"Keep it vanilla," Hank Williams once said to band members who cut loose with jazzy licks. Country music, whose simultaneous glory and weakness is its orientation toward the common denominator, hasn't always been friendly to really talented instrumentalists. Lee Roy Parnell is a veteran of the roadhouse guitar, a decent singer and songwriter whose real skill lies in crafting a guitar line that wraps itself around the vocal component of a song in a distinctive way. Parnell's career goes back to a stint with Kinky Friedman's Texas Jewboys in 1976, and in the mid-1990s some strong songs and a bit of hillbilly charm put him in the top reaches of the charts with songs like "Heart's Desire." Dropped by the Arista label after Nashville began turning out paeans to domesticity, he just kept on making music with his voice, pen, and slide and electric guitars, by turns delicate and growling.

Parnell's music is a southern brew with lots of blues, Memphis soul, and gospel only slightly damped down by the discipline of country songcraft. He's one of the few country artists who can use African American backup singers without seeming to be trying to pull off something artificial, and his latest album, Back to the Well, is full of ingenious old soul moves, both in Parnell's own guitar playing and in the ways the songs set up a space for the guitar. Most of the songs were written by Parnell in collaboration with one of a group of top Nashville songsmiths, people who obviously admire what he does.

The lyrics on the album are mostly on the mellow side, and when Parnell cranks up the energy level it goes toward funky rather than toward fast. Parnell is back on a major Nashville label now (Universal South). Accordingly, he's got quite a few songs about love and inspiration on the new set. But when he taps the vein of dissatisfaction that lies behind really great pop songs, the results are as good as anything coming out of Nashville these days. He does a song about the point at which "a young heart becomes an old soul" that Patty Loveless recorded a couple of years ago, but with his cascade of mournful electric guitar sounds Parnell gets even more out of it than Loveless did.

The Ark has booked some great country acts that aren't currently on top of the charts but have continued to develop musically — Deana Carter did a fine show there recently, and Hal Ketchum and Suzy Bogguss are regulars. It's a noteworthy move; comparable folk and acoustic music clubs, like Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music and Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, don't do this. Lee Roy Parnell and his band come to the Ark on Wednesday, March 15.

[Review published March 2006]