Dan Penn: 'A Little Something I Like' in Music

Listen: Dan Penn on 'Fresh Air' in 2001

Dan Penn in his native environment.

Dan Penn in his native environment. Courtesy of conqueroo hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of conqueroo

The late 1960s were the golden age of Soul music. In studios located in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., legends like Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Otis Redding were recording songs that proved timeless.

Many of those classics came from Dan Penn, one of the most consistent soul songwriters. And singers like James Carr appreciated his ability to craft songs that allow singers to reach deep within, deliver music filled with emotional power — and make time stand still.

But it wasn't done without a massive effort.

"It took a lot of effort for a white person to write rhythm and blues, even in the '60s," he says. "It took a white person, me, and the black person, the artist, standing there saying come on, bring it to me, you know, let's have a song."

Penn wrote songs that became well-known hits, not only for soul singers, but also for gospel groups like the Sweet Inspirations — and even for "blue-eyed soul" from The Box Tops.

Born in Alabama in 1941, Penn grew up playing country, rockabilly and a lot of blues on guitar.

His first hit song was "Is a Bluebird Blue?" performed by a very young Conway Twitty. It was inspired, says Penn, by a friend who would respond to nearly any question with an affirming one of his own — as in, "Jed, did you make out last night?" "Is a blue bird blue?"

"I thought to myself you know, 'that'd make a good little song."

There's a down-home, conversational quality in Penn's lyrics, and there's always a strong rhythmic feel — whether it's a country or a soul song.

"I like a good groove," Penn says. "I'm not looking for a big mental statement. Just give me a groove and tell me a little something I like."

For more than 25 years, Dan Penn has lived in Nashville, where he's had success writing hits for singers like Ronnie Milsap. But his lasting love of soul makes him feel a bit like a stranger in the home of country music.

"I appreciate Nashville, it's a good city to live in, I like it," he says. "But you know, I never really been a big fan of the Nashville sound, I have to say."

Nonetheless, Penn recently returned to the studio to produce and write music for the Hacienda Brothers, a new band from Tucson, Ariz.

And he's still learning.

"These boys, the Hacienda Brothers," Penn says, "They've been taking me to school on the old country."

The Hacienda Brothers sing both classic country and soul ballads with equal conviction. You could call it the DNA at the core of their second album, What's Wrong with Right.

At 64, Penn is proud of his place in Nashville. But he remains dedicated to his first love: rhythm and blues. Every once in a while he goes on tour, playing the songs that helped teach America about a thing called Soul.

It's more common than some people might think. As is the case with the Hacienda Brothers, soul can easily blend with country, Penn says.

"But all music is soulful. I mean, a good opera is mighty soulful. You know?"

Ashley Kahn is the author of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.

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