Lee Roy Parnell slides into Copper Country music festival
“It’s always been blues, really,” said guitarist, singer and songwriter Lee Roy Parnell of his style. “But blues is country, blues is R&B, blues is a lot of things. … It’s not content so much as it’s attitude.”
Parnell considers himself a blues guitarist first and foremost, but he will be attending Copper Mountain Resort’s annual Copper Country festival Labor Day weekend. This marks his first appearance at Copper Country though he has performed at the resort’s Guitar Town event a handful of times before.
Parnell, 61, wasn’t always a guitarist. At age 6 he gave his first public performance singing on family friend and musician Bob Will’s radio show. Drums was his instrument, but he became more invested in the guitar around 12. His reason for the switch? “Because the girls were in the front row,” said Parnell.
“I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I’m way back here on the drums and all of those guys are up there singing and playing guitar and looking cool.’ So now I’m in the front row.” He doesn’t regret turning his back on drumming and being a musician was the only profession Parnell considered.
“There are two different kinds of people who play drums for a living,” Parnell said. “There are drummers and then there are musicians who are drummers. Those guys … have the same sort of natural ability that I do with guitar. I appreciate it from the vantage point of being on stage with them, but I don’t miss it. I’m not that good at it.”
In high school Parnell discovered the slide guitar technique, which involves rubbing a tube — usually made of glass, metal, or ceramic — over the strings on the neck of the guitar to change the pitch. It happened during a trip from his hometown of Stephenville, Texas to Proctor, a town roughly 17 miles away. Because Stephenville was dry, that’s how far he and his friends would go to the nearest beer store.
On the return trip, the journey would balloon to 37 miles as they drove on back roads to avoid getting caught by police. To pass the time his friend popped in the Allman Brothers Band’s “At Fillmore East” live album into the eight track of the 1965 Chevrolet station wagon. Parnell was entranced as he heard the late Duane Allman expertly slide his fingers on the guitar.
“It really opened my mind up to the possibilities,” said Parnell. “I was like ‘How is that guy making that sound? It sounds like a human voice.’ It was just the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my life. And fierce, too. Beautiful and fierce at the same time.”
Intrigued, he went on a quest to learn and study the style, sitting in his room with a turntable and a guitar. It took him awhile to figure out how to accomplish his dream though he was already a paid and practicing musician as a teen. Eventually he picked up a glass slide, discovered the key of changing his guitar to open tuning and he was set. Now he has two Grammy nominations, multiple charting singles and was inducted in the Texas Heritage Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
“Because there are no frets on the guitar, you’re playing on molecules,” Parnell said. It’s sensual, it’s beautiful, it’s angry, and your soul actually comes out. … It’s almost like, I don’t know, every time I play a solo it’s like having a baby or something.”
Along with the Allman brothers, other influences of Parnell include B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard and jazz musicians like Chet Baker and Louis Armstrong. “These are standards, like 501 jeans. You put ‘em on and that’s who you are.”
Parnell plays from the heart instead of the head, and he keeps himself open to moments of sonic inspiration. He writes in “seasons,” sometimes starting songs more often than finishing or vice versa, and can always be found with a notebook or his phone. That way he can be ready to jot down lyrics or melodies before they’re lost.
“You have to grab those things as they’re coming through the cosmos.”
One might think he had a dry season, since it has been 11 years between his ninth and eight albums, 2017’s “Midnight Believer,” and “Back to the Well,” but Parnell took that break to be closer to his 7-year-old son.
“I raised both of my grown children, now 37 and 33, respectively, sort of from a distance,” said Parnell. “And I didn’t want to do that with Jack.”
Now he doesn’t have to worry about impressing those girls in the front row like he used to or being far from home as his life partner, Lisa Stewart, is his singing partner onstage with him.
“Even when I go on the road I’m home,” Parnell said. “Sometimes it’s the only time we get together and actually have a conversation because we both have kids.”
The pair will be joined with the rest of his band and he’s excited to be returning to Summit County. “I’m going to give it my all, the same way I do every night. You can’t beat the setting. It’s all great.”
Parnell first performs at 1:50 p.m. on Saturday with John Jorgenson and Joe Robinson as “Guitar Army.” Then on Sunday Parnell and his band will play at 3:35 p.m. Nine other acts will be at Copper Country in addition to Parnell for free this weekend, along with an arts festival and crafts for the kids. Visit CopperCountryFest.com to purchase VIP tickets and for the complete lineup and schedule.
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