Legendary songwriter releases new collection of down-home, low-key demos
By Beverly Keel
SEPTEMBER 11, 2000: Several years ago, legendary R&B songwriter Dan Penn made a trip to Louisiana with two musician friends to do a little fishing and, to his surprise, ended up making an album. In addition to poles and lures, Penn, Bucky Lindsey, and Carson Whitsett packed a Gibson guitar, a Tascam eight-track tape machine, a digital keyboard, and a bass--just in case a little musical inspiration hit them during their 1997 stay at a cypress cabin in St. Francisville.
Penn says the album, Blue Nite Lounge, just evolved during the trip. "We went off to go fishing and just to write a few songs, maybe get some of that Louisiana on some of 'em," he says. "That was really all there was to it. We just had too much fun. We got into the music. We were like big sponges, soaking up Louisiana. They've got stuff in the air down there that we don't have here in Nashville. We picked up on it and then did the best we could. We never would've written those songs in Nashville."
In the past, the best Penn could write resulted in songs like "Dark End of the Street," "I'm Your Puppet," "Do Right Woman," and "Sweet Inspiration." Along with cowriter Spooner Oldham, he was a fixture on the 1960s R&B scenes in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Ala., writing for and working with such legends as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Music writer and Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick describes Penn as the "renegade white hero" of his book Sweet Soul Music, which chronicles the history of '60s soul. For the last 25 years, Penn has been a Nashville resident--he moved here, he says, because "nothing was happening in Memphis"--but he's been doing what he's always done: writing songs.
When Penn returned from his Louisiana fishing trip to his Green Hills home and listened back to the song demos in his elaborate recording studio, it occurred to him that he was listening to the beginnings of his fourth album. "So I called Carson and Bucky and said, 'We've got to go back to Louisiana,' " he says.
The result is a bare-bones, soul-drenched collection of timeless R&B songs that exude funky, sweaty passion, stomach-wrenching heartbreak, and the mouth-watering taste of Southern food. (In fact, the liner notes read more like a food diary than an essay about music.) It's music at its best about life at its best and worst.
Penn says Blue Nite Lounge is his first in a series of albums that will consist purely of demos, rather than full-fledged studio productions. "Everybody has always told me I should put out my demos," he says. "Well, here they are. A little ragged in places, but they are the real thing. As original as I can make them." Make no mistake, though. These are hardly slapped-together first attempts at creating a song. In Sweet Soul Music, Elvis Presley producer and Penn cowriter Chips Moman says, "Dan Penn in [the '60s] was what Rod Stewart wishes he could be. His demos were masterpieces--see, there's nothing more entertaining than a Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham demo."
And Penn's voice, which has been described as "a white Ray Charles," has only grown finer with time. Somehow it's deeper, more pure and self-assured than before. "To me, it's changed for the better," he says. "I don't say it bragging-like; I just say it 'cause it's the truth. When I was younger, I had a lot of power, but my problem was I had a million voices. I could be anything. If you wanted a black female singer, I could sing like that.
"That was fun, but, you know, I could never sound like myself. It wasn't until I got saved that my own voice came to me."
While in the past Penn chose to have someone else put out his records, this time he decided to create his own record company called Dandy Records and put Blue Nite Lounge out independently. Inking deals with distributors to sell the CD in Japan, England, and other countries, he is content to be in total control of this project, even if it means he won't be in every record store in the U.S. He's selling it to record retailers, as well as on his Web site, http://www.danpenn.com.
"Warner Bros. did a deal with me to do Do Right Man in 1992," Penn says, "and then it was like, 'Sayonara, we'll see you later. You're too old; you shouldn't have done this one.' People who have got a little age on them and are very independent like myself have a hard time with record-label people. I just like that control, controlling your own record, how it sounds and looks." Besides, he adds, "Old people don't sell records. It's a fact; it has always been that way. Look at Nashville country radio. It's about tiny heinies. It's not that they can't sing, it is just different."
Penn still enjoys songwriting and feels no pressure to top the successes of his earlier hits. "I'm proud of every one of those songs, and I appreciate what little money I get from them, but I'm never under pressure to top them," he says. "I think others say, 'It ain't as good as 'Dark End of the Street.' Well, I'm sorry about that. It's the best I can do today. You have got to remember that a lot of those songs were written under [the influence of] drugs, Benny pills, and stuff. But I don't use nothing no more-- maybe a cup of coffee."
Penn began writing hit records while still in high school in Vernon, Ala., a town of 1,500 people. He penned "Is a Bluebird Blue?" at the age of 16, and a couple years later, the song became a Top 20 hit for Conway Twitty. After graduating from high school in 1960, he moved to Muscle Shoals at the encouragement of producer Billy Sherrill and started pursuing music full-time.
Obsessed with music and motivated by the check he received for his Twitty hit, Penn spent his days and nights in the studio, writing songs with Oldham. "I can remember looking for ideas when there weren't any," he says. "It was like, where do they come from? I would go to magazine racks in drugstores and look at romance novels, anything to find something to write about." Both men were serious about songwriting, but if they were short on inspiration, they would pile into a car, riding from barbecue stand to hamburger joint. Something along the way would trigger a thought, and the two, usually accompanied by Donnie Fritts, would head for the nearest piano.
Penn says it was his early trips to Nashville to play songs for producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins that taught him how to write a good song. "They would play only the first few seconds of a song and then they'd move onto the next one," he says. "They never would play one [full] verse." He returned to Alabama determined to find a way to convince the men to listen to an entire song of his: "I said, I'll just take the strongest thing I've got and move it all the way to the front. I started doing that, and the tape recorder kept running. The more I'd move stuff up, then I'd have to come up with something great for the rest of the song. That's how I learned how to write songs. You've got to say something quick and follow it up with something better."
For a while, Penn was part of the foundation on which soul music was built. But like every pop-music movement, soul had its time at the nation's forefront and was eventually replaced by the next new musical thing. "At first it killed me that...we were pushed aside, but I have to say that, all in all, it's been a wonderful revelation. I've found so much other music to listen to that is just wonderful that I never would've listened to, like opera or bluegrass.
As his hit-making career started winding down in the late '70s, Penn says he made a conscious effort not to chase the Nashville commercial music market, or any other music market, for that matter. "I just said, look this is getting too involved. We have a lot going on in the world. Maybe what I do is OK too. Why don't I just do what I do?
"I haven't had big hits like in the '60s, and God knows I could use one financially, but as long as I can write something I like, I'm OK. That's what I'm livin' for, just to write a song that there ain't nothin' wrong with."
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