Seldom is heard, in conversation with Dan Penn, a discouraging word. Until you try to hang a label on him: Is he a songwriter, a producer or a performer?
“I don’t like to be put in boxes. People think they’ve got your number,” Penn says in a honey-dipped drawl that’s almost as mellifluous as his singing voice. “In my mind, I am really just a studio cat, and I love that.”
Still, it’s difficult not to try to categorize Penn, if for no other reason than to get a handle on the breadth of his achievement. As a writer, he is responsible for some of the greatest soul songs ever, including “Sweet Inspiration”, “I’m Your Puppet”, “You Left The Water Running”, “Do Right Woman” and “The Dark End Of The Street” — the latter two cut in definitive versions by Aretha Franklin and James Carr, respectively, and covered by the Flying Burrito Brothers. His first hit came while he was still in his teens, when “Is A Bluebird Blue” charted for Conway Twitty.
As a producer, he cut his teeth at the legendary Fame Studios near Muscle Shoals before moving on to Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis, where he helmed The Box Tops’ immortal hit “The Letter”. More recently, he helped produce Irma Thomas’ new Rounder album, My Heart’s In Memphis: The Songs Of Dan Penn.
He’s less well-known as a performer of his own songs, and that’s a shame. People who have heard his songwriting demos from the ’60s swear they eclipse most of the covers, and on the rare occasions he has played live, usually with songwriting pal Spooner Oldham, the results are a soul tutorial. He has made great albums of his own, too: Nobody’s Fool (Bell, 1973), Do Right Man (Sire, 1994), and Moments From This Theatre with Oldham (Proper, 1999).
His latest is Blue Nite Lounge, a collection of demos he recorded in a tiny cabin during fishing trips to St. Francisville, Louisiana, released through his website (www.danpenn.com). These days, he lives in Nashville with Linda, his wife of 35 years. Penn, 58, is still passionate about making music and has built a home studio, appropriately dubbed Better Songs And Gardens.
I. I AM NOT INTERESTED IN WHAT IS BEING SAID, BUT HOW IT IS BEING SAID
ND: On Blue Nite Lounge, there’s a song called “A Memphis Melody” that evokes that time in the 1960s when the great studios were in high gear; Stax, American and Hi. You were there. What was it like?
DP: It was just perfect. You rolled into Memphis and there was great camaraderie. Each studio had their own set of people. Memphis is kind of one of those places where they get jealous if you went and visited the other place, but everybody done it. I had a ’37 Packard. We would get into that car and ride around at night and say, let’s go to Hi, let’s go see Willie [Mitchell]. He’d say, ‘What you all doing?’ We’d say ‘We’re going to the Rendez-Vous. Wanna go?’ ‘Naw, we gotta work.’ Or we’d stop by Stax.
It was kind of part of our writing ritual. Many nights, it was just, go to another studio and see what the rest of the world is doing. It was a delightful place, Memphis was in those days. There was really no animosity in the air. After Dr. King got killed down there, it has never been the same. I’ll put [the music of that time] ahead of most things I hear right now. Who knows why it was that way?
ND: People usually refer to the music you make as soul music. Does that term mean anything to you anymore?
DP: That’s a deep subject there. I know what they mean when they say soul music. They mean ’60s black soul. When I was young and in my prime, that is what was happening, and I loved it as much as anybody. And of course, we had all these great artists to work with. It drove my songs. But I don’t set around and wallow in that. I don’t care about any of those terms. I am a country person, but I have never cared too much for country music. I have got nothing against it. But there’s just a lot of vanilla that gets in the way. But black music, I have always been a fan of.