Born c. 1957 in Abilene, TX; married; wife's name, Kim; children: (previous marriages) Blake, Allison. Addresses: Record company--Arista Records, 7 Music Circle N., Nashville, TN 37203. Agent--Shock Ink, 1108 16th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212.
Lee Roy Parnell has achieved success as a country music star without compromising his eclectic blend of Texas- influenced blues, rock, and jazz. An expert slide guitar player who is happiest when out on the road performing live, Parnell has unleashed a string of hits with Arista Records while establishing himself in the Nashville mainstream by virtue of his instrumental talents and vocal integrity. "Parnell's career has been an ideal example of effective artist development," wrote Peter Cronin in Billboard. "Rather than try to fit his square-peg music cleverly into the round hole of country radio, Parnell and company chose to focus on the music, buffing it to the high gloss necessary for country airplay and getting closer to Parnell's musical essence in the process."
Parnell has been a working musician throughout his entire adult life. When artists speak of "paying dues"--of laboring long years in anonymity--no one knows the lifestyle better than he does. Reflecting on nearly two decades spent on the road, playing three sets per night at clubs all over the South, Parnell told Country Music: "I burned the candle at both ends, as hard and as fast as I could." Now, having finally found the level of success he always wanted, he approaches his life's work with maturity. "I feel more relaxed, more self-confident about the music and about myself," he said. "I really love the way it all came down. I love my life so much more now than I did when I was younger. It's pretty amazing, the timing of it all."
Lee Roy Parnell was born and raised in Texas. He had an early introduction to music and never really considered any other career. His father was a close friend of Texas bandleader Bob Wills, and often as a youngster Parnell would be treated to private concerts by Wills and his bandmembers. The singer told Guitar Player: "Texans have a history of mixing music. I'm a product of my environment. I like all kinds of music. When I was growing up in Texas, there were no boundaries. It was open season. Bob Wills was my introduction to music, and his band had a blues and jazz vocabulary in addition to their country leanings. The attitude is similar to the music I make--a country lyric with a bluesy feel." Parnell's other early influences included the Allman Brothers, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Jeff Walker, as well as California-based guitarists like Ry Cooder and David Lindley.
As soon as Parnell graduated from high school, he moved to Nashville. There he lived recklessly, playing in bars and indulging himself in a no-holds-barred party lifestyle. For a time he worked with a Southern rock group named Panama Red, but that band never quite found success. Finally Parnell returned to Texas, where he wrote his own songs and performed in the Austin area. According to Michael McCall in Country Music, it was in his home state that Parnell began to explore "a personal brand of roots music that merged jumpin' blues rhythms, slide guitar and soulful country vocals."
Parnell told Billboard that his music was inspired by the "cotton country" where he grew up. "The music came with the blacks and the whites all living together.... It is a black thing and a black culture," he said. "That's where Jimmie Rodgers got his stuff. So if he was, in fact, the father of country music, the grandfather was certainly the blues." The blues, of course, perfectly suited Parnell when he chose to make the slide guitar his performance tool of choice.
In 1987 Parnell went back to Nashville. He began performing weekly at the high-profile Bluebird Cafe, and shortly thereafter he was invited to be the opening act for Bonnie Raitt at a large Nashville club. That exposure helped him to secure a recording contract with the Arista label, newly arrived in Music City at the time. In 1990 he released his first album, Lee Roy Parnell, an energetic, rhythm & blues-influenced country-rock collection that did not sell particularly well. Critics, who favored the work, christened Parnell's style as "country soul."
The artist told Billboard that his debut work was a learning experience and that after the album failed to sell he began to re-evaluate his style and material. "There has been a lot of weeding, but thank God my record company has been good about letting me hang myself. They let me make my first record the way I did. It's a good record, and I don't regret a minute of it, but commercially I fell on my butt."
Parnell consulted with his Arista producers and decided to highlight his distinctive tenor voice and slide guitar in future recordings. The result has been a move toward the Nashville mainstream--but still a uniquely soulful sound. A Country Music reviewer noted that Parnell "takes decent songs and finds a way to make them shine like rare gems.... His tenor is comfortable, unaffected and packed with life, and perhaps only Dennis Robbins comes close to playing slide guitar with such gusto." Parnell's second album, Love without Mercy, yielded four Top Ten country hits and was considered the artist's breakthrough to country radio.
His niche in Nashville now firmly established, Parnell is able to indulge himself in the pastime he likes the most-- performing live. "I sometimes think they pay me to do all the extra things outside of playing the music," he told Country Music, "because getting on a bus and going out playing for people, I absolutely love that part. I love it more today than the day I began."
Although he came to Nashville with more than 100 songs he had written himself, Parnell has never recorded any of them; he prefers to collaborate with Nashville's established songwriters, offering his own take on the melody or the rhythm. "My songs begin with a lyric idea," he explained in Guitar Player. "I think the music must follow the mood of the lyric. I learned from God that your eraser can be your best friend. After a while you develop an editor who lives inside your head. I have also learned that divine inspiration is great, but it's hard to come by. There really is no substitute for hard work. The craft part comes from elbow grease."
Also in Guitar Player, Parnell explained his motivation for his work. "I'm not doing this because of the fame," he said. "I'm driven by that primal need that I had when I picked up a guitar in the very beginning. The guitar continues to take me to places that I've never been before."
Parnell has not only sought new experiences through his guitar playing, but also in the business end of his music career. In 1995 he became the first artist to release an album--called We All Get Lucky Sometimes--on a new Arista label, Career. With his road band, the Hot Links, the singer has fashioned a recording that he feels, according to Billboard, "captures the Texas roadhouse style of his live shows." Commenting on the fact that he refused to compromise his artistic standards on We All Get Lucky Sometimes to prompt better sales than those of his past recordings, Parnell told Billboard, "I have a responsibility to my audience. People are intuitive about what's real and what's not. If I do something I don't believe in, it will leave them cold."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Lee Roy Parnell's Career
Country singer, songwriter, slide guitar player, 1975--. Member of band Panama Red, c. 1975-77. Signed with Arista Records, 1989; released first solo album, Lee Roy Parnell, 1990.
- Selective Works
- Lee Roy Parnell, Arista, 1990.
- Love without Mercy, Arista, 1992.
- On the Road, Arista, 1994.
- We All Get Lucky Sometimes, Career/Arista, 1995.
- Billboard, November 13, 1993; July 8, 1995.
- Country Music, January/February 1994; July/August 1994.
- Guitar Player, June 1994.
- New York Times, April 10, 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Arista Records publicity materials.