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Music Interview: Dan Penn

Music Interview: Dan Penn

I’m talking to a songwriting legend, although I’m a bit worried that I can’t hear everything he’s saying.

Dan Penn, Southern soul singer, songwriter, musician and record producer, is on the phone to me from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, but, every so often, he keeps dropping out. “It’s a wonder this phone even works – I’m down in the basement, in my studio,” he says, in his laidback, Southern drawl – he grew up in Vernon, Alabama.

To be honest, I feel privileged just to be chatting to him at all. In the ‘60s, Penn, who is 78, co-wrote massive soul hits including ‘The Dark End of the Street’, ‘Do Right Woman’, ‘I’m Your Puppet’, ‘Cry Like A Baby’ and ‘It Tears Me Up’. His songs have been sung by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Janis Joplin, Solomon Burke, Elton John, James Carr, Bobby Womack and Diana Ross.

This month sees him releasing his new album, Living On Mercy, which is a collection of songs written with collaborators including his long-term musical partner, Spooner Oldham, as well as fellow songwriting masters Wayne Carson (‘Always On My Mind’), Gary Nicholson, Carson Whitsett, Will McFarlane, Bucky Lindsey, Buzz Cason and the Cate Brothers.

For the most part, Living On Mercy has a reassuring, warm, slick and smooth country soul sound, like the gorgeous, Hammond organ-led title track, which is about the intoxicating effects of falling in love, the tight and funky groove of ‘Soul Connection’, and the sad ‘Blue Motel’, which, rather neatly, namechecks one of Penn’s most famous songs, ‘The Dark End of the Street’, in the lyric. Elsewhere on the record, ‘Edge Of Love’ is a heavier, bluesy rocker with horn blasts, and ‘One Of These Days’, the final song, is a moving, reflective gospel ballad about changing your ways before it’s too late and you’ve gone to the great songwriting gig in the sky.

Living On Mercy is Penn’s first studio album in nearly 30 years – his last one, Do Right Man, was released in 1994.

“Is that right?” he says, laughing. I ask him why it has taken so long to make a new record and why he decided the time was right to put it out now.

“It was kind of getting late. I ran into Malcolm Mills [owner of The Last Music Company – the record label that’s putting the album out], who was interested, and Lisa Best [artist manager], who works for Malcolm and helps me to take care of things, prodded me. It all kind of worked out. I had some old songs that had been lying around for 20 years that I thought were good, and I wrote a couple of new ones. Spooner and I had gone to play in Japan – when we got back, I got everybody together, booked somewhere and did it. I paid for it myself – I’ll be reimbursed, but I had to take a chance. I had some good songs and a great band – I just went in and had a good time.”

SH: The album has a very warm feel, doesn’t it? 

DP: Yeah – it does. I tried my best do to that and it’s what makes it different I guess, because there ain’t a lot of warmth out there these days. 

You recorded the album in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and Nashville, with a four-piece band and horn section. How were the sessions?

I cut the first bunch of six songs in Creative Workshop, Nashville – it’s my friend Buzz Cason’s studio. I liked what we got – I had a fantastic band. I tried to get things back together in Nashville a month or so later, but it didn’t work out, so I finally figured it out in Sheffield, Alabama and we cut seven songs there. It was a fun record to make – everybody was loose. The album was a little troublesome to mix, but they all are. 

You produced and mixed the album yourself. How does making records nowadays compare with making them back in the ‘6os and the ‘70s? Is it a better experience today, using digital recording gear, or do you prefer using old analogue technology?

I’ve got nothing against the old days and analogue, but these days they’ve got really good digital equipment – I used a digital mixer. I tried mixing it on an analogue board, but it just didn’t spark like I wanted it to. 

The title track, ‘Living On Mercy’, is an old song, isn’t it?

Yeah – I’ve had that for around 15-20 years. You know how it is – you write something, but you kind of forget about it and then you go about your business, but when you’re getting ready to make a record you start looking at everything and I found that old song – it came off. I think all the songs [on the new record] came off, to tell you the truth. I was happy with all 13 of them, but it was easy to see that Living On Mercy would be the name of the record. I thought it was a fine statement to make – everybody can understand it. I wrote that song with Wayne Carson in a car in Springdale, Arkansas – we also wrote ‘Edge Of Love’ in the same day.

‘Edge Of Love’ is one of the heavier tracks on the album. It has a blues-rock feel…

I like that one. It’s rambunctious.

Most of the songs on the album are about love – falling in love, or breaking up. Is love still the best subject to write songs about?

Yeah – it’s still the best, but it’s harder to do now because everything’s been used up. If you can find a different hook, you’re in.

When you look back at your career, do you have any regrets? 

Not really – sure, I made a lot of mistakes and I’d like to redo some of them, but I can’t. As far as music is concerned, somehow I’ve stumbled through and written some great songs. Coming from where I come from, and how it all worked out, I wouldn’t change much – I’ve ended up in a pretty good place. It ain’t the start, it’s the finish that counts. I’ve been really blessed and really lucky with all the breaks I’ve had and all the co-writers and musicians. 

The last song on the album, ‘One Of These Days’, is a ballad that is about the end of someone’s life. It has a gospel feel…

That’s right – it’s a brand new song that I wrote with Bucky Lindsey. It’s gospel all the way –there ain’t no two ways about it. I like gospel music.

That last song really bookends the album nicely. It makes it feels as if the whole record is almost a loose concept album. 

Yeah – I saw that, but I didn’t plan it that way. When I put all the songs together and looked at them, I thought, ‘I’ll be damned – mercy’s down there too!’

One of my favourite songs on the new record is ‘Down On Music Row’  What was the inspiration for that song?

Here in Nashville, we have people getting off buses, trains and planes – they all think they’re gonna make it and be a country music star. They might be able to sing, but, basically, the doors are closed in Nashville – it’s all politics in publishing. How are they going to get in? It’s a terrible deal. Some of them do make it, but so many are down on Music Row and they’re down ‘cos they can’t get nowhere. Maybe it ain’t as bad as the song makes it out to be, but it’s pretty bad for a lot of people – they have a misunderstanding of how they get into the music business and the dues you’ve got to pay. 

 

Is it harder now than when you were starting out writing songs in the ‘60s?

It is harder now – they don’t ask me for songs in Nashville and I’m a pretty fine writer! Once in a while, every five years, a producer will call me and ask me to bring in a song for somebody and I’ll do it, but otherwise I don’t even go down there – it’s a closed deal. It’s all about publishing and younger writers who they can get cheaper. You might get in if you know somebody, but it’s hard – if you see somebody, they might tell you ‘no thank you, my friend – we’ve got all the songs we need.’

Another of my favourite songs on the album is ‘Blue Motel. It actually mentions the title of one of your most well-known songs, ‘The Dark End of the Street’, in the lyric, which is also about being unfaithful.

Yeah – I put that part in there. The Cate Brothers were working on that song, but they were lost with it and they came to me to help them with it – I put that line in there and it got ‘em going. It’s their song, but I’m riding along with it. I’ve always loved that song and I said ‘I’m going to cut it.’ You have to put your foot down when there’s something that you want to do. I’m proud of it.

Can I ask you about ‘The Dark End of the Street’, which you wrote with Chips Moman? It was a hit for James Carr in 1967. Is it true that you set out to write a classic cheating love song?

Every songwriter in the South wanted to write a great cheating song, like Hank Williams’s ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’. I was around when Rick Hall [producer at FAME Studios, Muscle Shoals] cut Jimmy Hughes’s big hit about cheating [‘Steal Away’]. I saw that and it was in my brain, but I didn’t want to copy it. We wrote ‘The Dark End of the Street’ in a hotel room, during a country DJ convention – everyone was having a good, old rollicking time and so were we. We were playing a card game, but we got tired of that, so we went into a room, there was a guitar and we wrote the song. We took the song to Memphis and James Carr got it. 

Didn’t you write the song in half an hour?

Yeah – that’s about right. We were probably in the room for an hour. 

I hope you gave yourselves the rest of the day off?

No – we went back to playing cards!

So many people have covered that song. 

Do you have a favourite version?

James Carr’s – nobody can touch that record. It’s the sound – he sang it well, but it’s the sound…

Your version of it is good.

Mine was fair, but it wasn’t no James Carr!

Back in the ‘60s, when you were working with Spooner Oldham, you used to write two or three songs a night. That was pretty good going.

Sometimes we would write two or three songs a night, but they wouldn’t all be good. I always felt like we needed to keep writing because we didn’t know what we were doing. You know what? I never did find out what I was doing. I’m still in the dark, but I know the feeling you get when you write a great song – when it feels right and you’re having so much fun, it’s a blessing. Your heart feels so good.

Living On Mercy by Dan Penn is available on vinyl, as a digital download and on CD. (Last Music Company). 

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