By: Peggy Purser Freeman
“This life can be a great wasteland. You got to do everything you can. Only way to quench my thirst is start puttin’ first things first. It’s gonna make me a better man…” (From I Got to Get Back to the Well)
Stephenville’s own triple threat, Lee Roy Parnell, recently made that trip home to “give back” to the community where his music began. An ace guitarist, a hit songwriter and an award-winning recording artist, Lee Roy combines Blue-Eyed Soul, Roadhouse Rock, Texas Swing and Gospel to create hit songs and dynamic performances. This successful Erath County legend has penned a collection of work that reveals his soul.
“On the road where the night is black, On the road where you don’t look back, There’s a white line in the distance where it’s going nobody knows.” (from On the Road)
“I suddenly realized it’s been over 40 years since I started playing at the Rec Hall (Recreation Center) in Stephenville,” Lee Roy Parnell explained a few weeks before his Homecoming event. “That’s where it began for me. When a group of us planned this homecoming, I wanted two things. First, I wanted to play back home with my friends and family. Second, I wanted to start an annual event, see it grow, give back to the community.”
“Yes, Ma’am, I come from Texas. I’m mighty proud of my roots. I don’t wear a hat but I got forty pair of cowboy boots. Me and Bob Wills used to sing the San Antonio Rose.” (from I’m Country Down to My Soul)
“I lived on the 3,000 acre ranch, halfway between Lingleville and Desdemona. There were no kids close by—so my horse and my dog were my companions. I had a good little pony that I got from Junior Trice, who happened to be the best guitar player in the county. Mama would pack me a lunch and I wouldn’t come home until dark. Those caliche hills and natural springs were where my imagination got its start. That was my world.”
The Parnell family, neighbors, and friends gathered to play music in an old one-room schoolhouse near the ranch. These events were a holdover from back in the day when Lee Roy’s dad, as a teenager, played house-dances in West Texas around Turkey.
“We called the event, the School Hill Musical. Everyone brought a covered dish. There would be dozens of kids playing outside while music just poured out of that old building. Mama wrote about the events in both the Stephenville and the Dublin papers. Her writing was masterful and greatly influenced mine. Bob Wills was like family. Like Bob, Lee Roy’s father, Roy Parnell, as a teenager had toured the Southwest with a traveling medicine show. The two became close, lifelong friends. Lee Roy’s first public performance came on Bob Wills’ radio show at the age of six.
In the summertime, the Parnell family lived in Glen Rose on the Paluxy River. “Summer was magical there. It was as if time stood still and all of us kids stayed in that river. Our trips to Glen Rose started around 1968. We stayed at Oakdale Park in those little petrified-rock cabins. Pete and Wimp May owned the park across the street from the Big Rocks, which was built around a huge swimming pool called ‘The Oakdale Plunge.’ My family bought a little house right next door that became our summer home.”
“Yeah, I used to live my life for Friday at five…Now you make every night a Saturday night and every day is Sunday.” (from Every Night is a Saturday Night)
Each fall, Lee Roy and his parents and brother Rob Roy moved back to Stephenville for school. In high school, Lee Roy and friends formed a band. “Everyone went to the football games, but there was really nothing to do after that. Back then Ronnie Isham ran the Rec Hall. He and I struck a deal. My band and I would play and split the gate with the Rec Hall. Mama collected money in a Roi-Tan cigar box. On that first show, Joe Kohr was on drums, Dana Wolf was singing. I only had one amp to run everything, but the major problem was I only knew nine songs. So we had to keep playing them over and over.”
Lee Roy started and left school early. He explained it like this: “It was the spring before graduation. I remember the day I drove out of my Mama and Dad’s driveway. Armed with only my prized possession, my old 1956 Gibson Les Paul and a few clothes, I set out for Austin on my International Scout motorcycle. It would be the first of many destinations in my journey. In 2013 Gibson Guitar Company issued a “Lee Roy Parnell Signature Les Paul Guitar. I would have never dreamed of receiving an honor like that.” After Austin, Lee Roy traveled to Tulsa then to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and finally New York City, where he met musician/ author Kinky Friedman. Kinky was looking for a guitar player. Lee Roy explained. “We went for breakfast and that began the roller coaster ride of my life.”
In 2011 Lee Roy Parnell was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Since then, Lee Roy’s career has stretched across the decades and now comes full circle to a Homecoming Concert. “My brother Rob Roy and I always play when we’re together. It’s great to play with musicians like Stephenville’s Sam Yates and Woody Lawson, Les and Frank Summers and Craig Webb.
“I Guess I’m Just Lucky that Way”
“Now the wheel’s gonna spin ’round and ’round again. There’s still all the ways to lose and all the ways to win. When I look back at all the games I’ve had to play, it’s okay, I guess. I’m just lucky that way.” (from I Guess I’m Just Lucky That Way)
“My dad would always say, ‘Well, Son, the thing about it, of it is…’ We actually put that on his tombstone.’ In 1987 he said to me, ‘Well, Son, the thing about it of it is, you’ve been playing around the dream, it’s time to go after it.’ So I went to Nashville in 1987.”
Soon Lee Roy landed a publishing contract. Over the years his songs have made the Top Ten hits many times, garnered a Grammy Nomination for Best Country Instrumental and a CMA nomination for Vocal Event of The Year. The album “Every Night’s A Saturday Night” included a duet with Trisha Yearwood and the Grammy nominated boogie-woogie instrumental, “Mama Screw Your Wig On Tight.” The album also included the popular song “Honky Tonk Night-Time Man,” sent to Lee Roy by his good friend and mentor, the legendary Merle Haggard.
“And when I fall, tryin’ all I can to find the better man in me, I’m never down so low cause you always let me know, that who I am is all I need to be.” (from Saved by the Grace of Love)
“With the release of ‘Tell The Truth’ and ‘Back to the Well,’ I finally got complete artistic freedom,” Lee Roy said. “’Gaurdian Angel’ is a true story. I’ve been in three wrecks I shouldn’t have walked away from, but I did. People will ask me if ‘Breaking the Chain’ was about addiction or love? And I will say yes—all of those things. Then people say, ‘But it sounds like you’re talking about God.’ And I answer, I am. The deal is, we are supposed to love one another the way Christ loved us. He loved us without boundaries and forgives us for everything—if we ask for it. If we loved everybody as Christ did us, we wouldn’t have any trouble.”
When Lee Roy Parnell speaks of love, he soon mentions his kids. “With my kids, Blake, Allison, and Jack, we’ve had great times, and we’ve had low spells but we always had one another. Life is about family. In the past decades, we sat around the kitchen table and spent time telling stories. We need to get back to the table, put down the phone and talk to each other.”
As Stephenville looks forward to another Homecoming planned for next year, pride in the local boy, now a successful man, grows. For Lee Roy Parnell, his mom’s words seem to echo from somewhere down the road, across the pasture, just this side of the old School Hill Music hall, “We’ll see you boys downtown.”
Song lyrics by Lee Roy Parnell
Photos taken by Riley Studio and provided by Lee Roy Parnell