Popular music would sound way different in a world without Vernon, Alabama native Dan Penn. During the heydays of both Rick Hall's FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals and Chips Moman's American Studios in Memphis, Penn wrote or co-wrote some all-time classic R&B and soul hits. His work as a songwriter includes Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby," James and Bobby Purify's "I'm Your Puppet," James Carr's "The Dark End of the Street" and Percy Sledge's "Rainbow Road," just to name a few.
To further grasp Penn's place in history, note that he collaborated at some point with seemingly everyone involved in Muscle Shoals and Memphis back then-- namely Jerry Wexler, Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham, Alex Chilton and Wayne Carson.
Penn's still at it in 2020, splitting time between Muscle Shoals and Nashville while prepping for the Aug. 28 release of what he calls "the best album I've made in my estimation," Living on Mercy (Last Music Co.).
His first solo album in 26 years compiles older, unreleased songs with fresher material from a regional legend who never kicked the songwriting habit. Examples of songs just now seeing the light of day include a title track which, per Penn's description, reminds us of the slight, secular differences between gospel and soul music.
"That's what we're all doing," Penn says. "It ain't just me, it's everybody living on mercy. That's all we got. We couldn't make it on our own, but we do have God's mercy. You take that away I couldn't breathe. We may not think about it much, but this song asks you to think about it."
Penn co-wrote "Living on Mercy" with Carson, the writer of everything from The Box Tops' "The Letter" (which was produced by Penn) to such country hits as Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind" and Gary Stewart's "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)."
"Over in Springdale, Arkansas, I was working around with the Cate Brothers," Penn says of the song's origin. "We was thinking about cutting a record with them. (Carson and I) wrote two or three songs out in the car, and they demoed them for us. Then it all just went away. I can't remember just why it fell through the hole. I didn't cut them, but I had demos of the songs. That was 15 years ago."
Carson passed away in 2015, making the title track's overdue release a tribute to one of Penn's greatest friends and business associates.
Other collaborators on the album include "What It Takes to Be True" co-writer Buzz Cason, a member of Nashville's first rock 'n' roll band and a living country and rockabilly legend.
"Back when I was still in my hometown of Vernon, Alabama, I had a hit with Conway Twitty," Penn says. "Way on back there before he went country, he had a hit with 'Is a Blue Bird Blue." I wrote that song.
"I used to hang out at this all-night cafe, Rodger's Cafe" Penn continues. "A lot of times it'd just be and Ms. Rodgers in there, playing the jukebox and eating a hamburger. Well, this brand new Chevrolet pulled up to the gas pumps pulling a trailer, and I immediately said, 'That's a band.' They came in and ordered food, and I see them sitting over there. Finally, I got up the nerve to go over there and introduce myself. Well Buzz, he's the first one who stood up and said, 'I'm Buzz Cason. We're the Casuals. We just backed Brenda Lee last night in Columbus. I said, 'Okay, I'm Dan Penn. I wrote 'Blue Bird Blue.'' They all left, and Buzz tells the story that they get up the road and he turns to the other guys and he says, 'That dern fool thinks he wrote 'Blue Bird Blue!' You know how it is. Out there in the country, you don't expect anybody to have a hit."