Independent Country Music News - 1st Quarter, 2006 - page 5a
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Continued from page 5 - LEE ROY PARNELL: BACK TO THE WELL

   Talk about your roots showing. Not only is Parnell back in the fold with DuBois, he's also finding his way by embracing the country blues/roadhouse rock/southern rock 'n' soul that had been his stock in trade when he was learning the ropes playing the club circuit in Austin in the early '70s with fellow Lone Star giants-in-training, Joe Ely, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Delbert McClinton, among others. His self-titled Arista debut featured a healthy dollop of the aforementioned tangy stylistic mix, including horns, but the hits only came after he went more for a mainstream, guitar-centered contemporary country sound--to the tune of eleven Top-10 singles over the course of five studio albums. After being unceremoniously dropped by Arista in 1998 (following the departure of DuBois), Parnell took four years off before testing the waters again in 2001 with a funky, soulful outing for Vanguard, titled Tell the Truth, which had not a lick of mainstream country on it, but a whole lot of the music that was the foundation of Parnell's repertoire from the get-go, including horns and some sassy, gospel- and R&B-drenched background singers.
Back To the Well also re-teams Parnell with his Tell the Truth co-producer, John Kunz, as well as most of the same cast of sterling musicians, most from Lee Roy's road band, who appeared on the Vanguard project. These include his stalwart companions Steve Mackey (bass), Lynn Williams (drums), James Pennebaker (electric and acoustic rhythm guitar), Kevin McKendree (pianos and Hammond B3) and the always impressive Mark Jordan (piano), with additional support provided by guest vocalists Jon Randall (on the steady grooving "Just Lucky That Way"), freshman sensation Jessi Alexander (on a touching blues ballad inspired by Lee Roy's mother's life, "Old Soul") and Lee Roy's own daughter, Allison, making an impressive, sultry vocal debut on the atmospheric ballad, "Daddies And Daughters," a song Parnell pere wrote for his firstborn child (that would be Allison) upon her graduation from high school. Wailing and, as the occasion demands, cooing in the background, and always enhancing the southern soul component of Parnell's new music, are the irrepressible and formidable duo of Vicki Hampton and Robert Bailey (both mainstays of Wynonna's hard-charging, R&B-rooted road troupe), and two relative newcomers blessed with a natural affinity for the church, sisters Regina and Ann McCrary, daughters of the Rev. Sam McCrary, a founding member of the legendary gospel quintet, The Fairfield Four (Buddy Miller had recommended the sisters to Parnell after they had knocked him out with their work on his United House of Prayer album).
   Another constant on Back To the Well that resonates in Lee Roy's past is the presence of a pair of top-drawer co-writers, Tony Arata (who sprang to prominence in 1990 with "The Dance,” a mega-hit off Garth Brooks' debut album), and one of Nashville's most respected craftsmen, Gary Nicholson. Arata made his initial contribution to Parnell's legacy in 1993, with the song "I'm Holding My Own," which was a Top-10 single off Lee Roy's third album, On The Road. Nicholson was with Parnell from the beginning, co-writing three songs with him for his debut album. For Back To the Well, the Arata-Parnell copyright appears on no less than half of the album's dozen tunes, in songs ranging in texture from the driving southern rocker "The Hunger" to the Delta-flavored, shambling blues of "That's All There Is." Four tunes carry the Parnell-Nicholson credit, including the funky title track and the beautiful gospel-tinged testimonial to a good woman's faith and love, "Saving Grace," the album's penultimate track. (As well, Tom Hambridge, who has produced Susan Tedeschi and Johnny Winter, teamed with Lee Roy on a fierce, Allmans-influenced blues rocker, "You Can't Lose 'Em All," and keyboardist Kevin McKendree joined forces with Parnell to fashion the buoyant, jazz-inflected album closing instrumental, "Cool Breeze.")
   Not the least of the enduring relationships that continue to pay dividends for Lee Roy is that with co-producer John Kunz, who was the engineer on most of Parnell's Arista albums. "John understands where I'm coming from and he just tries to help me get there," Lee Roy says. "When you're in the thick of it creatively you don't really want to be thinking about the machines and, Oh, God, I think we need to use a little bit more compression here. It wouldn't be truthful to say I produced this record by myself, because I didn't. He was there with me through the whole thing and is just as much a part of the production as I was. It's been a good working relationship. He's brilliant. There's not a lot of production, so to speak, on either one of these records. We wanted it to stay unpolished. This one may be less polished than Tell the Truth even. We were cognizant of that when we were mixing it and making it. 'We don't need a bunch of reverb and a bunch of delays. This is timeless music.' You hear those '80s rock and country records and you hear all that horrible reverb all over the place and it immediately dates it. You knew when it came out. Hell, this stuff coulda come out in 1956, a lot of it."
   After being dropped from Arista, Lee Roy took his time before surfacing with some new music. When he did, it was on the respected Vanguard label, home to some of America’s great blues, folk and jazz artists of the 20th Century. Lee Roy added to that legacy with his searing, energized but thoughtful romp through southern rock ‘n’ blues on Tell The Truth.
   “That was my chance to tell the world what I really think and who I really am,” Lee Roy notes of his Vanguard project, “and whatever happens, happens. That is what I needed to do.”
   After that one-off was completed, it was back to the woodshed (or more accurately, to his home studio), to write and record some songs—even calling them “rough demos” is a generous description, according to Lee Roy—and eventually he started sending some out to producers he thought might need material for their artists. At the top of his contact list were Tim DuBois and Tony Brown. A day after Universal South’s General Manager, Van Fletcher, saw him sitting in with Gov’t Mule at a show in Nashville (and had already seen him twice sitting in with the Allman Brothers elsewhere), Lee Roy received a call from DuBois, asking him to come over right away and take a meeting. Figuring Tim had found a song or two he wanted for a Universal South artist, Lee Roy sauntered into the office, where he was met by both Van and Tim. In the ensuing conversation, the executives found out that Lee Roy wasn’t interested in kowtowing to country radio anymore—“I can’t go there now. I’ve done it, it’s a different game.”—and Lee Roy found out they wanted him to cut the record he wanted to make, and moreover, the songs he had been sending them would work just fine. In fact, in DuBois’ estimation Lee Roy’s toughest decision would be deciding which songs would make the album and which ones wouldn’t, because there was so much strong material already in the can. Caught by surprise because he hadn’t even thought he was making an album of his own, a grateful, slightly numbed Lee Roy summoned John Kunz to the studio and got rhythm.
   “We dug our heels in over here and started recording,” Lee Roy says. “Thought about going to a studio to re-cut all this stuff, but then we'd go, ‘We're gonna lose that vocal if we do that.’ So we just sort of went on with it, handed it in and they were very happy, and I was incredibly happy that they were happy. It was Van that jockeyed it through with Tim's blessing all the way.”

Lee Roy’s assessment of Back To the Well?

“Best record I ever made in my life,” he asserts without hesitation. “Absolutely. I don't mean to be uppity about that, I just honestly believe it is. I'm proud of it, lyrically, sonically, melodically, and it all came out of not even trying to make a record, but just trying to get a little ‘mailbox’ money—you know, a royalty check every four months from someone covering one of your songs. Believe me, this record’s as much of a revelation to me as it is to a listener who cares enough to dig in and really listen to it. “But it’s me, suitin' up and showin' up like I always do.”



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