NASHVILLE, Tennessee-Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/guitarist Lee Roy Parnell is a musical maverick with an ever-evolving sound that grew alongside him.
Growing up in rural Texas, Parnell’s dad’s best friend, Bob Wills, was the legendary founder of Western Swing.
Parnell said, “Bob loved ranching but never did it. Dad loved music and he just chose not to do that for a living, so they lived vicariously through each other.”
However, at age six, Parnell played on Bob Wills’s radio show. “It was just a happenstance thing, but the bug was planted,” he said.
He knew at a young age what he was born to do.
Parnell practiced his guitar obsessively, and as a teen, he was the opening show for any touring acts that came through his part of Texas.
“They would hear my original songs and they would ask me, ‘Where did that song come from?’ I said, ‘Well, I wrote it.’ So, I started getting songs cut even way back then,” he recounted.
In 1987, Parnell relocated to Nashville, and two years later, he signed with Arista Records Nashville. In 1990, he released his self-titled record which produced three chart singles: “Crocodile Tears,” “Oughta Be a Law,” and “Family Tree.”
He also put out “I’m Holding My Own,” “Heart’s Desire,” and “On the Road” – songs that defy conventional classification and draw from his influences of soul, Delta Blues, country, Road House Rock, Southern Boogie, Texas Swing, and gospel.
Now a few years older, Parnell continues to practice guitar and hone his craft because he said he would get bored if he didn’t. He partnered with Gibson Guitar to proudly present the Custom Shop Lee Roy Parnell Signature 1959 Les Paul Standard in Abilene Sunset Burst. The Lee Roy Parnell ’59 Les Paul Standard marks the second collaboration between the legendary country/blues artist and the iconic guitar maker. Just watch his inspiring jam session with Robben Ford and Joe Robinson for additional proof of his exceptional talent.
As country music has adapted to artists doing singles and short EPs, Parnell resisted the trend because that is not what he expects of himself, nor what his fans expect of him.
He said, “I don’t make singles. I make albums. It’s supposed to take you on a trip from the top to the bottom. And if you pull anything out of it, it’s like you might as well just chuck the whole thing, you know, because you are not getting the fuel.”
His latest album, Midnight Believer, departs from the commercial 90s country music that initially made him popular. The title tracks, “Midnight Believer” and “Hours In Between,” even sound like they could belong on a George Benson record.
“Western Swing is just jazz,” he said.
The singer said, “One of the best things about gaining some maturity is you finally find out ‘Who You Is and Who You Ain’t.’ That said, I’d have to say that the song ‘Too Far Gone’ best describes me as an artist, now.”
Because of his upbringing with the eclectic Wills, that whole music scene gave him a license to mix music and create his own sound. He saw nothing wrong with pulling in the Texas shuffle and putting a steel guitar to it.
Parnell said, “I am a mixer of music. if I felt like Marvin [Gaye] did it better right there, then that’s what I am going to use. Merle [Haggard] did the same thing. I am more akin to Merle than I am to any other singer countrywise. Bob Wills was his hero too.”
In my humble opinion, it is the live version of his music, especially when he leans into his Delta Blues side, where the guitarist shines. Parnell’s song, “Pontchartrain” cut at Tin Pan South, and “Blues in A Major” where he let loose at Leiper’s Fork is nothing short of magnificent. His exceptional artisanship becomes the focal point when he lets his hair down and interacts with the audience.
He said, “It all starts with the song, and when writing I’ve found that nothing is stronger than the truth. It is from that wellspring that my singing and playing are born… performing, too. My goal is to keep it honest and let the listener feel what I’m feeling. No matter our different walks in life I believe that most of us experience similar emotions. I’m tapping into you as much as you are tapping into me.”
To me, there is something refreshing about artists who is over the “trying to make it” stage in their life, and they can just create and enjoy their own music their way.
He said, “Hopefully the fans will come along. But even if they don’t, you’re just doing what you love.”
Parnell has toured/collaborated with many music legends, including The Allman Brothers Band, Merle Haggard, Delbert McClinton, and Bonnie Raitt. In 2011, Parnell was presented with his most cherished honor: being inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, joining the likes of such talented composers as Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, JD Souther, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, and others.
For those local to Nashville, you can hear Parnell at his yearly concert at the Franklin Theater on Saturday. He will be touring throughout Texas and other locations in America during the rest of the year and in 2024.
With talent in spades, the triple-threat ace blues guitar player, singer, and songwriter has a strong fanbase following him for over thirty years. However, as is so often in my column, I want to introduce the younger set to this legend because Parnell is just that good.
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