Sixty plus years into his career, Alabama-born songwriter and musician Dan Penn returns with a new album. Released this year, Living on Mercy showcases Penn’s brand of music, a style that can be labeled as anything from pop to country to soul to rhythm and blues. That genre-spanning character has been a hallmark of Penn’s work since his earliest recording session, 1960’s “Crazy Over You.”
Dan Penn’s hit songwriting credits make for a long list. A composer of songs with a trademark Southern pop-soul flavor, he’s written or co-written songs made famous by the likes of Aretha Franklin (1967’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” No. 9 pop, No. 37 R&B), James and Bobby Purify (“I’m Your Puppet,” No. 6 pop, No. 5 R&B that same year), The Box Tops (“Cry Like a Baby,” No. 2 pop in 1968), James Carr (1967’s “The Dark End of the Street,” No. 10 R&B) and many others. His songs have also been covered by artists as varied as the Detroit Cobras, Nick Lowe, Merrilee Rush, Faron Young, Jerry Garcia, Albert King and Hank Williams, Jr.
As a producer and/or engineer, Penn has been involved in the creation of many classics as well: The Box Tops’ “The Letter” and recordings by Irma Thomas, Solomon Burke, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Ronnie Millsap, Frank Black, Steve Cropper, Yo Yo Ma and many others. Penn’s creative outpouring has enhanced the worlds of rock, soul, country, R&B and beyond.
And while he’s recorded comparatively few albums under his own name, Penn remains engaged and active today at age 78. For many years now he has mounted tours with friend and frequent songwriting collaborator Spooner Oldham; the pair’s live shows are a kind of informal masterclass in songwriting, often taking their compositions back to skeletal demo form to reveal the simple genius in those songs.
Dan Penn’s latest project is a solo album, his first since 2016’s demo collection Something About the Night. And his first album of new material since 1994’s Do Right Man. Recorded in Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Living on Mercy demonstrates that Penn’s muse is as strong as ever.
While he sometimes writes on his own, Penn is immersed in the collaborative songwriting tradition; that’s the approach he used on Living on Mercy. That method has worked well for him since his earliest days. “Co-writing is a special deal,” he says. “You gotta know your way around: somebody’s gotta give, and everybody can’t talk at one time.” But he says that for him, the process – involving “two people, sometimes three” – means that “everybody offers their opinions and their licks.”
Penn values certain qualities in a potential songwriting collaborator. “I can write on my guitar by myself,” he says with characteristic modesty. “But it’s not always exactly what I want. I don’t go to the good chords; I’m kind of limited.” He mentions Will McFarlane, piano player on the new album and his writing partner on “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “I Didn’t Hear That Comin’,” two of the standout tracks on Living on Mercy. “Will can carry you to places that you might want to go,” he says. “And that’s what I’m always looking for: a better musician than me.” That, he says, is one of the best reasons to co-write.
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