By Kevin Porter
Music fans could be forgiven if they celebrated the news of a new Lee Roy Parnell album, Midnight Believer, for it has been 11 long years since his last one. Parnell does it all and does it well. He’s an ace guitarist, a soulful vocalist, and a quality songwriter. His range of musical styles is equally impressive, covering blue-eyed soul, delta blues, road house rock, southern boogie, Texas swing, and gospel, sometimes covering some of these styles in the same song. Over 20 of Parnell’s songs have appeared on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list, and he has written hits for other artists as well. He played slide guitar on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s, “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and has played slide guitar for Delbert McClinton as well, among other artists. Parnell kindly spoke to me shortly after recording music with other artists to help benefit hurricane victims.
KP: You’ve been away from the music business for a while.
LP: (Laughs). Yes, I vanished. I had a son a few years back, and I decided to take some time to be with him. My other two children are 37 and 33, and I missed so much of their growing up, being on the road and doing what we have to do to make a living. I just knew with Jack that if I didn’t take this opportunity to spend time with him that I would regret it forever, and I’m so glad I did. But now he’s in school and rocking and rolling, and Dad is back out on the road.
KP: Is the music industry different from 11 years ago?
LP: Very much so. The very fabric of the music industry has changed. It’s kind of a do it yourself situation now. When I started making Midnight Believer, everyone said put it out yourself. I didn’t want to do that. My job is to be the creative force, not the marketing force because I’m not any good at that. I was introduced to Bob Frank with BFD who has been in the music industry for years, and we struck a deal within 15 minutes.
Getting on the radio is not what it used to be, of course. There’s Sirius radio, which is wonderful, and there are public radio stations that play blues and rhythm and blues. And country music, too. Basically, if it’s got soul, I’m into it. In Texas, where I’m from, it’s pretty common for the lines to get blurred. People like Delbert McClinton, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo’, that’s all in my wheelhouse. Those are the people I relate to. With their music, you can’t really say well that’s blues lately–it’s also R&B, there’s some country and there’s a little folk.
KP: Going back to the dramatic changes in the music industry, you made a nice Pledge page for Midnight Believer, but I bet you never thought you had to that.
LP: No, I really didn’t. It just takes a lot of money to get anything heard. Even with a (record) deal, the details are structured in such a way that your best hope is just to cover your expenses and get the record out there, so the pledge thing has been a blessing. I never want anyone to feel like we’re begging for money. What we’re trying to do is offer them something in return, like house concerts, merchandise, or something else in order for them to feel like they’re a part of the team.
KP: How has the pledge drive gone?
LP: We’ve been touring pretty hard and heavy and I haven’t had a chance to see how the pledge drive is doing. I think this is going to be the way people are going to be making records for a long, long time and touring with the help of your fans because that’s who it was for anyway. Gone are the days of eighty-thousand-dollar video budgets. You’re just hoping you can pay for the engineers and the musicians to get the record made in the first place. I’m still trying to figure it out. You have to keep writing and recording and feeding your audience.
KP: I understand you were in a dry spell in terms of writing new music, and Greg Barnhill lit a fuse for you, and I was wondering how he did that.
LP: I had an office on Music Row in Nashville. That’s another thing that’s changed in the music business is that it’s real rare these days to find someone who’s simply a songwriter and that’s all they do because we’re getting about a nickel on the dollar compared to what we were getting. You have to multi-task; you have to do a lot of other things. Anyway, Greg stopped by for a visit, and I’ve always admired Greg—he’s a fantastic writer and singer. He asked why I wasn’t making records. I said I didn’t really have anything to say. Greg suggested that we just start writing and, and well, it came pretty quick. We were writing songs like mad. It was apparent to me and to him that we had something unique and special. I had other songs that I’ve written and co-written with other people, but there was something about what Greg and I were doing. It was kind of this Texas meets Louisiana, swampy kind of thing. I decided to make every song on Midnight Believer a song co-written by me and Greg. I owe him a lot for kicking me in the hind end and get me moving in the right direction. Sometimes, there’s no replacement for just nailing your butt to the chair and not getting up until you’re done.
KP: I understand your dad played with Bob Wills, and you played with Bob Wills as a kid. Tell me what that was like.
LP: My dad and Bob were lifelong friends, and Bob was like a member of my family. I didn’t think twice about it. I thought every family had a Bob Wills. I later realized it was a remarkable opportunity to be around that music. Once again, it was the blues. Everything Bob did was based on the blues. My love for the blues came from listening to him, and that was mostly what we listened to as a family, except my mother had some Louis Armstrong records. I realized later how closely my soloing is tied to Louis Armstrong’s music in that his solos were closely tied to the melody. Vocally, I pulled from Sam Cooke as much as anybody. He had an amazing delivery and I think I still try to emulate him in some way without even knowing it. Those are the things that are deep seated from childhood.
KP: How do you approach songwriting? Do you start noodling on a guitar or do you write some lyrics down first and try to write music around it?
LP: It can happen any of those ways. I might come up with a riff and play around with it for a month, trying to figure out what’s pulling me into it. It’s more the lyrics as I’ve gotten older. Someone will say something to someone or someone will say something to me and it will have a profound effect on me. I keep a running list on my phone. Before, I kept lyrics in notebooks, and I’ve got notebooks piled up to my waist, but now, everything goes on the phone and is backed up to the cloud. It’s important to get it down because you won’t remember. You think you will, but you won’t. If you’re lying in bed and come up with something, you gotta get up, grab a guitar, sit down, and once again, nail your butt to the chair until it’s done. It’s fun, but it’s work. Songwriting is basically 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration.
KP: Your music defies categorization. There’s the roadhouse rock, boogie, swing, gospel, you got them all, and it can change within the song.
LP: The blues is what ties it all together. I just love the blues and always have. Even with rock and roll, I loved the roll more than the rock. They say “Rocket 88” (by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats) was the first rock and roll record ever made. If you listen to that track, there’s a lot more roll than there is rock. You listen to Little Richard, those records sound so good, like they were made yesterday. Earl Palmer, a New Orleans drummer, played drums on those Little Richard records. Little Richard was playing straight 8’s with his right hand, and Earl was so used to swinging that it created a “push and pull” tension. People try to emulate it, but it’s either in you or it’s not. It just slayed me as a little boy, and I just loved it. Still do.
KP: Are there any artists out there now that have this push and pull in their music?
LP: Yes. There are certainly some young people doing it, but I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head. You certainly hear it in Bonnie Raitt’s music. You also hear it in Chuck Berry’s music, with Johnnie Johnson on piano swinging it and Chuck playing it straight. It still exists—you hear it with the (Fabulous) Thunderbirds when Jimmy Vaughn and Kim Wilson were playing together.
KP: I was just struck when you said on your website that you’re just starting to hit your stride now. To me, and from afar, it seems like you’ve been hitting your stride for some time.
LP: As you mature, you don’t work quite as hard to pull off the same thing because you know how to do it. It reminds me of when I first starting playing racquetball. I would go to the Y. and you see these young guys, they’re running all over the court while the old guys are just standing in one place and they’re killing these young guys with just a flick of the wrist. I guess when I was young, I was a little more frantic, but as I get older and I settle in, you realize it’s about intensity and intent.
KP: Tell me about the new record, Midnight Believer. I think it’s great and it fits in well with your catalog.
LP: Thank you. I try to make every album stand on its own, and it’s really difficult for me to pull one song out of the album and say that’s what the record is about. One song leads into the next one. It’s kind of like taking a little trip, listening to an album. I don’t really make singles, I make albums, and at this stage of the game, I don’t see any reason to change.
The whole record to me is about survival. We have survived. Here’s another way to look at the record because as a young man, I don’t think you can write a song like, “Sunny Days” unless you lived some life and have the wind kicked out of you many times. I guess it’s true that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
KP: What do you have planned in the future? I read you’re interested in doing a duets album.
LP: Yes, I am, and as a matter of fact, I just asked B.J. Thomas if he would sing on it, and he said he would love to. I have all these friends I’ve made over the years, and you know, we’re all survivors. These are the years where you relish in what you earned. It also will show something different to our audience, and it goes back to regularly feeding your audience.
KP: Would this be like an album where you’re doing a duet with a different person for each track?
LP: Yeah. Keb’ Mo’, for sure, and Bonnie Raitt, I would love to work with her. And some of the singer-songwriters, like my friend Rodney Crowell. We’ve lost so many. I would have loved to have done something with Guy Clark. Maybe that’s the name of another album.
KP: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
LP: Thank you, and it was a pleasure talking to you as well.
For more information on Lee Roy Parnell and Midnight Believer: