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Singing songs into being

Legendary songwriting pair visits N.C. Festival of the Book


Play along with me here: Suppose a mandate was issued stating that you can listen to the music of only one songwriting team. Sure, Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards have some pretty decent stuff to their names, as do your Holland-Dozier-Hollands and your Bryant-Bryants. But my team of choice would be Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, a prolific pair whose work in the mid and late '60s--beginning with "I'm Your Puppet," a 1966 smash for James & Bobby Purify--went a long way toward defining Southern soul.

Sing a song while you work: Dan Penn (left) and Spooner Oldham
  • Sing a song while you work: Dan Penn (left) and Spooner Oldham

"Cry Like a Baby," "Sweet Inspiration" and the one-two Percy Sledge punch of "Out of Left Field" and "It Tears Me Up" are some other notable Penn and Oldham collaborations. But for every big seller, there's another gem that, in its day, had a starring role on records by such near-forgotten soulmen as Arthur Alexander, Joe Simon and Mighty Sam McClain.

Penn, who was born in Vernon, Ala., and moved to Muscle Shoals in his teens, experienced success early when Conway Twitty took his "Is a Bluebird Blue" to the charts in 1960. Penn was only 18. It took a while to get back to those charts.

"[Oldham and I] hung out and ate a lot, every night at Fame Studios" is how Penn describes, in disarming plainspeak, his working relationship with Oldham. "We wrote a lot of songs trying to get to a hit."

They reached that goal with "I'm Your Puppet," the first of many victories. After making the move to Memphis in 1966, Penn continued to write with Oldham but also teamed up with other partners. Another hits list emerged, including the Chip Moman cowrites "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and "The Dark End of the Street." The latter stands out as being triple legendary, as arguably the quintessential Southern-soul song, the quintessential cheating song and the quintessential James Carr performance.

Penn also wrote (with Fame Studios head Rick Hall) "You Left the Water Running," a lively number that's been recorded by everybody from Otis Redding to former Clemson hoops coach Cliff Ellis. And one of his most recent memorable efforts was "Don't Give Up on Me," the title track from Solomon Burke's 2002 Grammy-winning album, written with buddies Carson Whitsett and Hoy Lindsey.

Now a Nashville resident, Penn would no doubt much rather be writing with buddies than doing a phone interview, but he opens wide up when talking about the cowriting process. "You write a song by yourself, that's full control. But you have nobody to bounce it off of. But when you cowrite, you do have to collide together, bounce things off," he explains. "On a good day, we come out with a better song than one cat can. But anything works, and nothing works."

With no prodding needed, he continues. "When you write a lot, what you're doing is you're living your life, you know? Did you have a good time? That's always my question."

And then he gets down to relative specifics. "I'm not a very good guitar player. I just bang 'em out enough to write. But when I write with piano players or great guitar players, I can do much better. They impress me, and they go to places that I go. On all these old songs, I went to places, but Spooner was right there with me. A lot of times I didn't even play guitar when I wrote. I just sang 'em into being."

With this talk of "anything works and nothing works" and "did we have fun?" and "singing songs into being," Penn comes off as a reluctant but eminently qualified down-home philosopher and sage of the musical South, all without a hint of contrivance. He's what his fellow songwriting cats would call "real," and his is a presence that has led other musicians, of his generation and the next one down, to seek him out.

"I built a studio here in my basement, just like everybody has in Nashville," Penn says, which has apparently made him easier to find. Over the last couple of years, he's produced records by soul vet Bobby Purify, singer/songwriter Greg Trooper, and a songstress (and Penn's publicist) named Lisa Best, whose Plain Jane in a Mustang album features the Penn-Oldham song "Jewel of My Heart" as its centerpiece. He just finished his second record with the Hacienda Brothers, a group that's perfecting what they call "western soul." And a musical reunion hosted by Penn a few years back resulted in the warm and wonderful album Testifying, credited to the Country Soul Revue.

Penn collaborator Trooper tells a story that gets to the heart of why folks continue to want to write and record with Penn. While playing back tape during one of their recording sessions, Trooper heard himself singing flat on one line, but Penn disagreed. "We rolled the tape back and listened again. I still heard it as flat, but he still thought it was fine," Trooper recalls. "We listened one more time. After the line went by again, Dan looked at me and said, 'You're not singing flat, son, you're just on the sad side of the note.' We kept it."

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham will accompany novelist Michael Parker, whose latest novel If You Want Me to Stay features Southern soul music as a supporting character, at the 2006 NC Festival of the Book. Their program is at 3:30 on Saturday, April 29, at the Griffith Film Theater in Duke's Bryan Center.

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