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Lee Roy Parnell dares to "Tell the Truth"

By Joel Bernstein, July 2001

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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."

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