Start your musical list with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, fast-forward to Waylon Jennings, then Bruce Springsteen and Prince and a Texas genre of music …
Start your musical list with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, fast-forward to Waylon Jennings, then Bruce Springsteen and Prince and a Texas genre of music known as Red Dirt. Draw lines connecting them all and at their intersection you find an acoustic guitarist, singer, and songwriter by the name of Jeff Parnell, who plays both locally and across the state from his home base in Jasper.
Along the way, Parnell remembers the exact day and time he got permanently bitten by the music bug. “My uncle was in the Navy in Norfolk, Va., and they were having the grand opening of a big shopping center. There was a country singer playing there who had some regional hits, and my uncle knew him, so he talked the guy into letting me stand onstage and sing with him because I knew all his songs.
“I was probably five or six years old. But I was the opposite of nervous; I was enjoying it. And I’ve been doing it ever since. I guess you could say I sing. At least I make a racket.”
Along the way he learned guitar and put together a band with a name that’s hard to forget: Blind Rooster. The exact origin of the name is lost in the mists of history, and may not be permanent. “Our new name’s still up in the air,” Parnell says with a laugh. “I’ll let you know.”
Parnell, along with bandmates Ernie McClinton, Barry Evans, and Steve Hagood, take pride in the fact that they play some not-really-typical venues. “And we do all kinds of parties, get-togethers at the lake. We even played a hog-killin’ one time,” he says. Seriously. ”If somebody’s got something strange going on, they’ll call me to come play it,” he says. “I’ve got a friend up in Pineywoods that has a ‘Beans and Greens’ gathering every fall. They cook big pots of beans and turnip greens and build a campfire and have a big time.” Likewise, their approach even to well-known tunes can take audiences by surprise. “We do different versions of popular songs,” Parnell says. “Most groups who play Prince do ‘Purple Rain.’ We do ‘Raspberry Beret” in a rock-and-rock version that we heard Warren Zevon do once. Or we do an acoustic version of The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ You can adapt almost anything for two acoustic guitars when you break it down to its basics.
Doing the unexpected ”When you play a song with a totally different arrangement, you can see people’s heads turning around, like, ‘What is this?’ And when they realize what the song is, a lot of times they start singing along. We like doing the unexpected. I like to string several songs together in a row, with just chord progressions, mostly because it drives the guitar player crazy. “Every once in a while we throw in some Red Dirt music with the cover songs, or something by a band called Cross Canadian Ragweed. It’s music most people haven’t heard, but afterward they’ll come up and ask ‘Who plays that?’”
Often Parnell works some of his original songs into the mix. “I’ve written a good many, but I regret that I haven’t written more,” he says. “I really admire the people who do that.”
Besides his band gigs, he plays a lot of dates solo. “It’s easier because I can book a show without having to get the band together to practice. But I really, really enjoy being with the guys. Sherry Farris, from Tuscaloosa, sings some with us, too.”
When Parnell’s not on the road or managing the KFC store on Old Highway 78, you can most often find him volunteering for high school events at Walker, his alma mater — from parking cars to selling T-shirts or running the clock at ball games. “I joked with the coaches about me having a promotion, getting to sit in the press box,” he says. He also paints the field and the logos on the streets, and is a band booster. “I do a little bit of everything I can, to help out,” he says.
“I went to school there when it was Walker, not Jasper. But change is not a bad thing. This year we’ll have new Jasper merchandise for sale. And the new building is absolutely phenomenal. The first time I saw it, I told a friend that I didn’t have enough adjectives in my vocabulary to describe it.”
In his “spare time,” he plays bass at Saragossa Baptist Church. “I really enjoy bass,” he says. “If I had a regular bass-playing job,” he adds with a laugh, “I might just quit all the other stuff.”
It’s the music that’s nearest to his heart. Some of his favorite memories are of concerts he’s attended. “I was lucky,” he says. My dad was a big country music fan, and we’d go see Waylon Jennings play a lot. We sat up close, and I got to playing more country after that.
“I’ll never forget seeing Bruce Springsteen on his ‘Born in the USA’ tour. He put on a four-hour show that kept you on the edge of your seat. I had never heard him before, but I was hooked. Nowadays I can’t remember what I did ten minutes ago, but I can tell you that concert almost word for word.
“There was no fancy lighting or anything. Just the band. These days I see concerts where the stage is bigger than the music, you might say. He didn’t need any of the fancy lighting and smoke and special effects. It all came down to the music.”
Dale Short’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org