895 Fest: Lee Roy Parnell Taps Rhythm and Blues To Slide Past The “Red Zone”

May 28, 2019

Part of a series of profiles of artists performing at WMOT's first-ever 895 Fest, May 31 and June 1. Info at 895Fest.org.

There is said to be a tape recording, made by Lee Roy Parnell's mother listening on the radio at home in the early 60s, of her six-year-old son being invited on stage to sing by the King of Western Swing himself. Bob Wills says into the radio, "Let's bring little Lee Roy up here. He don't back down to nothin'." The 62-year-old Parnell, who performs at 9 pm this Friday night at 895 Fest, is happy to own that early branding.

He's lived an ethos of self-assured stubbornness across decades of making Texas-reared, Nashville-tinged electric country blues. It sustained him during ten years of road-dogging out of Austin in the 80s before his record deal. It defined his unique place in early 90s Nashville, when he says every record executive in town wanted him to dress, sing, write and behave more like George Strait ("I was a hard-headed little s***" he says now of his defiance to Music Row's formula.) And it was crucial to negotiating what he calls the "red zone" of the music career, when the hits and radio attention faded, as they inevitably do.

"Like Willie (Nelson) told me, you gotta do two things to become a living legend in this business," Parnell says in the interview posted here. “Number one, keep doing exactly what you’re doing. Don’t change anything. And number two, don’t die. It’s that simple.” And to be clear, this comes with a strong dose of gravelly laughter.

Legend is in the eye of the beholder, but any roots music lover who's perhaps put Parnell in a box on the shelf marked "90s Country Hits" would do well to take in the sweep of his career and the depth of his commitment to roadhouse R&B and hot slide guitar. For me, the a-ha moment was the 2001 album To Tell The Truth on Vanguard Records, the first of his "red zone" projects, following his departure from Arista Nashville where he scored 10 top 40 country tracks. The album was co-written with the likes of Gary Nicholson and Dan Penn. And it was made at Muscle Shoals Sound, where Parnell's musical soul truly lives.

Parnell's history with Bob Wills couldn't be more profound, or legend-worthy. His father grew up with Wills, 30 miles apart, which is essentially next door in the farming/ranching world of central Texas. As teenagers, Lee Roy says, "They ran off together to join Dr. Tate's Traveling Medicine Show. Dad played guitar and Bob of course played fiddle. They were out selling elixir. It was the Southwest's version of vaudeville. That was the beginning." Not that dad pursued a life in music. He became a rancher. But for Lee Roy, the flame passed and he was a Beatles-obsessed kid who made a drum set out of hat boxes and got his hands on a guitar (and real drums) as soon as he could. The first song he worked out was the Texas Playboys standard "Milk Cow Blues," a song he still does in every show to this day.

In 1974, Parnell moved to Austin at the height of the Armadillo World Headquarters and the hippie/cowboy music revolution being fueled by Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and other sundry so-called outlaws. In the course of scuffling for gigs, he met a guy from New York City who said he worked for the William Morris Agency. "So I thought well I know someone in the music business in New York, so I just went,” he says. “I didn't call. And when I got there I found out the guy worked in the mail room. He was just a gopher. He felt really bad I'd made this trek. He said 'I think I may have a guitar playing gig if you'd be interested in that.' I said, 'at this point I'd be interested in anything. I'm gonna starve to death.'" The gig was real, one previously occupied by Nashville's own Buddy Miller as it happens, and it was playing for the indescribable, inimitable Kinky Friedman.

That curious but invaluable stint set the stage for a decade of road houses and saloons and every manner of working class night spot one could imagine across the southeastern United States, as Parnell matured into a band leader and songwriter. He opened scores of shows for Willie Nelson and other Texas icons. Eventually his close colleagues Delbert McClinton, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen talked him into moving to Nashville.

"I was so confused when I got to this town. Hardest move I ever made in my life. It was December 1987. A couple had a home over behind East Nashville High School. They had a mother-in-law apartment and I lived there for three years. I remember going 'how am I supposed to fit into this thing here. I knew this was the place I needed to be."

And it's a long story involving many of the most powerful and influential record executives of the era on Music Row who struggled to find a place for Parnell's blues-driven feel in country music. For one thing, he was invited to fill the slot of the long-running and peerless Monday night blues show by Mike Henderson, when he went on a sabbatical. But that wasn't what country radio was looking for. Enter Barry Beckett, keyboardist for the Muscle Shoals Swampers rhythm section and producer of some epic albums by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.

"Beckett was the one guy I could talk to who understood what I was doing and could help me refine it and bring it to fruition," Parnell says. "We had a wonderful relationship. He really helped me understand the nuances of delivering a lyric, where to put the emphasis, every doggone thing that really matters. Barry really taught me how to make records."

The first album was made in Muscle Shoals, juiced with horns and Hammond organ and slide guitar. It was critically acclaimed but didn't sell in the six figures, which was pretty much the Nashville benchmark at the time. The second album split the difference, dropping the horns and adding some pedal steel. Yet when the do-or-die second single came out, Parnell's icy slide guitar made the opening statement (a compromise that worked for him). "What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am?" rolled up to #2 on the charts, and the train was now officially out of the station.

After enjoying nearly a decade of hits, Parnell got his unfettered freedom back again with a return to indie labels, and with that he headed right back to Muscle Shoals, where he made To Tell The Truth with his road band and the help of Keb’ Mo’, Bonnie Bramlett and Delbert McClinton. It earned raves and set up a new time for Parnell, one that let him build a deep bond with a loyal audience who love him for his hits, his ongoing songwriting and his way with a Gibson Les Paul. And now the page may be turning again.

“It feels to me today like that next chapter of my life has taken off,” he says. “The elder statesman. I know who I am. I know what I’m doing. (It’s) a confidence that you have when you know you’ve outlasted most of them. I’m not talking about my fellow artists. I’m talking about the naysayers who were holding the gates.”