LEE ROY PARNELL
GUITARS, SLIDES AND THE BLUES
by Michael RedTail Wolf Nystrom
I know you're a native Texan, but I don't know what town you were born in.
Abilene, Texas and I grew up on a ranch near Stephenville, Texas.
When did you start playing guitar?
When I was about 12 yrs old.
Well, initially I started out as a drummer (which continues to keep me groove conscious). By the time I was twelve or so, I started fallingin love with the three Kings, Freddie, B.B., and Albert.
If you don't mind could you tell us a little about your family, your parents and siblings if any?
I have two children. Blake, 23 and Allison, 19. A brother, Rob and a sister Cappy. Both younger than I. Both of my parents have passed.
What about your current family situation, wife, kids?
Donna and I have been together eight years, and of course the kids are very special - and we have Lillie, a red heeler that happens to be black.
How did your childhood effect your move towards being a professional musician if any? Was music in your house at an early age?
My father and Bob Wills grew up together and remained lifelong friends. In fact, my first public performance was at age six with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys on WBAP in Fort Worth. Live radio programs were still common in 1962. In the ranching community where I was raised, there was an old abandoned school house that the neighboring ranching families kept up for monthly jam sessions and covered dish affairs. The "School Hill Musicals" were held every first Friday of the month. Most all the men and some of the women played some kind of stringed instrument, a hold over from the old house dances of the 1800's. It was the end of an era that I'm blessed to have experienced. Hardly anyone had TV, or could get reception for
that matter, so we had to make our own entertainment.
Seeing you at GABBA Fest was a thrill for all of us in attendance, can you tell us what the Allman Brothers Band means to you?
Well, to put it mildly, The Brothers have been my favorite band by a long shot since I first heard them. I was about 12. They blended all my favorite music. Blues, jazz, a little country and swing, but to me, it was all Rock and Roll. Playing to that audience is so natural and wonderful. I can't remember a better night than the one at the Douglas. Of course, sitting in with The ABB this March at The Beacon was an incredible honor. I will be forever grateful for the chance to play with them.
As far as other guitar influences, who would you say influences your music and playing style other than the Brothers?
Well, being from the Ft. Worth area, I had the chance to see Freddie King a lot. All of us from that time and area were heavily influenced by Freddie. My God, what a powerful presence!
You toured with Dickey Betts and Great Southern this past summer for a while, can you give us a feel for that experience?
Wonderful. Dickey has been so gracious and kind to me. He keeps growing and challenging himself and others around him. We have had many wonderful nights on that stage together. Again, I owe him a lot!
Which songwriters do you most admire, people that you look at and say "Man, I want to write like that?"
Wow, that’s quite a question. Writing is an illusive process. For me, it’s kind of a Zen like experience, when I'm hitting on all eight cylinders. You suit up and show up and try to stay out of the way! I don't think there is anybody better than Dickey when it comes to instrumentals... his will be around forever. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, big time. Of course, Gregg has penned some of my favorite songs of all time. My co-writers are a constant reminder of excellence. Tony Arata (Zen Master) and Gary Nicholson (Always digging deeper) and Guy Clark ("Nuff said). I love my writer buddies. As far as Americana, Haggard is
the poet of the common man.
As far as vocalists, who are your influences there?
Mostly soul singers. Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye... I can only keep trying.
How would you describe your writing style? Do songs just fly into your head or do you have to work at it?
As I said before, it's best NOT to think about it too much. There is a time and place for the editor in my writing, but only after I've exhausted my sub-consionous.
Do you start with lyrics and then a melody, or vice-versa or does it change?
There are no rules, but generally it all comes at once.
Do you write often, or does it come in spurts?
I keep a small cassette recorder with me to log ideas as they float by. It's hard for me to write on the road, so when I get home, I'll listen to the tapes and rummage through the napkins and notes to see if something is there.
I know a bit about your first Les Paul, could you share the story of "Goldie" with our readers?
Sure. I had Kays, Airlines and the like from the age of 12 on. Then I had a single pick-up SG for a while. After hearing The ABB, I started my quest for a Les Paul. They were hard to come by. I sold my motorcycle and my SG at 15 and found a cat in Ft. Worth who had two for sale. One was a '69 Gold Top, $350.00 and the other was a '56 Gold Top, $300.00. Lucky for me, I could only afford the '56, Goldy.
You played a Fender Stratocaster for a good while in public, now you seem to be an exclusive Gibson man. Is that strictly an endorsement deal or a personal preference?
Sometimes you have to use different tools to break bad habits. The Fenders were a way to break through to another dimension. I only had Goldy for the longest time, till I was 27 or so. Then the Fenders, and then I came full circle back to the Gibsons. Any tool that’s right for the job...
What a thrill it must be to have a guitar named in your honor by Gibson now. The Lee Roy Parnell CS-336, I can't imagine what that must feel like. Since I do the guitar reviews this one is near and dear to me! Can you tell us about the guitar and how you closely you were involved in it's production?
Well, to be honest, my signature 336 was originally just an attempt to build a guitar that sounded like a 335 , but with some specific modifications. Dear ol' Mike Mcguire- a Master Builder at Gibson- and I got together with the blessing of Rick Gembar, the head of the custom division, to create the perfect semi-hollow body for me. Basically, a slightly smaller body, a very thick neck. The pick-ups are stock PAF hummbuckers and a solid carved maple top. The fret board is ebony. The idea was good, the results were great.
You are probably known more as a Country artist by most folks. I have always thought of you as just a great musician and writer. You have been nominated for three CMA awards and two Grammy's. What genre' of music do you see yourself fitting in, if there is just one?
That is a hard question for me to answer. My first love is blues and R&B. My childhood background was Western Swing, then there were a few country artists I admired (Merle, Willie and Waylon). However, the music of my generation was Rock and Roll.
I had been playing clubs in Austin and around Texas and Louisiana, creating a style that leaned heavily on Blues, but all those other elements were present as well. You can't change who you are, just because people want to pigeonhole you. It’s just a menudo, if you will. I never set out to become a "country artist." However, times were much different in 1987. Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Nancy Griffith and Robert Earl Keen (my cousin), had all moved to Nashville and were getting publishing and record deals. It looked like things were moving in the right direction up there and Lyle and Robert kept encouraging me to give it a try. I was very wary about the move but I decided to take a leap of faith. In six months I had a writing deal with Polygram and six months later I had signed with Arista records. Six or seven albums later that all ended and I was free to record " Tell The Truth” for Vanguard. I've just signed with Universal South, back with my old friend Tim Dubois. No constraints, just Lee Roy music.
Do you ever feel like you have been pigeon holed as just a slide player, or just a country picker? I know what you can do, and it's not just limited to those two styles. You are a great guitar player. Does it bother you to be "labeled" in any genre' as a musician or writer in any way?
I just want people to know me for what I am. To me it's just "American Music".
Can you talk about the current trends in Country Music at this moment? Do you like where it's at, where it's headed? Or have you kind of headed in a completely different direction?
I have no earthly idea.
There is a spiritual feel to many of the songs you write. How does your faith and spirituality influence your music and your choices?
In every way. I write from the gut. What I believe and what I know to be the truth.
It's all about telling the truth.
You have preformed with a GRITZ favorite, Ms. Bonnie Bramlett, on many occasions; how did you guys meet? You seem to click nicely especially on your latest record.
We are old souls who have always known each other. I love Bonnie and love working with her. We actually met in Houston sometime in the early 80's. Crazy 'bout Bonnie.
"Tell The Truth", your latest record is your best record ever in my opinion, but it's a bit of a departure from some of your earlier stuff. Can you elaborate on the move towards recording more bluesy stuff? Or do you see it that way at all?
Thanks. It's my favorite too. The next record will be in that same direction, but more raw and edgy.
In addition to Bonnie Bramlett appearing on your latest record, there are also two other of my favorite musician's that you teamed up with, Keb Mo' and Delbert McClinton. Now there are two guys that know something about the Blues! Can you talk about those two cats a bit?
I've known Delbert for 30 years and am a card-carrying disciple of the man and his music. As far as Keb-Mo, I'm crazy about him personally and as a musician. We have become very good friends. Can't say enough good about the man!
I know when we first "met", I asked you about something that happened on stage in Macon, Georgia one night a couple of years ago. Something spiritual was happening and I felt it! It seemed to hit you in a deep way and I saw it kind of lift you and the music to another place. Is there anyway to put into words what you were feeling, and probably feel a lot when you are "in that zone"?
That was a magical night, to say the least. Something supernatural definitely happened. I can't say for sure what it was, but I have my suspicions. That kind of thing is rare and impossible to explain.
How does playing the Blues affect you? And what do the blues mean to you?
Seems everyone has a different answer to that question. It makes me feel better. The best medicine I know.
What are your impressions of my hometown, Macon? I know you have expressed some deep feelings about the place, could you share that with our readers?
I fell in love with Macon the first time I saw it. I was 17 and had gone on a pilgrimage with a couple of buddies. That town has more soul than any place I’ve ever been. The smells, the sights, the spirits, not to mention Mama Louises' cooking. They never leave me. Matter of fact, can I dedicate the interview to Mama Louise?
Lee Roy Parnell with our interviewer
Sure! Are you working on any current studio projects?
As we speak!
Guy Clark, Trisha Yearwood, Delbert McClinton come to mind as some great slide work you've done on other people's records. Do you enjoy sitting in with other folks just as much as making your own records? Or is it a whole different thang?
I love 'em both. It's nice to step out of the spotlight and play some damn guitar!
When can we expect the next Lee Roy Parnell record?
The first quarter of 2005.
Lee Roy dedicates this interview to Mama Louise Hudson at the H&H in Macon, Ga.