The Lee Roy Parnell Story
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. From the earliest years of his life, an ethic of hard work and perseverance was ingrained in to his psyche.
He reminisces, “I didn’t know it at the time but ranch life was preparing me for the profession I chose. Turns out the two are not at all dissimilar. There’s not a lot you can control. Whether it be a rough partnership with a record company, a manager or booking agency…to me it was no different than trying to change the weather. All you can do is work hard, stay focused and never ever give up. Never! No matter what ‘they’ might tell you. Outlast the naysayers.”
Historically, 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 Ten hits with its title track and “I’m Holding My Own.” The Hank Williams / Ray Charles track, “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 was his most successful yet, spawning two Top Five hits in “A Little Bit of You” (number two) and “Heart’s Desire” (number three), and two additional Top 15 hits, “When A Woman Loves A Man” (with Trisha Yearwood) and “Givin’ Water To A Drowning Man.” “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 Top 40 singles “Lucky Me, Lucky You” and “You Can’t Get There From Here,” another recording with Trisha Yearwood (the touching “Better Word For Love”) 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, a retrospective of hits featuring a handful of new tracks — “She Won’t Be Lonely Long” and “Long Way To Fall” among them. 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 Lee Roy by good friend and mentor, the legendary Merle Haggard. Following his years at Arista and Career, Parnell was ready to expand his musical horizons and partnered up with the rootsy Vanguard label in Los Angeles. His 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). Special guests Keb’ Mo’, Delbert McClinton, Bekka Bramlett, and The Mississippi Mass Choir make appearances on the record, which include noted songs from Lee Roy’s catalog such as “South by Southwest,” “Breaking Down Slow,” “Right Where It Hurts,” and “Guardian Angel.” In keeping with his quest for more artistic freedom, he joined forces with Universal South in 2006 and returned to the studio to record Back To The Well. This album delved even further into his blues and southern soul roots with tracks like the romping title cut, fan favorite “Just Lucky That Way,” and the heartfelt “Daddies and Daughters.”
With the release of Back To The Well, 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. Parnell went on to collaborate with Gibson on a signature model celebrating the ’57 Les Paul Goldtop in 2001. His relationship with Gibson and the Les Paul is not a new one, wherein 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—an induction into the Texas Heritage Songwriter’s Hall of Fame where he joined the company of legendary singer/songwriters such as Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Rodney Crowell, JD Souther, Roger Miller, Guy Clark, and others. Parnell continues to produce and write with some of the most influential songwriters and recording artists in the world as co-partner in his music publishing company, Dean Parnell Music, and is currently supporting his first independent release, Midnight Believer (released August 11, 2017 via Vector Recordings).