of put together helps to explain why it took me so long.”
Not one to dig his heels in and refuse to learn and grow with today’s ever-evolving music industry – and the way that an artist prepares to ready their efforts for public consumption – Parnell is rolling with the punches these days.
“I can tell you this – the way we’ve made records in the past is not the way we’re going to make records in the future,” he explained. “I mean, I’ve got five or six (songs) lined up for the next record. I’m thinking that on this next record, we’ll go to Muscle Shoals and I think it will be maybe 18 months – on the outside – before my next record comes out. I think I’ll be cutting an album about every 18 months or so from now on.”
Re-invigorated and re-energized after issuing Midnight Believer, Parnell rapidly fires off several projects he’s eager to check off his to-do list, including one that should make blues lovers jump for joy.
“I’ve never done a duet-kind of project where I’ve got together with my friends and that’s on the list. And I’ve never made a flat-out blues record and we probably need to do that, too,” he said. “Then there’s a gospel-kind of project that I want to do, something along the lines of what I did with the Fairfield Four on “John The Revelator” (Featured on his 1999 album, Hits And Highways Ahead – a song that was made popular by Blind Willie Johnson and Son House that earned Parnell and the Fairfield Four a CMA nomination in the Vocal Event of the Year category). And then I’ve got some more of my old stuff that I still want to do. It takes a little while to figure out who you is and who you ain’t … and well, it takes some of us longer than others to figure that out.”
First and foremost, Parnell has always been an exceptional songwriter, as his induction in the Texas Heritage Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2011 would attest to. His songs (including those that he’s penned for others) have regularly found a home inside the Top 40 and have even garnered Grammy considerations. But apparently songwriting doesn’t flow as easy as a water from a faucet for Parnell and sometimes his songwriting pump needs primed, as was the case for Midnight Believer.
“I had kind of hit a dry spell and I think we all (songwriters) do, whether we admit it or not. I have never really been one to push too hard on writing, because I can almost hear forced writing. It just wasn’t flowing yet and Greg Barnhill – who is a great friend and a wonderful writer – came to me and lit a fire under me to get busy again. I didn’t know what to think of it at first, but once we started it went fast and the songs piled up pretty quickly.”
He had already earned his stripes as a first-rate musician in Texas before Parnell pulled up stakes and moved to Music City in 1987. Upon his arrival, he soon discovered that Nashville likes to operate by its own set of rules. However, Parnell quickly discovered a handful of like-minded souls who were hell-bent on chucking those so-called rules right out the window.
“People associate me with playing slide guitar and I understand that … it’s true. But when I first got to Nashville, I was dissuaded from playing slide guitar. They did not understand slide guitar, nor did they want that,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, that’s tough, because this is what I do.’ I was 31 when I made that first album (his self-titled debut in 1990) and at that time, Nashville was kind of a hot-bed for Texas singer/songwriters. Steve Earle called that time ‘the great integrity scare of the early ’90s.’ Rodney Crowell and Roseanne Cash and Emmy Lou Harris, along with Guy Clark, although he wasn’t really on country radio, had laid the groundwork for my generation that came to town. Myself, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle … we were all on the scene then. But by ’92, most of them had thought about it and said, ‘Nah, we’re not doing this. We’re going home.’ It was kind of funny, because we all couldn’t believe what we had gotten away with, anyway. It was very regulated and I’m a very non-regulated kind of guy.”
With his boots always touching the ground at the intersection where R&B and country and blues and rock-and-roll form a crossroads, it might seem like Parnell has to have a few different headspaces to enter when he straps on his guitar and gets ready to play.
However, that’s not quite the case.
“I’ve got to be honest … I think all that comes natural to me. For one thing, what I do is pretty simple; I play pretty much melody and I play around with the melody and play harmony stuff that associates with the melody. I’ve been a melodic-sort of player, so once you kind of have the melody in your head, it really doesn’t matter what you’re playing. It’s really kind of all the same,” he said. “I think I just hear the song and then play for the sake of the song. That’s always been my point of view. I mean, I know there a ton of guitar players out there that can really blow, so I just try and do my own thing.”
Don’t let him fool you; Parnell can ‘blow’ with the best of them.
He’s been involved in a couple of go-rounds of the ‘Guitar Army’ tour (with more shows on the way), with cats like Robben Ford, John Jorgenson and Joe Robinson. He also has a Gibson Lee Roy Parnell Signature ’57 Les Paul Goldtop, which should come as no shock after hearing him rip up-and-down the fretboard. Heck, Parnell even owned a 1956 Goldtop back when he was just 15 years old and played that axe well into his 30s.
“On the ‘Guitar Army’ tour last year, we had Robben Ford – who is a monster player – and Joe Robinson – who is also a monster player. Those guys have a lot more information than I do. I thought, ‘How in the world am I going to do this (play onstage with them) and not embarrass myself?’ But you know, you get out there and you find that you do what you do,” he said. “I really, really enjoyed playing with them.”
As he was finding his way around his instrument back in his formative years, Parnell was influenced by the usual suspects. But quite possibly the biggest influence on Parnell’s guitar playing came from someone who is not a household name to many; Reggie Young. Although his name may not be bandied about among casual fans, they undoubtedly have heard Young’s work many, many times. Young was lead guitarist of ‘The Memphis Boys’ and has played on well over 120 hit singles, including some from the likes of Elvis, Johnny Horton, Willie and Waylon, Jerry Lee Lewis and Dionne Warwick, just to scratch the surface.
“When it comes to playing regular guitar – not slide – I probably got everything I got from Reggie. He played on all those great Memphis soul records and then when he came to Nashville, he really didn’t change his style at all. Again, he’s a melody player, so he’s capable of doing it all. I got a lot from him,” said Parnell. “I tried to follow the same path that he did by not changing when I got to Nashville. Mike Reid (legendary songwriter who co-wrote Ronnie Milsap’s Grammy-winning “Stranger In My House” in 1984) once told me, ‘If you start trying to chase the music business, you’re always going to be behind the curve. But, if you do what you do and stay true to yourself, every so often your path will intersect with that of the music business.’ A good case in point of that is Ray Charles. He never quit and we all know what he ended up doing.”
As accomplished a guitar player as he is, Parnell takes equal pride in being able to craft a song and then turn around and sing that song, as well.
“I really don’t think I can separate the guitar playing from the songwriting and the singing. I think for me, it’s a third, a third and a third. One feeds the other, really. Once I write a song, then I have to execute it with the singing and the guitar playing. But when I was a kid, I was probably more focused on the guitar than anything else. The guitar playing was what was cool and fun. I really sang out of necessity back then. As I got older, my voice became identifiable, as did my guitar playing. So what you have then is a sonic stamp and you’re using that sonic stamp to express those songs that you’ve written. Those things all go hand-in-hand in the end.”
A couple of years before he cut his self-titled debut for Arista Records, Parnell’s first real brush with Music City was as a songwriter for Polygram Music. The experience that he gained there turned out to be invaluable for him.
“I was a working day songwriter and had an office on the second floor of the building and was surrounded by guys like Bob McDill (Ray Charles, Juice Newton) and Rory Bourke (Kenny Rogers, Kenny Chesney) and Charlie Black (Johnny Paycheck, Earl Thomas Conley) … guys that had been writing songs forever. There are certain fundamentals that go with writing that you’d don’t necessarily have to adhere to, but you’re sure better off if you know them to begin with. You can always break the rules, but it’s nice to know what they are. Working there was a really good thing for me to do. There’s a lot of things you hear today on country radio and even blues radio programming that sounds forced to me. I never want to force anything or make anything cute. I mean, I run from cute as fast and as far as I can. I want to touch the listener. We all have disappointments and we all have challenges and we also all have victories. And of course, love is the one thing that helps us to tie into one another. Someone told me this one time and I hadn’t really thought about, but I think they’re right. They told me I play guitar for the guys and I write these songs and sing these soul ballads for the girls. I don’t think that’s a hard-and-fast rule, but by and large, I think that’s probably true.”
Growing up in Texas, Parnell was bitten by the blues bug at a fairly early age and despite what he plays – or even who he plays with – these days, the blues are most definitely at the center of it all.
“I was crazy about all the blues greats and still am. I mean, I stole some things from B.B. King and Freddie King – well, we all did. B. was a dear friend of mine and man, we’ve lost some good ones the past couple of years. I’ve lost some tight friends and musical heroes. And (Merle) Haggard was a very dear friend and Guy Clark was one of my very best friends,” Parnell said. “And that’s just a handful of them. But you know, all those guys were lifers and they all did it for the right reasons. None of them ever – that I can recall – were anything but true to themselves. That was the template that I was working off of. I had some very good teachers and they taught me well and I’m here to carry on for as long as I can. Hopefully, somewhere along the way, I can help somebody the way that they helped me.”
One may not get a clear picture of it by turning on commercial radio stations these days, but the heartbeat of roots-related music is still pounding strong and doesn’t appear in any need of resuscitation at this point in time. The way Parnell figures things, that steady and ever-present pulse is going to continue well into the future, with blues music supplying the power to the engine.
“Well, once again, like Muddy said, ‘The blues had a baby and they called it rock-and-roll.’ Well, they also called it R&B and they also called it country music, too. The blues is something that’s existed long before we started recording it,” he said. “It will exist long after we all get bought out by Google and continue to stick our faces in our phones and walk around … I mean, I don’t know, man. Sometimes I think I am not of this world. Sooner or later, everybody’s going to get tired of this crap and we’re going to get back to organic living.”
While it’s easy to get discouraged – and while technology seems to dominate our every waking second in 2017 – perhaps there still is hope that our younger generations will one day shun some of that and get back to the basics. One bright hope in that regard appears to be six-year-old Jack Parnell.
“My son loves the blues. He sits and listens to old swing/jump records and old Bob Wills’ records from the ’40s and he loves it. He listens to vinyl. It really touches him and he can sing that stuff like crazy. His favorite artist in the world is Little Walter, so go figure! His first favorite song was “My Babe.” And his favorite TV show is “The Andy Griffith Show.” Black-and-white only, please.”
Visit Lee Roy’s website at: http://leeroyparnell.com