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.
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.
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
"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!"
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