The word "songwriter" is thrown around freely in the music business, but such ubiquity fails to convey the full spectrum of the craft. Memphis, of course, has had more than its share of great songwriters who transcend the more mundane world of tunesmiths who compose as a committee to fit certain demographics, but even in this rarefied world, some stand out as among the city's finest.
Dan Penn is one such composer, and, despite his being a native of Alabama, so much of his finest work was done here that it's fitting he'll be inducted, along with Tina Turner, Steve Cropper, Charlie Musselwhite, Dee Dee Bridgewater, The Memphis Boys, Don Bryant, and Florence Cole Talbert-McCleave, into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame this week. Then, on Saturday, November 9th, he'll have the spotlight all to himself when he plays an intimate show at Bar DKDC.
- Dan Penn
It's a rare performance by this icon, and a chance to hear the classic songs he's had a hand in creating, from "Dark End of the Street" to "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "I'm Your Puppet," "It Tears Me Up," and more, in a fresh, more personal way. I tracked Penn down to the farm in Alabama that's been in his wife's family for over a century, to find out what we can expect to hear this weekend and how he continues to listen to that inner voice that asks, "What have you done lately?"
Memphis Flyer: Do the old songs still come back to you pretty easily when you do shows like this?
Dan Penn: When I play gigs, I sing 'em and remember 'em, but as soon as the gig's over, they're gone. I don't dwell on what I have done. You're forever looking for a new song, you know, so I don't have room in my brain for all the old stuff. Now, when I play, I got the lyrics right in front of me. I've seen a lot of writers who just like to make them up halfway through. And that's all right, but that ain't me. I like to sing the real words.
Are you still writing new songs, though?
Yeah, I'm still writing. I'm not hitting it every day, like I used to. I've got a lot going on. I've got a couple old cars here in Alabama, and I beat around on 'em and fix them. It's a good hobby and keeps me busy. When I go back to Nashville, I turn back into an engineer and a songwriter. I mean, I'm writing all the time. I may not be putting anything to paper, but my brain's writing it. I've written a lot of songs, but I've always had a little voice saying, "What have you done lately?" It's a bad guy, but he kind of reminds you that you need to come up with something, you know? When I play a gig, I play the old songs exclusively, pretty much. That's what people want to hear. And I appreciate them and thank God for them. But after the gig's over and that goes away, I'm looking for another song.
William Bell talked to me about being a people watcher and building his songs out of seeing and overhearing people's interactions.
That's as good a place as any. On the street or coffee shop, whatever. I don't do that exactly. But as I interact with people, I guess I'm looking for something. Some people actually carry the song titles around with them, almost. It becomes apparent. You can pick it up anywhere. It can come out of your head, or it can come out of somebody else's mouth. But William Bell's got the right idea.
When you do perform these days, you're mostly playing the songs as a solo artist. It's pretty different from the full band arrangements they have in the original recordings.
One thing about it, when it's just the guitar and vocals, you can hear the song. You can hear the singer. Ain't nowhere to hide. When you got a guitar going and a piano and everything else, sometimes the song gets shuffled to the side and it comes down to a performance. I guess I'm performing when I play on my own, but basically I'm just singing the songs. It's the song's night out.
2019 Memphis Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Friday, November 8th, at The Cannon Center, 7 p.m. $50 and $100 tickets available.
Dan Penn solo show, Saturday, November 9th, at Bar DKDC, 8 p.m. (sold out).