Where There's a Wills

UPDATED 09/14/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/14/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

After 35 years the photo has faded a bit, and try as he might, Lee Roy Parnell just can't recall when it was taken. "I look about 2 years old, don't I?" he asks, studying the image of himself as a toddler sitting in the lap of his "Uncle Bob." "I think it was in Abilene."

But if Parnell is a little fuzzy on dates and places, his memory of the man in the photo couldn't be clearer. His honorary uncle was the great Bob Wills, the influential fiddler whose 1930s band, the Texas Playboys, fused country, blues and jazz to create western swing. Parnell's father, Roy, had grown up with Wills in the cotton fields of West Texas, and throughout Lee Roy's childhood, Wills was a frequent guest at the Parnell ranch outside Fort Worth. "I can still remember the way he smelled: just like cigars," says a smiling Parnell, 37. "Of course, it never dawned on me that Bob Wills was a legend."

But even as a child, Parnell—who has struck country gold of his own with such hits as "Love Without Mercy," "What Kind of Fool" and "I'm Holding My Own"—knew there was something special about Wills. While the other kids would play outside when Wills and his family visited, young Lee Roy never strayed far from the kitchen table, where the adults would drink iced tea and coffee and talk long into the night. When Wills and Roy Parnell would head out to hear a local band, Lee Roy would beg them to take him along, and they would. "It was heaven," he says. When Lee Roy was just 6, Wills gave him his singing debut, on his Fort Worth radio program. "Dad and I had gone over to see him do the show, and out of the blue, Bob said to my dad, 'Roy, why don't you bring Lee Roy up here and let him sing?' " recalls Parnell, who led Wills in a spirited version of the fiddler's biggest hit, "New San Antonio Rose."

Sadly, by the time Parnell was ready for his first guitar, Wills had suffered the first in a series of strokes that would lead to his death in 1975. "My dad and I went to Fort Worth to buy the guitar, and afterwards we went by Bob's house," says Parnell. "He couldn't use his right side because of the stroke, but he took that guitar and put his hand on the neck of it and felt it. I guess maybe he blessed it a little bit."

If he did, the benediction took: Parnell has grown to be a top-notch slide guitar player. And while his blues-tinged country differs considerably from Wills's jazzy swing, he thinks Uncle Bob would approve. "The spirit is the same," says the singer. "Bob gave me license to be myself because that's what he was."

In the last year, Parnell has even taken his affinity for Wills a step further, learning to play Wills's instrument, the fiddle. "I don't really care about playing in front of anybody, I just wanted to play those Wills songs for myself," he says with a smile for times long past. "It's good for my soul."

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