Lee Roy Parnell has the voice of a soul man and the soul of a rocker. But his first record company pigeonholed him as a country artist. After seven years with now-defunct major label Arista Records, Parnell struck out on his own in 1999. "My thing is R&B and blues," the singer/guitarist said last week by phone from his Nashville home. "So I figured, alone, I'm gonna do what I want to do. That's what I've always done anyway. It's tough," he admits. "It's like starting over."
Apparently his audience wasn't confused by it. They continue to embrace the mix of blues, R&B and honky-tonk that sprang from Parnell's west Texas background. "Growing up and playing bars in Texas, you had to be able to play hard if you wanted to get out alive," he chuckles. "And really, the truth of the matter is, the blues is the mother of all American music. As Muddy Waters said, 'The blues had a baby, and they called it rock 'n' roll.'"
But Parnell won't even label himself a rocker. "It's just American music," he says of his sound. "Southern American music is really what it is." Parnell's guitar work often sounds like a mating of Little Feat, the Allman Brothers and ZZ Top. But he can just as easily drop into T-Bone Walker mode, then fire it up for an Albert Collins solo that's as frosty as its originator. Parnell has never had a problem blurring lines or borders in his musical career. "I think it's very informal and natural," he says. "That's how people find their own sound, thank God, or else everybody would start sounding the same."
Impressed by the success cousin Robert Earl Keen and friend Lyle Lovett were having in Nashville, Parnell moved there in '87. He says he never had any inspirations of making a country record, but just wanted to get some songs heard. His self-titled 1990 debut was pure R&B, with a Muscle Shoals-sounding horn section. His third, On the Road, was perhaps his most country, featuring a duet with Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn on Hank Williams' "Take These Chains From My Heart." But it still had the soul of the Ray Charles version.
Though he'd moved to the country capital, Parnell still kept connected to his Texas roots, due in part to some advice from Bob Wills. Parnell's father, who had toured with Wills, remained lifelong friends with the originator of Western swing, and at the age of 6, Lee Roy performed with Wills on the radio. "I just remember him saying to me, 'Don't copy somebody else, just be yourself. Don't do what I do. You've got this legacy with me and my music – don't follow that. You've got something unique and different inside you that nobody else has and you need to find out what it is and do that.'" Wills' habit of mixing varied musical elements and coming up with his own brand of music gave Parnell his creative license.
He was soon collaborating with some of Nashville's finest songwriters, including Guy Clark, who counts Parnell as a friend. "Lee Roy ain't country," he said recently. "He's a whole lot of other songs." By remaining filter-free, Parnell gives himself the freedom to explore them all. "There's no such thing as a stupid idea," Parnell says. "You just gotta follow it, and you can't be afraid to say it out loud." His theory is that you have to keep the editor in your head out of the room until you're through writing. "I've never written anything worth a dang when I was thinking of it on a conscious level."
Parnell likens songwriting to playing baseball. "When you say, 'I'm going to write something great today,' that's like when you're at bat." And like any good coach will tell you, if you start thinking too hard about how good you're gonna hit the ball, you'll probably strike out. Clearing your mind, keeping your eye on the ball and swinging when you know it's time to swing is a Zen kind of idea, Parnell believes. "You might knock it out of the park; you don't know. But you're not going to hit it at all if you start thinking about where it's gonna go. That's baseball and songwriting 101," he says with a laugh. "My two passions, baseball and songwriting – the rules are the same."