Dan Penn Is 'Living on Mercy' And Will Teach You How To Pull Songs Out Of The Air


Dan Penn puts out solo albums just often enough for you to assume he's not going to do anymore. This time it's been 26 years, aside from "little demos" as he calls them. But then he surprises you with a 13 track release for Living on Mercy and proceeds to shake things up with his unique ideas and sensibilities, not to mention his all-star collaborators.

Penn started his career in the 60s R&B worlds of Alabama, Memphis, and Nashville, and after working with and in bands, eventually turned to learning the trade of recording and songwriting with a very serious drive. It was one that took him into notoriety, and left him with a lifetime of songs to his name, but probably most tellingly, a wealth of very talented friends. Penn's biggest hit songs have been made famous by other people, but he still turns back to them to stake his claim from time to time.

With Living on Mercy, out on August 28th, we get something truly special in Penn performing the vocals on his own songs with a band that meets his stature. We spoke to Penn about the new album, but also explored many of his thoughts and practices on songwriting, and the avenues of his personal history that brought him to where he is today, still writing, still recording, and still sure there are more songs to "pull out of the air".

Hannah Means-Shannon: Did you ever go in any Tower Records shops when they were around?

Dan Penn: Yeah, I used to go into the one in Nashville now and again.

HMS: That’s great.

DP: Maybe in California I might have gone in one or two. I miss those stores, you know?

HMS: Me too. Do you like vinyl records, CDs, or tapes?

DP: I like CDs. Vinyl records are fine if you have everything set up on your playback system, and they are not wore out. But they seem to get scratched up pretty fast, and you can’t play them in your car. You can download them to your phone or something, but then what’s the point? CDs sound just like in your studio, and to me that’s as good as it gets. I know that vinyls do have their appeal, and I have heard some that are better, because of the vibe they put out. But most of them aren’t as good as a CD to me. But I understand, they have big artwork and big words. Some of them really do sound good.

I had just bought a CD player back in the late 1990s, and I was over in Scotland, and some of these kids started talking about records. Somebody had brought a James Carr record for 300 pounds, way back when. I asked them they had paid that instead of paying for a CD, and they said, “This is better.” I said, “No, I don’t believe it.” They said, “Come to our pad tonight after the show and we’ll show you.”

And I did, I went to their apartment, and they had this big piece of marble with what looked like a thousand dollar player on it, and a big stack of speakers, and it did sound great. It was a brand new record and it sounded fabulous. I understood. I got the point. But sometimes you need all that to make a vinyl record sound good.

HMS: That’s a great story. You’re right. It’s all about commitment and what you want as a listener. If you have a lot of space, too.

DP: Space, space, space. It’s okay with me, they sell too. Let’s sell them one.

HMS: They are selling really well right now, I have to say.

DP: I know they are.

HMS: I want to talk to you about your exciting new album. Can you tell me a little bit about the title of the album and the title song, “Living on Mercy”? When I hear that phrase, it reminded me of a car running on gasoline and maybe the idea that people run on things, too.

DP: I didn’t have a truck in my mind, but we actually wrote it as a love song to a woman. Later on, I got to thinking about it got to thinking that God’s got all the mercy. That’s why there’s that line at the end that says, “God’s mercy, uh-huh.” Because, believe it or not, a lot of people don’t have much mercy. It kind of came from that.

HMS: Relationships can definitely be like that.


DP: I think we’re all living on mercy. It pertains to all of us, one way or another. But that wasn’t how the song was written, it was written to a woman. But later, I thought, “God has mercy.” And we know that’s where the mercy really is. We aren’t going to get it out of a lot of places, but he’s always got it there, sitting and waiting on us. He’s just waiting on you. [Laughs]

HMS: Do you think that it can be up to us, sometimes? Like we don’t allow that mercy in our lives?

DP: Well, I think we have it without knowing. It’s just when we get into short rows and we aren’t doing too good, that we might turn to Him and ask for some mercy. I think we get it automatically. We don’t have to ask for it all the time. You just live your life and try to do good, and you’re going to have the mercy. You may not have mercy from the woman or the man. They might not be giving you any mercy, but it’s out there. They show it to you, you show it to them.

HMS: I think we could all use a lot more of that in the world.

DP: Yeah, we sure could. I’m so tired of all the crap. Conflict everywhere, the virus thing.

HMS: How have you been getting along, generally? Are you staying at home, mostly?

DP: Yeah, we go to Nashville, and we’ve got to go back up there, and stay there about three weeks. We’ll go to Louisville, Kentucky to the National Hot Rod Show. That’s kind of my hobby, I work on old cars. Then I have an interview there towards the end of the month with Michael Gray at the Hall of Fame. After that, I guess we’ll come back to Alabama and do some more car work.

I’ve had shows cancelled this year in May, and I’ve got some in New Orleans and Austin, Texas, in November, but I don’t know if they’ll fly. I could be cancelled real easy. But I’d like to go. I don’t mind going and playing, it’s fun, when you do it like I do it.

I’m not a pro singer with hit records, so I can “not play”. But when people call in and seem nice, I say, “Okay”. I try to do what I can. But how am I doing overall? I’ve got my problems, like everybody. I’m 78 years old, and time just doesn’t let up. It just keeps coming. When you get out of bed, you may have a new hurt.

HMS: I’m younger than you, and I have that! Do you usually play some shows every year, or is it because this album is coming out where you are the performer as well as songwriter, that you’re doing shows this year?

DP: No, I’ve been doing shows ever since the 90’s. After “Do Right Man” came out, they had me come to The Bottom Line in New York. That was the first show I’d played in 25 years, and I’d taken Spooner [Oldham] with me, and he and I continued on playing many places in this world: Japan, Australia, Europe. Lately, the past two and a half years, I’ve been playing shows mostly by myself. A lot of my friends are dying. I don’t like that, but that’s just the way that is.

You sound a lot like someone I work with who’s in Florida, Lisa Best.

HMS: I’m from Western North Carolina and I grew up partly in Memphis.

DP: Oh, I love Memphis.

HMS: Yes, I’ve been glad to see how much work you’ve done in Memphis.

Regarding playing live, I know that you did a live album with Spooner that was recorded in the UK.

DP: That’s right, 20 years ago. That is being rereleased by the same guy in London, Malcolm Mills, who picked up my record in the UK. We did that deal after a show, eating cake at the Peabody. So I made that deal in Memphis. I was glad of that.

HMS: That’s a good tradition! I always knew there was a lot of music there, even when I was a little kid. And I’m glad I had that experience. Now, when I read all these books about music tradition, or hear stories, I know exactly what people are talking about, where these places are and how important they have been.

DP: Yes.

HMS: How did you decide which tracks went on Living on Mercy? I know that you had recorded some of them about 15 years ago with the Cate Brothers.

DP: Yes, but they never were a record. They were just a demo. They cut some of them themselves on their little 4 track cassette, and they sounded GREAT. Matter of fact, the ones I have done sounded pretty good, but not as good as the Cate Brothers. “Living on Mercy” and the other song, “Edge of Love”, me and Wayne Carson wrote them out in the car in Springdale, Arkansas, while they were demoing their other songs in their own studio.

We were outside writing songs. They demoed the songs, but we never could quite get the deal together, so they went away. But I had the songs. And how did I pick them out? Well, I just picked out the ones I liked. I was going to cut 10 and I ended up cutting 13. Then I thought, “Well, I paid for 13, so I might as well put them on the record and see what people think.” That’s how the 13 got there.

[Penn and Spooner Oldham]

HMS: That’s great. What made you think you wanted to put it together right now, and spurred you on to do it?

DP: Well, seems like every 20 years it kinda hits me that I ought to make a record.

HMS: [Laughs] I noticed.

DP: I had made those little demo records, 4 or 5 of them to let people know I was still alive. And we sold some of those, with just synthesizers and plastic drums. They sounded okay, but they weren’t really musicians playing except one guy. I always thought I’d like to make another record, but then I thought, “Maybe it’s a little late to make a record.” The more I talked to Lisa Best, down in Florida, she kept encouraging me. And the more I talked to Malcolm Mills, who Lisa works for, the more I thought about it.

I had just been to Japan and played some shows over there, made a little money. I came back and thought that I could take that money and add a little to it and make a record. Malcolm was interested in it, and in Memphis we made the deal. When Malcolm heard it, he was jumping up and down he was so excited.

HMS: That’s wonderful. I’m so glad they encouraged you to do it.

DP: Yes, I was encouraged all the way. It’s funny to be encouraged at 78 years old to make a record, people don’t expect it. But I got to thinking it would be fun to go in with these guys and make a record. I got the best players anywhere in the South. They all really stretched to make a great record.

HMS: The quality of the record is wonderful. It sounds really great. I think you recorded it partly in Nashville and partly in Muscle Shoals?

DP: That’s right, I did 6 songs in Creative Workshop, Buzz Cason’s studio. I did the last 7 in Muscle Shoals, or Sheffield, Alabama. It’s really four cities there, running right together. I had good studios and engineers both places, and the best musicians. All the vocals I did right off the floor with the band.


DP: They weren’t overdubbed. I tried some of them, but I never could beat them. I tried, but it came coming back to the original, so I said, “Okay, that’ll do.”

HMS: That’s that real live sound.

DP: That’s that extra-live. I love original vocals. You can take an original vocal, and if you have just one line of original vocals, you can patch the rest up. But if you don’t have any original, you’re lost. After the band has left the building, you’re on your own kid. I love vocals live, and these are all right off the floor.

HMS: That’s amazing. Was it difficult with scheduling to get everyone in the same place at the same time? How many people were on this with you?

DP: There are four main musicians. There’s Clayton Ivey on the keyboards, he’s the leader. There’s Milton Sledge on drums. There’s Michael Rhodes on bass, and Will McFarlane on guitar. That’s the entire band.

HMS: That’s not too bad to try to get everyone together.

DP: I’ll tell you the truth, it was! The first ones, in Nashville, were easy. Then we took off a couple of months, probably to write some more songs, and then trying to get all these boys to Creative Workshop, when all these boys were in Alabama, and then Creative Workshop wasn’t available. I could get The NuttHouse, Jimmy Nutt’s place.

HMS: [Laughs]

DP: That’s his name! So I could line it up, with all the guys running to and fro, but I finally got them down for a few days, and we cut the rest. It was looking like I wasn’t going to be able to make it work, but it snapped into place and it all worked out.

HMS: I’m so glad that you were able to get it all recorded before the world got crazy.

DP: Yes, I just got in under the wire. And then a friend of mine in Muscle Shoals, Billy Lawson, he mastered it for me. It was already a problem when he mastered it, but it was just me and him there, so it got mastered. It’s coming out August 28th.

HMS: You mentioned Buzz Cason. He collaborated with you on this, right?

DP: He did on one song, yes, “What It Takes To Be True”. We are old, old friends. He came along with this idea, and we decided to sit down and write it. I kept asking him, “Well, Buzz, tell me something. What does it take to be true?” He’d say, “Well, you know.” But I’d say, “Yeah, but give me something specific. I don’t understand what this means.” Finally, I just left it alone, and let it work itself out. Finally, when I cut it, I said, “Oh, I understand it all, now.”

HMS: Really?

DP: Yeah, until I put it down, I didn’t really understand what I was saying. But after I cut it, I said, “Well, it makes all the sense in the world.” I kind of like things to make sense, you know? I can’t write a song that doesn’t make any sense. That’s wonderful. I’ve always admired that. But for me, it’s gotta make sense.

HMS: I know what you mean. Some songs are very powerful musically, but the lyrics are kind of vague or don’t make a lot of sense.

DP: That’s kind of my favorite kind. I takes all the effort out of listening to them. You can sing your own lyrics, you know?

HMS: Did you write that together because you knew you were going to do an album?

DP: We wrote it for the record. I told him to come over and we’d write a song for the record. And he came over, and he actually had the idea, that first line. He had the nucleus of it, and we just went at it. It was an odd-sounding demo, I have to say. He did all this, “do-do-do-do-do-do-do.”. Buzz, he’s just a very talented, very nice man. We write a couple of songs a year. We’d like to do more, but he’s got his things doing, and I’ve got my things doing.

HMS: What is it about another person that makes them a good collaborator, in your mind? What does it take to make you want to work with someone, since I know you also do a lot on your own?

DP: It would be nice if they were really great musicians, better than me. Piano player or guitar player that can whoop up some good music. I can walk around and start singing. Sometimes I don’t know what’s coming out of my mouth, sometimes I write it down. They can take me to places that I can’t go on a guitar myself, but they can take me to places I’d like to go. That, and having a good time. I like to have a good time when I’m writing.

If we’re not writing too good, we’re just go bowling, or do something. We don’t want to just sit and tread water. Sometimes you sit around for a couple of hours and it seems like nothing is happening, like nothing might ever happen. So let’s go do something, maybe go eat, and come back, and maybe then you’re onto something. You’ve got to keep moving around a bit.

And if you can laugh and have a good time, that’s life. While you’re writing, you’re breathing and living. I admire these people who can get up in the morning and write two songs before breakfast. Wayne Carson was that way. He could do it, but that’s not me. I write a song by myself every year or two, when it hits me. A lot of the writers are dropping away, leaving here.

HMS: There have been some changes in songwriting in terms of the industry and how it works, but I’ve been relieved to talk to some young people recently who are songwriters, also in the Nashville area. And they aren’t necessarily performers, they just write songs. I guess that’s similar to your life.

DP: Well, I think you also have performing songwriters. One night or another, they’ll be at the Bluebird Café or something. Most of the time they will and do play, they just do not play regularly. I didn’t play for twenty years, didn’t feel the call. I finally made a record that I felt I needed to get behind.

If we can get beyond some of this stuff, maybe I can play some next year. I’d like to take that band, the same band, to New York and London. To be able to sit on stage with them. I sit on stage mostly these days. I might stand up with that band!

HMS: Those are a good bunch of guys. When you’re writing a song, do you feel like you’re telling a story? Is there the idea of a story there, or is it more about feelings?

DP: I don’t ever hardly write a story. I’m trying to find the groove. The groove is really important to me. Like a lot of people are “lyric-heavy”, well, I’m “groove-heavy”. I want my leg to move a little bit, even on a ballad. They got grooves, too. That’s important to me. I never think about telling a story, and if I do, I’m doing it by mistake. I’m making it up as I go, a lot of times. I’m making all that stuff up. That’s kind of my style.

HMS: Where do you think songs come from, for you?

DP: Oh, I think they are gifts. I think they are God-given. I used to be starving for a title. When I was young, I’d be looking everywhere for an idea, and I’d be writing all the time because I felt like I had to. These days, it’s nice to show up at a writing session with a good idea. They can have it, or I can have it, but if we don’t have it, I feel like we can pull something out of the air. By saying something, playing something, fussing around a little bit. Somebody hits a chord that makes it all open up. That’s the way I look at it.

HMS: So, you’re just getting things to be the right atmosphere, getting things moving, and then something will come along?

DP: Yes, atmosphere. The whole room. Just where you’re at. If somebody don’t feel good, if somebody’s mad or something like that, if there’s a bother going on, that’ll show up in the song. We aren’t dancing around, but we’re smiling. We might sit down and have an O’Douls, drink a beer, and make yourself comfortable. And you better make yourself comfortable, because we’re going to be here awhile. Even songs that I wrote fast, like “Cry Like a Baby”, and stuff like that, we were two days out looking for it, back in the day.

I don’t stay out two days anymore. I might write on it a day, and me and Buzz, we might write on it a day. Then he went away, and came back, and we wrote on it another day. So instead of staying two nights and two days like me a Spooner did on “Cry Like a Baby”, we were about ready to give up, and it came. Whatever it takes. But I don’t stay up two nights anymore. Maybe I’ll stay up one night if we’re chasing something good, a good idea. I’ll lean into it as long as I can.

HMS: [Laughs] So, it sounds like just being open to possibilities is important?

DP: That’s very important. Because you don’t know where you’re going unless you have an idea. And I’d say more than half the time, we don’t. We just have to, like a prayer, pull it out of the sky. I kinda look at it these days as if they are up there, floating around. If you get a good idea, you better write it, because if you don’t, somebody else will pull it out of the air.

HMS: Yes! That happens.

DP: I’ve had several songs like that. We wrote, “I’m Your Puppet” and about the same time, here came along, “Puppet on a String”, with [Elvis] Presley. Things get done at the same time a lot of times.

HMS: You can see it happen, on TV and films, on inventions. People are thinking the same things around the same time. Thank you for that wonderful answer.

Are you happy with your decision that you made quite long ago, I think, that you didn’t want to be the frontman in a band, touring all the time?

DP: Yeah, I’m happy with it. I played six nights a week for a while in Birmingham, Alabama, and I played all kinds of fraternity parties and all that stuff. I played pretty regularly, and I had that idea in my mind, “Maybe we’ll make a hit someday.” But all the sudden, I lost my band, and they went to Nashville. That was [David] Briggs, [Norbert] Putnam, and [Jerry] "Carri" [Carrigan], and they became the biggest band in Nashville, cutting records.

So I was left without a band, and I didn’t want to start another band. They are a lot of trouble. They all quit as soon as you get one going.

HMS: [Laughs]

DP: I was sitting at the FAME Studios one night, by myself, looking at the door. I was kind of blue about them leaving, and I said to myself, “Hey. What’s the problem? There’s the door right there, the one you need to walk through and find out all you can about engineering, cutting records, being a better writer.” All the things you do at a studio. And I did that. I was a fly on the wall for many years. People would come in there and cut, and I’d get to watch them.

I was a gopher if someone wanted a hamburger or cigarettes, and all the sudden I was on the session. I was important too. So I was writing songs around the edges, hanging out at night. My home wasn’t far away. Basically, I just hung in the studio and learned all I could about that. That’s been a blessing to me. You can’t become a better singer until you hear yourself. If you hear yourself a lot on some good speakers, you can really tell what you’re not doing right.

I had big Autotek speakers, and I had the keys to the FAME Studio, and one in Memphis too. We’d go in late at night and use their big old mics and all the stuff down there, and we’d put the demo down. You’d get to hear yourself. Especially singing. That helped me a lot to sing better, I feel like.

HMS: So not only was this your education, but this was access to all this equipment? You wanted to learn, and you set yourself on that path?

DP: I definitely wanted to learn the engineering part. And watching all the producers, watching Rick Hall and everybody cutting records. It became apparent that this was a good thing to do.

HMS: It seems like bands don’t get much time in studios because that comes with a big price tag, right?

DP: It does. But I always tell young people, “Look, it don’t matter. Put it down on a cassette. Put it down on a computer. Put it down anywhere. Play it back a lot. Play it back until you’re sick of it. Then put it aside for 6 months and come back again, then you’ll see how bad you may have sounded.”

HMS: [Laughs]

DP: [Laughs] That’s the way I always did it. And it still works. I hear myself on a set of speakers and I say, “Oh boy, you ain’t doing too good tonight.”

HMS: You sound like you’d be a good songwriting teacher. Have you ever done that?

DP: No, but I probably would be a good teacher.

HMS: Because you’re very direct. You don’t mess around.

DP: I agree with you. I never have tried to teach anybody, but it might be fun.

HMS: Well, if people read this, it will teach them something.

DP: There you go. Well, get yourself a set of speakers of any kind and listen to yourself. That’s the way to move on. Hear your thoughts, and hear your voice, and the next time you can do better. If you never hear yourself, you’re just a bathroom singer. If you have a set of speakers, and a little microphone, and a guitar, you can hear yourself, especially the vocals. A lot of people could be good singers, but they never get a chance.

They don’t know that simple fact that a cassette player is just fine, anything to hear yourself back. If you play something enough, you’ll improve. I’m my worst critic, but you have to do that if you’re going to be a singer. Singer is partly vocal, but it’s also mental. “How are you going to phrase it?” That’s the most important part to me, phrasing. You write the words, you write the melody, but how are you going to set those words? I’ve always had a pretty good knack for phrasing.

HMS: I’d say so. When you have written a song and it’s recorded by somebody else, and then at any point, you want to play it and sing it yourself, how do you know what you sound like on that song? How do you decide how you want to perform it?

DP: I just go ahead and perform it. I don’t think about their record. The only thing I have a problem with is if I write some songs, like me and some guys and I did, down in a cabin in Louisiana, and I put them down on an 8 track cassette, and we brought them back to the studio, and I was going to cut them with a band.

And I said, “There ain’t no way, a band can’t cut these. I’ll never sound better.” You can try to beat them, but it’s time to leave them alone then. It’s your own self, getting out of the way of your own self. Now, five years later, when it’s all off your mind, then you could sing it again. But the immediate, right now, makes it kind of hard.

That one record, I had to put out the 8 track cassette! A little record called Blue Nite Lounge (2000). It was just a little trip down to Louisiana, me and Carson Whitsett and Bucky Lindsay, and we had a good time, just writing songs. No phones, no TVs, just two cabins and two ponds, and all that good Louisiana fish.

HMS: That sounds lovely.

DP: It’s usually true, when you’re on the road, if you’re eating good food, you’ll write good songs.

HMS: I like your philosophy.

DP: Well, it works! If you’re not getting anything good to eat, you’re not going to write much.

HMS: At Tower Records, our company motto is “No Music, No Life”. What do you think of that phrase?

DP: Well, you just gotta have it. That’s the thing, after you get through with breathing, and eating, and swimming, and whatever you’re going to do, you’ve got to have a song or two to listen to. It’s important in everyone’s life to have some music.

That statement says what it is, you know? It’s very, very important. I’m just proud to be the one that’s bringing it. It’s important to me because of that, that I’m involved in it, and get to make songs. But I like a good groove just as much as anybody. I’m a child of the 60s R&B. For me, it never did get much better than that. I’ve heard a lot of Pop stuff I liked, and some Country stuff, but basically 60s R&B Pop, that’s my favorite. Put one of them records on, it’ll take you there.

HMS: Yes, I’m with you on that. I collect records of that kind. I love the early Blues and Rock. I collect the early Rolling Stones, when they were covering that stuff.

DP: There’s just a lot of good music out there. I’m not a record collector, but I have friends who are. I have a basement full of records, but they were basically all given to me. Every once in a while I’ll buy a record. I still like stuff. I like Diana Krall. Have you ever heard her Christmas record? That’s Elvis Costello’s wife.

HMS: No, I haven’t, but I have heard of her.

DP: If you get a chance, get her Christmas record. It’s a great record, with a big band and horns and all that. Pick up on that if you can.

HMS: Thank you. I will look for that.

DP: You can probably even get it on your phone, but it’s just a great band.        


  • Charlie Taylor

    Great interview! Dan is an American treasure and belongs in the Grammy and RnRHOF!

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