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Dan Penn, grasp of the ‘sluggish pocket’

“The wheels by no means cease turning.” That’s the reply after I ask the ludicrous query of probably the most prolific Southern soul songwriters alive: “Are you all the time writing or simply whenever you’re engaged on a brand new venture?” 

In the event you don’t know who Dan Penn is, I may let you know he was a white child from Vernon, Alabama, who was taken with the forbidden sounds of Nineteen Fifties southern radio stations blasting out the music of Black America into communities like his the place Black voices largely went unheard. That is the place Penn found Ray Charles, James Brown and finally, Elvis Presley, who he says “…was the man who confirmed us white Southern youngsters the best way.” I may additionally let you know he was bitten by the songwriting bug as an adolescent, the place he scored an early hit with Arkansas native Conway Twitty, who recorded Dan’s first minimize, the Jimmy Reed sound-alike, “Is a Bluebird Blue,” or that he went on to jot down “Cry Like a Baby” and produce the mega-hit “The Letter” for the Field Tops with a younger Alex Chilton beneath his path.

However you probably know him as a result of he, together with songwriting co-conspirators like Spooner Oldham, turned the brilliant lights of the Muscle Shoals and Memphis music machines of the Nineteen Sixties and the author behind such epic soul classics as “Do Right Woman,” “I’m Your Puppet,” “Dark End of the Street,” “Out of Left Field,” “It Tears Me Up” and “You Left the Water Running.” The listing goes on for many years, together with the title observe to Solomon Burke’s Grammy Award-winning comeback album, “Don’t Give Up on Me,” which was a recurring music featured within the early-2000s teen drama “The O.C.”

Encyclopedia of Alabama
Dan Penn, David Briggs and Spooner Oldham

I talked to Penn just lately not as a journalist, however as a fan, a musician, a songwriter and as somebody whose private musical journey led me to him and his friends by discovering a core group of artists, musicians and songwriters that needed to be partially excavated and sifted aside and away from the noise of disposable Eighties well-liked music. On this manner, we share widespread floor. It’s the identical manner he and his technology of artists discovered their connection at a time the airwaves had been bombarding them with Perry Como, Patti Web page, and the edgy sounds of Pat Boone. 

Once we spoke, there have been a dozen areas I’d have favored to debate – his expertise engaged on Ry Cooder’s “Boomer’s Story” album; his time working with Chips Moman and the legendary “Elvis in Memphis” classes; the drug-fueled years of epic recording classes and volumes of songs written throughout that interval; or the legendary and apocryphal tales of the shelved and never-heard album “Emmet the Singing Ranger Dwell within the Woods,” produced by our mutual good friend Jim Dickinson, that features two Harley Davidsons being revved within the studio, to the purpose of carbon monoxide poisoning danger for everybody in attendance. However, as a result of his profession spans the vast majority of his 80 years on the planet and he’s talked about these items in lots of interviews or, as is typically the case doesn’t wish to speak about them in any respect, I used to be by no means going to scratch the floor of these years and all my curiosities in a single name, nor would I ask him to indulge me within the time it could take. So we talked a couple of micro-subject: enjoying the sluggish pocket. In all the performances I’ve heard on file and witnessed in-person of Penn enjoying his personal compositions, one constant factor I’ve seen is that his model of his songs are all the time subtly (in lots of circumstances, so much) slower than the recorded variations. I suspected that he in all probability judged many of the recorded variations of his songs to be this fashion too, so I requested. He instructed me I had a great ear. I instructed him the story about how Mahalia Jackson referred to her type of singing compared to the vocal aerobics of different gospel vocalists who sang for present as “singing flat-footed.” He agreed that Mahalia, Ray Charles, and, oddly, Kate Smith had been vocalists he admired whose types had been to sing out and typically maintain their footing, with out attempting to fill the awkward, weak areas a singer encounters. These areas are sometimes tempting to load up with vocal runs and histrionics, in lieu of welcoming the silence and lengthy areas with open singing and an uncovered soul. 

I as soon as noticed Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham acting on a stage at a type of god-awful Nashville songwriter showcases. For the uninitiated, that is one thing that occurs in Nashville the place songwriters who may need as soon as had aspirations to be the following Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Neil Younger (or Dan Penn) sit on stools and wax poetic a couple of music they wrote after which carry out it. Throughout their activate the mic, they’ll carry out an audio quick story about being caught in visitors and seeing a lady crying in her automobile, then think about a Civil Struggle widow ready for the husband who by no means returns, blah, blah, blah … usually for a painful size of time, solely to conclude the story with their hit music, “Beer for My Horses,” “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” or another Nashville drivel. 

It was entertaining to look at Dan, sporting his now trademark overalls and sport coat, whereas nursing a toothpick once in a while; and Spooner, sporting the identical informal gown shirt and slacks that has been his uniform for the reason that starting, sit idly and non-reactive to the schlock previous them on the stage. Then, along with his flip on the mic, Dan leaned in and mentioned merely, “That is one Marvin Gaye had a minimize on …” And so they launched into probably the most soulful, minimal, and slowly executed model of “I’m Your Puppet” you’ll ever hear. As with many (most?) of his songs, his could be higher than the model you would possibly know. For my part, it’s as a result of he does one thing that’s extraordinarily troublesome to do. He performs them on the absolute slowest doable tempo, as a way to extract each ounce of soul and juice the melody and phrases have to supply, with out making it really feel too sluggish. It’s simple to play songs quick. It’s painfully troublesome to search out that candy spot and a pocket the place it’s good, however doesn’t really feel prefer it’s dragging. I recommended to Dan that he was the Grasp of Sluggish Pocket. He laughed and mentioned, “I by no means thought of it like that, however I believe that’s it.”

Earlier than we wrapped up our chat I requested Dan a reasonably customary query. Out of all the nice songs he’s been a part of, did he have a favourite? I suspected he would say “Darkish Finish of the Avenue” which, by most accounts, is taken into account to be one of many biggest soul songs of all time. In music author circles, it’s hailed because the soul equal of nation music’s “He Stopped Loving Her At this time” (Let’s put apart the controversial take that this isn’t even the perfect music on that George Jones album, not to mention the last word nation music music). He dismissed the concept, most particularly “Darkish Finish of the Avenue.” 

“I don’t have any youngsters of my very own. These are my youngsters and I’ve no favorites.”

Dan Penn performs at 7 p.m. sharp on the White Water Tavern on Sunday, Oct. 30. Full disclosure: I’ve the distinct honor of opening the present. 

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