In its classic phase, Southern soul came out of studio environments that songwriters and singers exploited in a casual manner that was worlds away from how things were done in Nashville. Dan Penn developed his art at the great studios — Rick Hall's FAME in Muscle Shoals and Chips Moman's American in Memphis — while sharpening his songwriting chops. A producer, writer and first-rate performer, Penn conceived shrewd, catchy songs and figured out an idiosyncratic style of record-making to deliver them. He's an exemplary modernist artist — a man who performs in overalls and revels in nuance.
Born Wallace Daniel Pennington in Molloy, Ala., in 1941, Penn moved to nearby Vernon as a teenager. He is usually associated with Memphis, where he achieved his greatest fame, but Penn got his musical education in Alabama, where he listened to Nashville's WLAC and the soft pop of the mid-'50s.
"I'm from the Miss-Ala part of Alabama, which is just down the road from Memphis and Tupelo," Penn says from his Nashville home. "I'm still a blues man. Once I got to hear Jimmy Reed — man, he wiped 'em all out."
Penn says he was also influenced by "hillbilly music" and such artists as Patti Page and Perry Como. Still, his first successful composition was a blues song called "Is a Blue Bird Blue," the flip side of a 1960 Conway Twitty single. Around the same time, Penn recorded a single under his own name and played with a Muscle Shoals band called The Mark V. The band included Norbert Putnam, David Briggs and Jerry Carrigan, all of whom would become famed Nashville session musicians.
Continuing to write songs, Penn had ambitions to learn production, and began working at Hall's FAME Studio in Florence, Ala. "I lived in that studio," Penn says. "I was a gopher, and I was Rick's writer, but at the same time, I didn't want anything to go down in that studio that I didn't see."
While he was learning the studio, Penn tried his hand at commercial tunes. He and various collaborators would travel to Nashville where they'd try out new songs for the likes of Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins. (In later years, Penn would compose classics with Moman and keyboardist Spooner Oldham.)
Penn and Oldham broke through with "I'm Your Puppet," a 1966 hit Penn engineered at FAME. Moving to Memphis, he worked with the 16-year-old singer Alex Chilton and The Box Tops and produced "The Letter" — one of the '60s' emblematic hits. If The Box Tops were as much a producer's group as The Monkees, Penn downplays their image as a manufactured band that didn't utilize Chilton's full talent.
"He was very smart," Penn says of Chilton, who died earlier this year at 59. "Early in the game he knew I was a stubborn individual and I was gonna cut the record the way I wanted to. To be honest, it wasn't a very good group in the beginning. It wasn't his fault."
Using top-notch Memphis session players, Penn and The Box Tops chalked up such hits as "Cry Like a Baby" and "Neon Rainbow." The Box Tops made authentic soul, but the combination of Penn's production and songwriting produced odd, disquieting art. "Fields of Clover" amounts to a critique of social aspiration, while the brisk "Every Time" skirts nostalgia but moves too fast for reflection.
During the same period, many artists cut Penn's songs. Perhaps most famous of the deep-soul versions of his compositions is James Carr's 1967 "The Dark End of the Street" — a grave, ghostly thing. But the list of great performances of Penn's songs is long: Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," Esther Phillips' "Cheater Man" and The Ovations' "I've Gotta Go" among countless others.
Penn is unique in that his great performing ability is commensurate with his other gifts. He's an utterly compelling singer. His '60s and '70s singles — such strange, dense, brilliant sides as "Nobody's Fool" and "Nice Place to Visit" — are as good as any soul music ever made, and a lot more experimental than they have any right to be.
In the end, Penn could be defined as an experimental artist working within well-defined limits. He continues to perform and record, although not as much as his admirers would like. You get the sense he loves living in Nashville, but needs a bigger creative space.
"I tried to join 'em one day," he says of the Nashville music industry. "I went down lookin' for a writing gig, back in the early '80s. You're gonna try to do their bidding, when it comes to a point. Didn't anybody want to make a deal with me that day, so I just came back home."