The Dan Penn Connection

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My friend Tommy Baysden says that anyone who hasn’t yet seen the acclaimed 2013 documentary film “Muscle Shoals” should go straight to assisted living. I have to agree, but in case you haven’t see the movie, it’s the story of how in the 1960s a bunch of largely white country boys mainly from northern Alabama and Mississippi combined with a remarkable array of black singers to create many of the all time great R&B hits. In a place and time often marked by hatred and too frequently by violence between the races, these cats filled a studio with love, respect, a groove and soul.

If you have seen the movie, you already know that one of the featured characters is musician, songwriter, and producer Dan Penn. Although not touched on in the movie, Penn was, and still is, a pretty darn good soul singer in his own right. Penn and others of his cohorts in Muscle Shoals have said that although they were country boys, they grew up much more enamored by the likes of Ray Charles and other black singers than they were country singers. R&B was the music they tried to emulate as they started out, feeling like the notes and chords they were hearing carried so much more power and emotion. Interestingly, when I think back on the early records I was buying, and the music played by the regional bands we danced to in the Carolinas, it was almost all R&B. Late at night, when the signals from far away AM radio stations would come in loud and clear, we’d hear disc jockeys with patter like “Solomon Burke can handle the work and Otis Redding’s got the heading.”

A few months ago, Penn was a guest on Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale’s wonderful show on Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Country channel. He was discussing his association with Muscle Shoals in the context of the recent release of his CD, The FAME Recordings. This is essentially a collection of demo recordings he made of songs he wrote (or co-wrote) while working at FAME Studio. As Penn said, these recordings were not made for release but rather to attract the attention of an established singer like, say, Percy Sledge.

Although many of the other great FAME studio musicians helped out, as demos these tunes didn’t get the full studio treatment. While it’s still fun to listen to so many good tunes in their more raw form, I prefer Penn’s fully developed CD Do Right Man, released in 1994. He’s in fine voice and is accompanied by many of his old friends from the Muscle Shoals 1960’s hey day, this time with a horn section in fully produced form. He does about a dozen of his best known songs plus a couple more lesser known but still strong tunes. I recommend you check it out.

What’s also really fun is to connect and compare Penn’s performances of his songs to those by some of the more well known singers who in many cases made them hits or otherwise gave memorable performances. Of course, you can also make a playlist of Dan Penn songs as recorded by others. You can mix up tempos as well as song orders, use some hit versions and some that were album cuts, and check female versus male versions to end up with several entertaining variations.

Here is the track listing from Do Right Man of those songs covered by other artists, several of which became big hits. ** denotes hit version; * denotes it’s in my collection

“The Dark End Of The Street” – James Carr** *, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Greg Allman, Linda Ronstadt*, the Flying Burrito Brothers* and many more.

Check out the great James Carr.

And here is Dan Penn with the great keyboardist Bobby Emmons, who played on the Carr recording, in an appearance on David Letterman.

“Cry Like A Man” – Christy Moore

“It Tears Me Up” – Percy Sledge** *, Johnny Adams, The Box Tops, The Hacienda Brothers*

“You Left The Water Running” – James & Bobby Purify*, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Barbara Lynn**, Huey Lewis & the News*.

“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” – Aretha Franklin** *, Etta James, Phoebe Snow, Dionne Warwick*, Flying Burrito Brothers* and many others.

“Memphis Women and Chicken” – T. Graham Brown

“Zero Willpower” – Irma Thomas

“He’ll Take Care Of You” – T. Graham Brown (with Vince Gill), Bonnie Bramlett*

“I’m Your Puppet” – James & Bobby Purify** *, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, The Box Tops, Dionne Warwick*, Irma Thomas and many others.

I only found one track on the album that did not have other covers, “Where There’s A Will There’s A Way,” but that only means that somebody missed out on a golden opportunity for a hit.  What do you think?

Still, as long as we’re building a playlist of hit songs co-written by Dan Penn, let’s include these, a couple of which can be found on Penn’s The Fame Recordings:

“Cry Like A Baby” – The Box Tops** * (he also produced their hit “The Letter,”) Cher, Betty Wright, Lulu, Arthur Alexander, The Hacienda Brothers*.

“(Take Me) Just As I Am” – Solomon Burke, Spencer Wiggins*

“Uptight, Good Woman” – Solomon Burke**, Wilson Pickett, Spencer Wiggins*

“Out Of Left Field – Percy Sledge** *, Hank Williams, Jr, Al Kooper

“Sweet Inspiration” – The Sweet Inspirations** *

“A Woman Left Lonely” – Janis Joplin, Irma Thomas, Charlie Rich

“Is A Bluebird Blue?” – Conway Twitty, The Band of Oz

This last song was Penn’s very first and helped convince him and others that he could make it in the music business. And what a long career he’s had. While most of these songs represent classic sixties soul music at its finest, Penn has endured as an in demand producer and writer, and still performs as he recently did at Lincoln Center in New York City with several of his Muscle Shoals era friends.

In fact, I’ve found the Dan Penn connection extends in more varied directions than I first imagined. Here are just two albums released in the last few years that show his influence across the entire spectrum of Classic Cowjazz R&B.

Greg Trooper – Make It Through This World

When I was checking some of the information used in this post, I discovered that Dan Penn had in 2005 produced an album for a singer/songwriter originally from New Jersey, Greg Trooper. So I sought out this album and was blown away. I immediately added it to my music library and listened to it two or three times in a row.

Although he was born in New Jersey and at one point had a band in New York, Trooper has apparently lived most of his adult life in Austin, Texas, and Nashville, carving out a place in the Americana niche. I had never heard of him, yet he’s very respected in the music world. For example, he’s worked with Larry Campbell, who is so well known for his years with Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, and he had an earlier album produced by Buddy Miller.

Having said that, I checked out all of his music that I could readily find, and for my money, his album with Penn stands apart. Mind you, this is not R&B. Still, Penn seasoned his songs with a hint of groove, a rhythmic underpinning and mix of instruments that brings to Trooper’s songs and his singing, something I can’t quite find a word for that makes me want to hear them again and again. But don’t misunderstand, it’s not just what Penn did, its how it showcases Trooper’s lyrics, melodies and singing. The match up just works.

I can’t find a loser in the bunch, but I have found a couple of early favorites.  As you heard, “Dream Away These Blues” is actually an upbeat prognostication of how the singer will feel after he recovers from his blues. He’s down today, but he knows he’ll be up tomorrow. I love the way Penn employed the organ on this and other tunes to bring a little gospel feel to the proceedings. Then, you have to love a lyric that goes: “If you don’t like my peaches, don’t know where they’re grown, I’ll walk all the way to Georgia, just to bring one home to you, ‘This I’d Do’…” as Trooper recounts all the things he’ll do to prove his love. Again, it’s that organ that pulls you into the the song most flavored by R&B.

Great lines abound, for example “lonely as a cheap hotel” from “Don’t Let It Go To Waste.” The one I keep coming back to, however, is “I Love It When She Lies,” in which Trooper sings about a girl so wonderful she couldn’t possibly be telling the truth “when she looks into my eyes, and tells me I’m the prize, I love it when she lies.”

It’s not all sweetness and light, however. “Close To The Tracks” is the story of a woman trying to understand why her perfect romance went bad. “She called her mom and her dad, but they wouldn’t understand, they say ‘what did you do to that hard working man.’” And there’s the poignancy of “I’ve got all that I wanted, got all that I’ve dreamed, and I’m So Lonesome For You Now” about a man who’s reached the pinnacle, alone. Still despite the blue times, for Trooper on this album there is always hope as in “When I Think Of You My Friends” when he sings, “out of work, out of luck, but never out of dreams.”

In case you missed my point: I love this record.”

The Hacienda Brothers – What’s Wrong With Right

What do you get when you put together a band – led by two southern Californians, one a country underground hero who sang everything from country to rockabilly to Tejano to Philly soul, and the other a song writing guitar god from a cult band with a penchant for equally cross genre adventures – and an old swamper from north Alabama? I’m not sure, even after several listenings. Thus, I’m not sure this album is for everybody, but I am sure everybody should give it a try and see for themselves.

Allow me to elaborate. The swamper as you no doubt have guessed given the subject of this article is Dan Penn. Somehow Penn got connected with singer/songwriter Chris Gaffney and Dave Gonzales, guitar picker extraordinaire for The Paladins. Gaffney and Gonzales founded a genuine honky tonk band called The Hacienda Brothers. Working together in 2005, Gaffney, Gonzales and Penn pushed the boundaries of country honky tonk toward soul music on the band’s eponymous first album. Then in 2006, on What’s Wrong With Right , they pushed a little farther toward soul and in my opinion found a sweet spot. Penn called is “western soul.”

“Midnight Dream,” written by the band, sets the tone from the moment Dave Berzansky’s pedal steel meets Joe Terry’s organ. The soul flavor is enhanced by the inclusion of Penn’s classics “Cry Like A Baby” and “It Tears Me Up” along with “Cowboys To Girls,” the Intruders hit from the sixties. I know it sounds incongruous that a cowboy bar band could pull these off, but the Hacienda Brothers are up to the task. Careful though; just when you think the guys are all about soul, they hit you with “The Last Time,” a beer joint country two stepper in the grand tradition – Gonzales has said that he had imagined he was writing the song for Ray Price – and a great cover of Charlie Rich’s “Life’s Little Ups And Downs.” Gaffney’s weathered voice hits just enough right notes with just enough passion to pull off all these gambles. Gonzales’ guitar is restrained, but about the time you miss it, he zings you with the perfect fill you and the song need. Plus on the instrumental finale, “The Son of Saguaro” he gets to strut his trademark deep twangs in the company of Gaffney’s lonesome western accordion along with pedal steel and gut string guitar to eerie, slow burning effect.

On this album, The Hacienda Brothers cross all the borders. Give a listen; it’s a journey you might want to take.

How important was Dan Penn to the album’s sound? That’s the essence of the question NPR’s Terry Gross posed to Gaffney and Gonzales in an interview on her show “Fresh Air.” Gonzales responded that Penn just has a feel for how to enhance a song. “He knows how to find the groove, how to find the soul” in the song. In a separate interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition, Penn commented on the characterization of his songs as having “a down home, conversational quality in his lyrics…and always a strong rhythmic feel.” He said, “I like a good groove. I’m not looking for a big mental statement. Just give me a groove and tell me something I like.”

Take the title track which Gonzales co-wrote with Penn. He told Gross that all he had was the title. He and Penn were hanging out in Vernon, Alabama, when he asked for Penn’s thoughts on it. “I looked him straight in the eye and said, “what’s wrong with right,” and he looked right back at me and said, “do I hold you too tight?” They knew they had something and finished the song that night.

Penn has repeatedly said that he prefers collaboration rather than writing solo. Yet even though he’s had many co-writers, and has produced records in multiple genres, almost any song he’s touched has something you can feel, that groove and soul Gonzales describes, that connects James Carr and Percy Sledge to newer performers like Greg Trooper and The Hacienda Brothers.

(Special note: I’m digressing slightly off my titular subject, but I just feel you need to know more about Chris Gaffney. Before he hooked up with Dave Gonzales and Dan Penn, he showed off his versatile vocal chops on his own 1995 album, Losers Paradise. His voice was a decade younger and stronger, thus slightly less weathered yet still filled with the soul that gave him such range across genres. He flat kills the title track as well as Tom Russell’s “The Eyes Of Roberto Duran,” which explains the futility of fighting with his woman, and “The Man of Someone’s Dreams,” as sad a requiem for wasting a chance at love as you’ll ever hear. He also presages The Hacienda Brothers with his solo version of “Cowboys To Girls” on which he’s supported by the haunting harmony voice of the inimitable Lucinda Williams.  At the very least, you’ll want to cherry pick at least those four tunes.”)

Let’s close out by cherry picking from among Dan Penn songs you may have never heard, or perhaps have heard but didn’t connect them to him.

“I Hate You” – Bobby Blue Bland
“Got a Feeling For Ya” – Kelly Willis
“Blue In The Heart” – Irma Thomas
“I Won’t Cry For You” – Irma Thomas
“I’m Not Through Loving You Yet” – Pegi Young (Neill’s wife)

I can hardly think of a better way to close this discussion than with one of my all time favorites Irma Thomas singing a Dan Penn song:

Closing note: I will be traveling next week to the wedding of one of my nieces, so I won’t be able to do a post. I’ll be back in two weeks with more music news and thoughts. If you’re enjoying what you’re reading and hearing, please pass along the link to your friends.


3 thoughts on “The Dan Penn Connection

  1. Great shout out to a great songwiwriter and performer; as Patterson Hood (who has his own Swamper roots) tweeted from the Linciooln Center tribute last week, “. . . probably the greatest songwriter of all time.”


  2. Thank you for Sid Selvedge. It led me to “Little Bit of Rain” in which he channels Fred Neil wonderfully. Would love to see more profile on Fred Neil himself and his extraordinary cohort from the 60s, Karen Dalton.


    • Fred Neill is a favorite of mine as well. I didn’t know who he was until Jerry Jeff Walker referred to him in his song “Blue Mood” from his Navajo Rug CD. Then I connected the dots. You’re right he’d be an interesting subject for a future post.


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