Since making his major-label debut in 1991, Lee Roy Parnell has been an unexpectedly fresh presence on hit country radio. With his trademark slide guitar and soulful voice, he has served up four discs of a unique brand of bluesy C&W that stands out among the watered-down country pop currently clogging the airwaves.
Winning acceptance in the medium has taken plenty of effort and no shortage of personal conviction. When Parnell left for Nashville in 1986 after fifteen years of playing the honky-tonks and bars of Texas, record-industry types were far from hip to his hybrid sound. "Most of them didn't even want my slide guitar on my record, because that wasn't something that was 'happening,'" he says in a relaxed, Lone Star drawl. "And if it's not tried-and-true and proven, a lot of record people are scared to take a chance. But I said, 'Nope, the slide goes with me; that's the other half of it.' So, consequently, I passed and they passed."
Parnell's unwillingness to compromise his sound is something he learned firsthand from a visionary in the truest sense--Western-swing pioneer Bob Wills. "My dad and Bob Wills grew up together," Parnell says, "and they were friends until they were old men. So I grew up around the Texas Playboys and the Wills family. It was wonderful. My dad was a rancher, but before that he was a blackface musician, performing in traveling minstrel shows, which Bob did, too. But then Daddy had to go back and pick cotton in west Texas. Bob went on to pursue his career, and Daddy went on to ranch."
The different paths the two men took served to cement their friendship, Parnell continues. "Bob always wanted to ranch, and my dad always wanted to perform, so I think they lived vicariously through one another. Bob was a dear, sweet man, and there's nobody's music that I love more than his." He credits Wills with teaching him the importance of musical integrity. "When I first got into this, Bob told me, 'Don't ever try to fool the public, because they'll know it immediately. Be yourself, no matter who pushes you in any direction. If you'll be yourself, there'll always be plenty of folks out there who'll put supper on the table.'"
According to Parnell, this steadfast philosophy has a significant drawback: "You might not become Garth Brooks," he concedes. But he adds, "Who cares? Not me, brother."
Not that Parnell is a member of the Anti-Garth League. "I want to make something clear: Garth Brooks is a good guy--a real good guy--and he did what he did because that's what he does. He hit a nerve, but I don't think there was anything calculated about what Garth did. I think Garth is Garth, and I don't mean to take anything away from him."
But while Parnell is quick to defend country music's ruler, ten years in Brooks's kingdom have made him aware of the dangers that lurk in Music City. For aspiring country performers with their own distinct vision, Parnell offers some advice: "Don't go to Nashville or Los Angeles until you're really sure about what you want to do. You'd be better off honing your craft in Denver, for instance, than to develop in the eye of the music business."
What about entertainers to whom success is more important than artistic purity? "If you're some directionless guy that just wants to be a star, and you're willing to do whatever they tell you to do--and I can't even talk about that, because I don't know anything about that way of thinking--well, I guess you can come on down whenever you're ready."
A listen to Parnell's latest disc, We All Get Lucky Sometimes (issued by Arista's sister label, Career Records), makes it clear that Parnell does not fall into that category. A rollicking mix of roadhouse country, honky-tonk blues and intelligent ballads that are sweet but never sappy, the platter sounds more like something out of Austin than Nashville. The album's infectious first single, the smartly crafted "A Little Bit of You," offers big hooks and a healthy dose of searing slide--qualities shared by the bouncing, Chuck Berry-ish "Heart's Desire." As for up-tempo numbers like "Knock Yourself Out," "If the House Is Rockin'" and "Givin' Water to a Drowning Man," they burn down the barn thanks in large part to the road-tested chops of Parnell's band, the Hot Links. As Parnell tells it, the Links (guitarist James Pennebaker, bassist Steve Mackey, drummer Lynn Williams and keyboard player Kevin McKendree) helped him achieve what he calls "a live feel of what I try to do on stage."
In the rock field, recording with your touring group is commonplace. But as Parnell notes, it's seldom the case in country. "It's a pretty unusual thing in Nashville, because about 90 percent of the time, producers like to have their little recording team that they use on every artist that they record. These guys are wonderful players, but the problem with that is that a lot of the music all ends up sounding the same, because it's the same players but with a different singer."
However, Parnell goes on, "all the guys that I liked in country music and blues always had a definite sound of their own, and their bands had their own sound, too. With guys like Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, you knew it was Buck before he started to sing. You heard Don Rich's guitar, and you said, 'Hey, this is a Buck Owens record.' Same thing with Merle Haggard. You knew when the Strangers started playing that the Hag was fixing to come in. The same was true of the great blues players like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Those are the guys I have the most respect for, so that's what we tried to do with this record."
The disc that Parnell made using this approach achieves many of the standards set by his heroes, but it's created problems for the people charged with promoting him; his handlers spend much of their time trying to figure out how to endear their client to a larger audience. When asked where he thinks he fits in, Parnell answers, "I really don't know. They've asked me that question, and I've sat in on the marketing meetings and listened to people try to fit me in a niche or a category. But what I keep coming back to is that if I was to try and chase after some trend, by the time I caught up with it, hell, it'd be over. And then I couldn't look at myself in the mirror."
Instead, Parnell has courted success his own way: Although he's toured with respected mainstreamers such as Vince Gill, Alan Jackson and Trisha Yearwood, he's aligned himself with left-of-center acts like Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Dwight Yoakam. To him, the growing appeal of the down-to-earth music made by the latter trio makes perfect sense. "It's kind of like the difference between real ice cream and nonfat Cool Whip. They might be able to pull that Cool Whip off on you for a while, but if you ever get a taste of real ice cream, you're a goner."
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For Parnell, the fact that his full-flavored country is being heard alongside the filler-laden work of many of his contemporaries is especially satisfying. So, too, is discovering his trademark sound echoing from other people's records. "I've started hearing all these pedal-steel players putting Fuzztones on their guitars to try and get slide sounds. I kind of get a kick out of it," he notes with a modest chuckle. "Suddenly, it's okay to play slide in Nashville.
"It's a funny thing," he muses. "My stumbling block has become my stepping stone. Just when you think you're cutting your own throat by sticking by your guns, it turns out to be the right thing to do."
Lee Roy Parnell. 9 p.m. Friday, April 4, Grizzly Rose, 5450 North Valley Highway, $7, 295-1941.