There is a wise tranquility in Lee Roy Parnell’s Back to the Well that befits an artist who’s now in his 49th year of treading through life’s minefield. He’s a guy with lots to say about love, family, purity and persistence, and he says it convincingly as his graceful guitar lines swirl and flow around his terse but thoughtful lyrics.
Parnell has been on the road solidly since early March. So he phones CMT.com on a Sunday, one of his rare and “much-needed” days off. He’s somewhere in Southern California.
“This is the album I’ve been trying to make my whole life,” he declares. “I wanted to write things that I thought would matter and maybe ease somebody’s burden who’d been there, too.” Parnell’s chief co-writers on the project are Tony Arata and Gary Nicholson, but he also has assists from Allen Shamblin, Tom Hambridge and Kevin McKendree.
“Songs like ‘Old Soul,'” Parnell continues, “I wrote for my mother — a selfless, check-your-ego-at-the-door and raise-your-family [kind of person]. There are a lot of mothers out there who can relate to it. Women come up to me after the shows with tears in their eyes. That’s enough payment for me right there.”
There’s something else Parnell has noticed about the effect of his new songs. “Strangely enough, it’s always been men who like the guitar playing, and the women like the lyrics,” he says. “But on this album — I think because of ‘Daddies and Daughters’ — you see big old men out there with big tears in their eyes. And they come up to me and say, ‘I had to leave the room.’ That’s the first time I can remember that I ever hit a nerve lyrically with the men.”
Both sexes can see the wisdom of “Breaking the Chain,” in which Parnell vows not to pass on to others — especially to his children — the pains and indignities that have been inflicted on him. “If I see a wrong,” he says, “it’s up to me to make it right. If somebody hears that song, maybe it will strike a chord with them, and whatever it is that’s gone awry in their lives, they can stop that and move it into a positive direction.”
“You Can’t Lose ‘Em All” and “The Hunger” both counsel the path of persistence. “Something Out of Nothing” examines the magical properties of love. “Don’t Water It Down” revels in experiences that are unfiltered. The album gleams with such gems.
Parnell duets on the tender “Daddies and Daughters” with his own daughter, Allison. Asked if she is planning a career in music, the singer moans, “Lord, I hope not! She’s getting ready to close out four years at [Texas Christian University] in Fort Worth, getting her nursing degree. She’ll graduate in the fall, and I’m very happy about that. She loves to sing, and she sings beautifully.” Occasionally, he says, she joins him on the road. “I’ve said [to her about performing], ‘Enjoy it. Let it be something that’s not a burden. Let it be a blessing. Once it becomes your job, then it turns into something else.'”
Parnell made his mark on country music in the 1990s when he was signed to Arista Records. During that decade, he had seven Top 10 and three Top 20 hits, including “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am,” “On the Road” and “Love Without Mercy.” But it wasn’t an entirely smooth experience.
“I don’t want to discount what we did at Arista because I’m very proud of that,” he says. “We worked hard, and we were able to keep our integrity through it. I never felt like I was jeopardizing my integrity, but during that particular time, they were really listening to radio programmers and consultants and that sort of thing. That has a ripple effect [on artists], and that didn’t set too well with me.”
Parnell credits Tim DuBois, who was then president of Arista’s country division, for making his stay at the label satisfying. “Tim was always fair with me. He allowed me to make the kind of records I wanted to make. … He said, ‘Look, I won’t ever make you put out anything that you don’t want to put out if you won’t try to make me put out anything on you that I don’t want to put out.’ So we had kind of a checks and balance system.”
Fortunately for Parnell, he and DuBois are together again. DuBois now co-chairs Universal South Records, which released Back to the Well.
After DuBois left Arista, the company dropped Parnell from its roster and, in so doing, set off a domino effect. “It was a hard couple of years,” Parnell remembers. “When you build a career as we did at that time, you bank so much on country radio airplay. Your publishing deal — whether you want to believe it or not — is tied to that because they’re betting on you to cut your own songs. The booking agency — that’s another part of our income — is impossible to get on the phone when you lose your record deal. … Man! It was spooky. It was scary.”
The upside of being dropped, Parnell says, was that it energized him. “It was the best thing in the world that could have happened to me — and I even knew it at the time,” he says. “I just knew I was going to be facing a rough patch. I’m not a quitter, and I’m pretty bullheaded about my career and my music and what I believe in. I knew I’d survive it. But there was about two years there that I was borrowing money on everything I owned.”
In 2001, after years of wandering in the music-business wilderness, Parnell recorded the album Tell the Truth for Vanguard Records. “That kind of set the template for the second path of my career,” he says. What it didn’t do, however, was restore him to his earlier prominence.
Then, in the process of pitching his songs to DuBois in the hope that he would have other artists to cut them, Parnell found himself with a new record deal and the encouragement to make any kind of album he wanted.
“In all things in life, the minute you quit trying to do something is the very minute it comes to you,” Parnell observes. “I was just in a writing frenzy and had been since the Vanguard record had come and gone. I’d just kind of holed up. … I really wasn’t focused on one particular thing — just writing about subjects that were important to me.”
In pitching his songs, he began sending material to DuBois and Universal South executives Tony Brown and Van Fletcher.
“Van had seen me a couple of times sitting in with the Allman Brothers,” Parnell says. “He went to Tim and said, ‘Aren’t you and Lee Roy real close?’ Tim said, ‘Yeah.’ So Van said, ‘Why in the hell isn’t he over here recording?’ That’s really the way it happened. It was kind of effortless.”