The Lee Roy Parnell Story

Photo: ©Gibson Guitar Corporation

Lee Roy Parnell is part of a long line of Texas roots-music eclectics and is among the elite few who can be identified as a triple threat. An ace guitarist, as well as a distinctive singer, and hit songwriter, his music runs the gamut of diversity. Combining the influences of Blue-Eyed Soul, Delta Blues, Road House Rock, Southern Boogie, Texas Swing, and Gospel, Parnell’s sound defies conventional classification. He draws from a broad range of musical sources and combines them with seamless dexterity and, unlike many other hard-to-pigeonhole artists, Parnell has enjoyed a run of success on the country and blues charts.

Parnell was born in Abilene, TX, on December 21, 1956, and grew up on his parents’ ranch. His father had toured with a teenage Bob Wills in traveling medicine shows, and Lee Roy’s first public performance came on Wills’ radio show at age six. As a teenager, he played drums in a local band and soon picked up guitar as well, eventually concentrating on slide playing. He joined Kinky Friedman’s Texas Jewboys in his late teens and moved to Austin in 1974 to join the city’s budding music scene. Parnell spent over a decade playing clubs in Austin, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, and New York while honing his style and songwriting.

Lee Roy moved to Nashville in 1987, where he quickly landed a publishing contract with Polygram Music, and a regular spot at the famed Bluebird Cafe. In 1989, he signed to Clive Davis’ Arista Records, led by friend and mentor, Tim Dubois. Produced by Barry Beckett, of the world-famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Parnell’s self-titled debut album featured a collection of horn-driven country-soul. It received good reviews but didn’t break him commercially; that would happen with 1992′s Love Without Mercy, which emphasized Parnell’s searing slide guitar skills. “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” and “Tender Moment” both went to number two on the charts, and the title track also made the Top Ten. 1993′s On the Road produced two more Top Tens with its title track and “I’m Holding My Own.” The Hank Williams / Ray Charles hit, “Take These Chains From My Heart” also made the Top 20.

In 1995, Lee Roy was asked to help launch Arista’s sister label, Career Records, with the release of We All Get Lucky Sometimes. The album spawned two Top Five hits in “A Little Bit of You” and “Heart’s Desire” and featured duets with Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter. “A Little Bit of You” was also a #1 hit on the Radio and Records Magazine charts; a first for a brand new label. During this time, Parnell’s sound was becoming more defined by roots and soul music. He was also allowed the creative freedom to record with some of his heroes, such as Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez. Their collaboration on the track “Cat Walk” garnered a Grammy Nomination for Best Country Instrumental. Parnell released “Every Night’s A Saturday Night” in 1997. The album included another duet with Trisha Yearwood and the Grammy nominated boogie-woogie instrumental, “Mama Screw Your Wig On Tight,” which was written and produced by Lee Roy and his entire band, “The Hot Links” (James Pennebaker / Kevin McKendree / Lee Roy Parnell / Lynn Williams / Stephen Mackey). Next up was Parnell’s “Hits and Highways Ahead” in 1999. Lee Roy’s recording of the Son House tune, “John The Revelator,” featuring the “Fairfield Four,” garnered a CMA nomination for Vocal Event of The Year. The album also included the popular track “Honky Tonk Night Time Man,” handpicked and sent to him by Lee Roy’s good friend and mentor, the legendary Merle Haggard. An official video was also produced for the song “Lucky You, Lucky Me.”

Following his deal at Arista and Career, Parnell was ready to expand his musical horizons and partnered up with the rootsy Vanguard label in Los Angeles. His debut album with them was 2001′s Tell the Truth, which was recorded at the world-renowned Muscle Shoals Sound by Johnny Sandlin (chief engineer for Capricorn Records and The Allman Brothers Band). In keeping with his quest for more artistic freedom, he teamed back up with Universal South in 2006, to return to the studio to record Back to the Well. This album delved even further into his blues and southern soul roots. With the release of this album, Parnell received some very rare support from Gibson Guitars with a series of guitar clinics interwoven with tour dates across the country in a custom Gibson tour bus. Lee Roy’s relationship with Gibson and the Les Paul is not a new one. Parnell’s first Goldtop was a 1956 model he bought when he was 15-years-old and was his only guitar well into his 30’s. Although he experimented for a few years after that with different guitars, searching for his own sound, he ultimately returned to his first love, the 1956 Les Paul Goldtop in 2001 and helped Gibson reinvigorate the model. Talks then came about to develop a Lee Roy Parnell signature model and culminated with a final eight months of arduous development, producing Gibson’s Lee Roy Parnell Signature ’57 Les Paul Goldtop. You can read more information about the guitar at gibson.com.

The year 2011 brought Lee Roy Parnell what is probably his most cherished honor to date, when he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Parnell continues to produce and write with some of the most influential songwriters and recording artists nationwide as co-partner in his music publishing company, Dean Parnell Music, and is currently preparing for his first independent release.