For Lee Roy Parnell, sifting through a decade of hits and precious old memories was something of a new experience. The talented Texan, who has been recording for nearly a decade, had always been far too focused on the future and all it held to dwell on past projects or relive bygone experiences. When his record label approached him about releasing a greatest hits package, he realized it might be a good time not only to reflect on where he’s been musically, but where he’s headed as well.
“I was against the idea at first,” admits Parnell, “because it seemed it was signaling a finality issue that I didn’t want to project. But then someone explained to me that I owed it to my listeners to put this record out, so I decided I wanted to show them where I’m going as well as where I’ve been. So we changed the title to Hits And Highways Ahead to reflect that, and since the road has been an ongoing theme in my music from the beginning, that title seemed appropriate.
“It’s funny, because I’ve never actually listened to one of my albums front to back after finishing it, mainly because I’ve been so involved in the production of them. I was there through it all, from the first blank piece of paper to the first idea to the very last EQ tweaking on the master. So you have to understand I’ve had enough of that project by the time it’s finished, and I’m ready to go on to the next thing I’m working on by then. I’ve always felt what was important was what I was working on right now, and life is so short, you don’t really have time to reflect. So it was good for me to sit down and put all this stuff together and look at how far we’ve come.”
Looking back over those years inspired Parnell to chronicle them from start to finish on paper, and before he knew it, he had penned a 5,000-word essay about the project. “To me, the inside of this record is just as important as the music itself. Writing these liner notes was a steady stream of consciousness for me — I hardly ever used an eraser. I wrote 5,000 words in over two hours, and it just poured out of me. I just sat back and let it flow, like I do in my songwriting.”
Throughout the literary journey, Parnell recalled the night long ago that he opened for Bonnie Raitt at a Nashville club (which led to his signing with Arista/Nashville), and meeting the many veteran writers who have befriended him along the way. Though his career has been filled with the typical ups and downs that most entertainers experience, he has continually held onto his passion and clarity of purpose, which makes him a rare species in the music world these days. He has never wavered from the path he chose starting out as a young performer on the Austin music scene and has protected the integrity of his music through the years like a lioness protects her cubs. Proof of that recently surfaced when Parnell found some tapes he recorded back in high school that sounded very similar to the music he puts out today.
“I’m a packrat, and I keep tapes running constantly in the studio to keep the outtakes,” explains Parnell. “I can go back and find tapes I recorded before I was out of high school where the heart and soul of the music isn’t really that much different than what I’m doing now. The songs have definitely gotten better, and there’s a keener sense of maturity, but the heart and soul isn’t that different.”
Heart and soul are key ingredients in Parnell’s rich mixture of blue-eyed soul, which is comprised of equal parts R&B, blues, western swing, Tex-mex, country, and half a dozen other influences. Fans will find this new album seasoned with just the right amount of favorite radio hits and a dash of what’s to come in the next decade for the talented entertainer. From the rollicking, break-free-before-it’s-too-late anthem, “On The Road,” and the feisty, rhetorical “What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am,” to the bittersweet “I’m Holding My Own,” and the sensual, grooving “Love Without Mercy,” Hits And Highways Ahead treats the listener to some of Parnell’s best. Two new tracks, “She Won’t Be Lonely Long” and “A Long Way To Fall” were recorded with a dream team of Parnell’s choosing in Jackson Browne’s Santa Monica studio for a different flavor.
Drummer Jim Keltner, Little Feat’s Fred Tackett, and longtime pal James Pennebaker all joined forces at Parnell’s request to add some zing to the new tracks, and Graham Nash even stopped by during a break in recording a new Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young project to offer some advice on vocal arrangements. The new songs not only balanced out the project but also afforded Parnell the chance to work with some of his musical heroes. “I’m about halfway through my life, so it’s a nice time to go back and reflect, which is what the biggest part of this album is about. But it’s also about showing musically where I want to go from here — which is basically to tear the fences down and let the horses run where they want to!”
Always jazzed to be collaborating with and learning from fellow musicians in any creative endeavor, Parnell feels fortunate to have been part of Nashville’s music scene for a decade. As part of that landscape, he has participated in many amazing projects, though he counts his moment onstage at the CMAs with Merle Haggard as his biggest career thrill ever. “Being onstage with Merle after playing ‘Working Man’s Blues’ and standing behind him, guitar in hand, to help honor him was one of those moments when you want someone to pinch you to see if it’s real or not. There I was with the guy who I admire most, and he was receiving this honor he so deserves, and I was part of it. It was amazing!”
Parnell experienced yet another amazing, career-changing moment recently when he was asked to participate in the groundbreaking “Music Bridges Over Troubled Water” program, which joined American entertainers with their Cuban counterparts for a week of collaborative songwriting and sharing. Parnell was the only country artist on the nine-day excursion, and he shared the experience with musical heavyweights like Mick Fleetwood, Bonnie Raitt, Burt Bacharach, Gladys Knight and Lisa Loeb (who became his best buddy during the trip). He found the experience more moving than he had ever expected and came away with rich memories of a country often seen only through jaded eyes.
“I wasn’t prepared for what I saw,” admits Parnell, who wrote with two Cuban writers every day during the creative journey. “I grew up like the rest of us, learning whatever our government wanted us to think about Cuba. But I found the people to be warm and friendly, highly educated, and proud of their heritage. There’s an ethic that goes on there, and I don’t see how the political powers that be can keep our countries and people apart much longer.”
The talented Texan was also impressed with the credentials of his Cuban counterparts and their ability to abandon formulas for the sake of an idea. “Being from Texas, I thought I knew about Latin rhythms, but I didn’t know anything compared to what I saw there! Their rhythms are complex — almost beyond comprehension! There, if you want to be a musician, you have to take music theory for two years before you can choose an instrument. So they know their theory! And the writers didn’t have reins on them — they didn’t edit themselves. They would allow themselves at any cost to say what needed to be said, sometimes at the sake of rhyme scheme and timing. I felt like a kid going to school for the first time, like I was starting over from scratch, because I had to drop a lot of preconceived ideas about songwriting in order to let these people say what they needed to say. Writing with them really stretched me out a lot.”
In a way, the trip was a sign that Parnell’s career has come full circle — from eager, hungry student ready to set the world on fire with his blazing slide, to wiser, comfortable-in-his-own-ability recording artist, and now back to student once again. He has toyed with the idea of putting music on a lower burner in favor of a possible film career as an actor and screenwriter, something that would stoke those fires of creativity in his heart and soul in a different way. And after looking back on the 10-year audio diary he has already created for posterity, he realizes his job description is much, much broader than just entertainer.
“I’m a historian … and a writer of tales in songs and in text,” Parnell explains. “I’ve been writing short stories for years, and during the last few years I’ve been adapting them for screenplays. I want to record some of the flavor of the American landscape and its people, and the richness of its tapestry, before it’s lost. The homogenization of America is causing all of our cities to become the same. The people in Boston see the same TV shows and commercials as the ones in Baton Rouge, because the content is dictated by consultants who tell the networks what to play. So when you go to a big city today, you see the same thing you saw in the last city — the same stores, restaurants, etc.
“There are a few pockets left in the world that are still unique regionally — places in Texas and Louisiana that have held onto their heritage at all costs. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I spend more and more time at home collecting research for my future projects. Because I want to protect our heritage and preserve it for future generations. There are still a few of us who hang onto those things, I guess, and always will.”