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Lee Roy Parnell: not your flavor of the month

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 1997

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"If this thing was about money, I'd have quit a long time ago," he says.

"I just don't think that any of us are going to be on our death beds and say 'I wish I made another dollar,'" Parnell says.

Not that Parnell is rolling in riches. Born in Abilene, Tex., he grew up in the Stephenville area on his parents' ranch in west Texas.

And it was ranching that led Parnell to his career. On the first Friday of every month, all ranchers met to play music together. The men brought fiddles and guitars, while the women hauled covered dishes. Sometimes the women sang.

"The kids would play outside, except for me. I stayed glued. I loved every minute of it. Music was all around us when we were kids."

Parnell's father was friends with a neighbor, Bob Wills. The pair ran away from home in their youths and worked for a travelling medicine show, doing blackface comedy and singing country oriented tunes.

Parnell made his first appearance on any sort of regional level at six when he sang on a radio program featuring Wills. "I was there, and he called me up, and I did an impromptu version of 'San Antonio Rose.' We found the tape just this year."

An attempt was made to clean it up. "It had been recorded off a little radio in mono and baked in the Texas sun for about 30 years, and it was just about gone. We kept most of it."

Parnell hopes at least snippets will be used in a Bob Wills tribute album, which may be recorded this winter.

Parnell continued playing music, and at 14, he started gigging at dances with his mother driving him. He quickly decided music was his life.

He was influenced by the likes of slide guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. While still in his teens, Parnell did a short stint with Kinky Friedman as a member of the Texas Jewboys.

He went to Nashville in the early '70's for about 18 months to check out the scene, but returned to Texas where he played music full time. He also tried his luck in Los Angeles, but that didn't work out.

Parnell hung out in Texas for about 10 years before returning to Nashville.

Country had changed over the period away from the pop sound to the new traditionalist movement with musicians like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett getting record deals.

Weighing several offers, Parnell inked with Arista where he developed a close relationship with label head Tim Dubois. His debut came out in 1991, yielding several mid-level chart singles.

"I feel like I'm a lucky son of a gun because just about anybody else would have dropped me after that first album," Parnell says. "It stiffed."

Parnell, who speaks in a laid back style, says, "I have a Moses, and his name was Tim. Tim respected me I think for knowing what I wanted. So many artists walk into this town, and they want to be stars. They don't care. They'll do whatever you want them to be a star. Being a star is nasty product of your job."

"The deal we made was 'you don't make me put out anything I don't want to, and I won't make you cut anything you don't want to," Parnell says. "My records do pay for themselves. They make a little bit of money. They will always do that because the core audience is always going to be there."

Parnell enjoyed more success with his 1992 follow-up "Love Without Mercy" where he rode near the top of the charts with "Tender Moment" and "What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am."

The following year, "On the Road" came out with the title track and "I'm Holding My Own" becoming hits.

Parnell may have gained his greatest exposure through his slide playing on Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Shut Up & Kiss Me." He was featured prominently in the video for the big hit.

Parnell, who has always recorded a chunk of his own songs, co-produced his last disc, "We All Get Lucky Sometimes," a musically diverse, but top-notch effort.

This time around, his backing band, The Hot Links (James Pennebaker on guitar, Stephen Mackey on bass, Kevin McKendree on piano and Lynn Williams on drums), co-produced. "We knew what we wanted. We didn't need anybody else...I take their input too. I could have said I produced the record. The truth of the matter is I took everybody's input. Why be a hog about it?"

One of the hottest songs is Merle Haggard's "Honky Tonk Night Time Man," a song he recorded about 25 years ago.

Haggard and his wife wrote Parnell a letter, sent a tape of the song and said they thought it would be a good song for him to cut.

"I had been doing the song off and on for about three years," Parnell says. "I got to thinking about it - we really ought to cut that song. What you hear is the very first take of the song. The first take was the best. I got to play for Merle. When he gave me the affirmative on it, man, it sure made me feel good."

"It was so gracious of him to extend that offer. This is like a blessing from the pope."

This was not the first time Parnell did Haggard. He collaborated with Steve Wariner and Diamond Rio on "Workingman Blues" on a Hag tribute album.

Parnell, who will escape Nashville for his home state in about six months, doesn't exactly seem fretful about how the new disc will fare.

"My stuff doesn't sound like anything (else)," says Parnell, who despises the soundalike quality of today's newcomers. "I'm hoping that's what will save me. Sooner or later, somebody's going to say enough of the sameness. The originals out there are going to have the only chance to be remembered. We don't remember the second guy. We always remember the individuals who come along and create something."

"I'm sure Fabian sold more records than some of our records, but do we remember Fabian?" Parnell says, adding, "People are getting hungry for some originality."

"We live in the flavor of the month," Parnell says. "It doesn't have to be that way."

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