Truth Be Told
For Texas music royal Lee Roy Parnell, it's odd to have a town like Macon, Georgia play such an important role in his development. After all, Parnell's dad was a close friend of and performed with Bob Wills. Lee Roy debuted at age six with Wills and The Texas Playboys, and at 14, he became one of Kinky Friedman's Texas Jewboys. He was once married by a hastily ordained John Henry Faulk to Cactus Pryor's daughter. Robert Earl Keen is his cousin. It seems inconceivable that Parnell would need to find inspiration from some middle Georgia burg.
But Macon is not a typical small southern city. Even by Dixie standards, its musical heritage is rich. It was the home of Little Richard and Otis Redding. More importantly for Parnell, it was also the home of The Allman Brothers and Emmett Miller.
The Allmans' influence on Parnell was direct, where Miller's came secondhand through Wills. With their heady brew of blues, country, jazz and gospel, Parnell heard in the Allmans a harder-charging synthesis of the same materials that his "Uncle Bob" had perfected a generation earlier. Never had he heard a more soulful guitarist than Duane Allman, whose work inspired Parnell to purchase his first slide. Over the years, he has gathered some rare insight into the tragic guitarist's inspiration.
"This is a big maybe, but maybe nobody since his death has played with Duane Allman's emotion," says Parnell from Nashville. "It was Gregg [Allman] who told me that Duane got a lot of his economy and passion and emotion from John Coltrane. I had to go back and listen to Duane again, and sure enough, there it was...He was way off into Bird, and he was way off into Coltrane."
And so apparently is Parnell. "Takes What It Takes," off his Declaration of Independence from Music City glitz Tell the Truth, illustrates, through some monstrous guitar solos, Parnell's growing appreciation of the jazz idiom. "You know when I was making records for Arista, it was all about hold back," he says. "Now it's about pushing forward. It's not even pushing really; it's about letting go, letting it get out there. There's no regimented bars in the playing of that song. It was done in the great jazz tradition, you know. There was a head, and that's very typical of my live show. My guitar was slightly out of tune, but I thought it just added to the vibe."
Tell the Truth is also about letting go lyrically. Not many red-blooded Texans would be willing to admit flunking the Boys Town rite of passage, which Parnell does freely and artfully on "Crossin' Over," the world's first postmodern Zona Rosa song. The lyrics lull the listener into thinking it's another slice of border-town macho bluster, until Parnell accompanies the señorita to her bedroom. There, her crying baby causes him to lose his nerve, and after paying for a service not rendered, he leaves. All true, Parnell says.
"My main point in going down there was to drink tequila and be a spectator," he says. "I'm a fifth-generation Texan, and for our ancestors that was just something that you did. And it was true; there was a little baby back there. I couldn't do it, but I paid her anyway."
While that primitive rite may be merely fading away, other Texan pastimes are utterly gone. One is the blackface minstrelsy that existed from Texas's days as a republic right up to the 1950s. Parnell's own father performed as one alongside Wills in many a West Texas medicine show in the first half of the last century.
While the conditions that gave rise to blackface were definitely racially perverse, the performers themselves, according to Parnell, were not always so. Parnell learned early his father's views on the racial question. "My papa, he was born in 19 and 12," Parnell remembers in his courtly Texas accent. "And he grew up in another era. I was definitely my daddy's boy, and I never heard the word 'nigger' around our house. I heard it one time at school, and I said it in front of him, and goddamn, I woke up in next week.
"He had this middle finger that was crushed in an oil rig, so it was just stiff as it could be," he continues. "When he thumped one of us boys, he'd pull that sonofabitch back with his thumb, and good god a'mighty you'd think you got hit by a two-by-four. After I shook it off, he said, 'Don't ever use that word again. You got no idea what you're saying when you use that word. First of all, your grandfather's best friend was a black man named Lee Roy. And my daddy named me after him. And you were named after me. So you're calling yourself that when you use that word.' And then he had to explain to me what it meant then, 'cause I was too young to understand."
Minstrelsy happened, says Parnell, so instead of simply sweeping it under the rug, we should study it. The place to start is with Emmett Miller, the most successful of the 20th-century southern minstrels. This son of Macon, little known since his death in 1961 except by record-collecting fanatics, is now seen by scholars as the Rosetta Stone of 20th-century Southern popular music, the link between Stephen Collins Foster and Hank Williams. Bob Wills called him his favorite singer. Jimmie Rodgers mimicked his yodel. Hank Williams lifted, note for note, Miller's rendition of "Lovesick Blues."
Miller's band, the Georgia Crackers, at various times featured both Dorsey brothers, Jack Teagarden, and Gene Krupa. In 1996, Columbia released a collection of Miller's work on its Legacy imprint, and new assessments of his career by cultural historian Charles Wolfe and author Nick Tosches have since gone a long way toward putting Miller's tarnished visage in the pantheon of American music greats.
Much of the credit that has been given to Wills, Rodgers, and Williams for wedding white music to black is misplaced. They were not the first to fuse these styles, only the first to do so without burnt cork covering their faces. When white folks felt free enough to sing black folks' music without resorting to costumes and stereotypes, a little battle for human decency was won without anybody commenting much, and it wasn't long after that acceptance of the real thing was achieved.
From the beginning, marketing types have been leery of Parnell. Like Wills, Parnell boasts more than a little blues in his brand of Texas roadhouse country. Now, the blues is more pronounced than ever. Parnell himself doesn't much believe in the idea that blues and country are mutually exclusive. "I could never draw the line between the two," he says. "There's either good or bad music. Most of the guys that I liked had really great blues roots, like Wills and Hank and Haggard. By and large, the blues guys from Texas that I liked, like Mance and Lightnin', were as country as they were blues. Gate, too. Somehow, nobody's really figured that out."
Parnell never forces his blues. Rather, the music bubbles up out of his soul and out of his slide guitar. Neither is he much of a blues purist, though he says he has some of those tendencies. "I wouldn't call this a true blues record, but I'd be happy if anybody did. It ain't a Muddy Waters record. But the feeling of the music is certainly blues, and the songs are all true stories."
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