When he first came on the scene in Muscle Shoals as a teen-ager, according to those who heard him sing, he was a white Ray Charles. To-day, he's semi-retired at 66, and he talks like it, sprinkling stories with the most inactive action verbs: “sashay to the barbecue place,” “meander to the studio,” “ease back down the road. When he sings now, he lends some hillbilly inflections to his tenor, and still, or at least several years back when he and frequent collaborator Spooner Oldham cut the live album “Moments from this Theater,” no other blue-eyed soul singer gets more emotion out of lyrics, even Charlie Rich in his Hi Records prime.
In advance of a free 7:30 p.m. show on Sept. 16 at Cabe Theater at Hendrix College, the man behind songs like “I'm Your Puppet,” “The Dark End (of the Street),” “Do Right Woman” and “It Tears Me Up” talked on the phone with me from his front porch about where songs come from, working in a Cokesbury Bible store and the soul legend who most impressed him. Read the full Q&A and listen to audio samples online at Rock Candy.
You grew up in rural Alabama in the '40s and '50s, which doesn't seem like a time or a place that would really lend itself to some-one being immersed in soul music. Where'd your love for soul music come from?
Where I heard it first and heard it most was on the radio on WLAC up there in Nashville with John R. They played nothing but black music at night. Not only I heard it, but the whole South heard it. If you weren't listening to WLAC, something was wrong with you. It was that good. They played everything from black spirituals to all the blues cats and some R&B, too.
What about your family? Were they musical?
Yeah, before any of that there was church. Daddy led the singin' and momma played the piano. I sat on the front row and hollered.
Did they encourage you to sing in the choir or learn an instrument?
Not really. But Daddy showed me when I finally aggravated him so long. He said, “Come here, I'll show you the chords.” So he taught me the rudimentary chords and that's about all I know today.
Can you tell me about your first hit, “Is a Bluebird Blue?”
Yep, I can tell you that's the song that opened the doors for me. I got that idea in the back of a '55 Chevrolet. I was riding in the back seat with a bunch of boys. It was Jet Atkins' car. Jet, J-E-T.
He just had this deal one night that if you asked him anything, you know, “Jet do you
want another beer?
“Is a bluebird blue?”
“Jet, did you make out last night?”
“Is a bluebird blue?”
“Jet, are we gonna eat?”
“Is a bluebird blue?”
Whatever you asked him, that was his stock answer for the night. And so, I'm sitting in the backseat and someone asked him something and he said it one more time, and I thought to myself that might just make a song.
A few days later I sat down with a guitar and kind of wrote my Jimmy Reed version of it. I put it down in Florence, Alabama, along with some other songs, and some guy from Nashville came down and found it and took it back and Conway Twitty cut it. So I had a hit while I was still in high school. Unbelievable.
Is that a typical path for you to come up with a song?
It could be. I don't guess I have my antennas as high as they used to be. But oh man, I was always looking for a title. I'd go into the drug-stores to look at true romances trying to find a title. These days I don't worry about the title as much as just a thought — what made the song. I can get it while talking to somebody or see it in a magazine or it could just fall out of the sky.
I co-write a lot. I write with piano players, and we could get together without a thing, without an idea, a melody or anything, and just hit the right chord and it seems like something will just fall.
So when you collaborate are you writing the lyrics?
All we do is we start playing and singing. I'm usually holding the guitar, just scratching around. I just start singing things I feel. I'm not a lyricist.
You don't write stuff down?
I don't write any kind of music. I'm fully an ear musician. I just start looking for it and going places with my voices that might be good or might be awful and the piano player usually goes with me. We might say, “that's great” or “hey, forget that.” You can have ideas, but until you hear them in music, you don't know whether you've got anything or not.
What makes a good song, especially lyrically? Your songs have a very conversational side to them, but they always pack this big emotional wallop.
Glad to hear you say that. But I don't put any emphasis on the lyric. I don't think the lyric. I try to feel the lyric within the music. What the lyric is saying is not that important to me. If it's good and we've had a good day, it'll say be saying enough. That's a difference between country or pop and rhythm or blues. The country lyric is usually the main thing, but to me the way the lyric hits the music is the main thing.
After your early teen-aged successes in Muscle Shoals, you went to Dallas to work for Cokesbury Bible Store. What led to that?
Well, I was young and I was drinking a lot. My aunt Margaret lived out there. Her and mother got together and decided that I could go to Dal-las and live with them. I could get a job and be an upstanding young citizen. I was kind of confused, and decided I didn't even need this old music, so I went on out there and worked me a job at that store.
Then I saw a little band one night, and I went out into the car and got me a guitar and went up and played a little guitar and sang some songs, and it just hit me that I didn't need a job, that I needed to go back to Alabama and get the guitar and see if I couldn't make something out of myself that a way.
It was three months in a cold, cold city.
Is it frustrating to be known more as the man behind the lyrics and the boards than as a singer?
Well that was my objective. When the Mark V [an early R&B band Penn led] left me and all moved to Florence all of sudden like, and I'm just left in Muscle Shoals feeling down, and I'm sitting in front of the studio in my car looking at the door, just kind of sitting there feeling my pain. And suddenly it appeared to me that there was the door. And I said, “I'm going in that door and learn everything I can in that building.” I said, “I'm going to learn to be a good engineer and I'm going to learn to produce records and keep on writing. That was my deal. When I did that I really did that. I didn't play a gig for 25 years until I did [the 1994 album] “Do Right Man.” Then I started playing a few gigs with Spooner and some by myself and now with Bobby [Emmons, who'll accompany Penn on the keys at Hendrix.]
You worked with most all of the soul greats — Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, James Carr. Who impressed you most?
Well, if you want to know the truth, Otis Redding. I got to watch Otis cut Arthur Conley the day he cut “Sweet Soul Music.” He was such a clean producer. He could work with musicians so well. I got a lot of it that day. I mean I'm no Otis; I can't do it that way. He had this smile. And he'd walk right up to a musician and if the musician didn't play him something, he'd hum him something good. And the musician would be glad to see him. I never got to see Otis perform live. I never got to see most of these people live.
Well, I was in the studio working. I didn't go to shows. I was busy, man. I was trying to get another hit.
In recent years, you've produced sides for the Hacienda Brothers, the second Bobby Purify and Solomon Burke. Has your approach to producing changed?
I still engineer when I'm producing. That's what I did with the Boxtops. About the only thing that I'm a little different at is that I try to get the best band that I can. I'll still take on a real inexperienced band. We're on more tracks now than we used to. I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse. But anytime we want to go back, all we have to do is limit ourselves.
I still like to work in the studio, but I'm like semi-retired. I'm 66. I got this place in Alabama. I come down here and kick around and take it easy and get a life. For so many years there, I was just a 24 hour writer. And that's ok. It gets you a lot of songs wrote. It also gets your health broke down if you don't have some fun. These days I like to have some fun, but yet I'm open to production or a gig, whatever comes my way. If nothing comes my way, I'll just sit here on my porch.
Together with Elvis, several New Orleans rappers, this girl I used to date and maybe Loretta Lynn, Dan Penn deserves a spot in the pantheon of Southern accents. He speaks in a deep, dulcet drawl, usually in measured tones that stretch and quiet as he gets to the end of what he's saying and then pick back up again, like waves of speech. Even though he's spent most of his life immersed in rhythm and blues and soul music — he's the architect of dozens of the greatest Southern soul songs of all-time, which is to say the greatest songs of all-time — in speech, he still sounds like he's from rural Alabama.