Dan Penn: Have ‘Mercy’! Part 2 of 2

Continued from Part One

Asked if there’s a set of rules he follows when making an album, Penn has a ready answer. “No,” he says. “No rules. Just throw it all out there and do your best. When you’re cutting, you just hope everybody plays good and you sing good.” After pausing a moment to further contemplate the question, he says that he can’t think of anything he does in a session that’s special.

“I just get the musicians in and show them a song,” he says. “They write a chord chart, and we start playing. If you’ve got great musicians, it usually comes right up. And that’s the only principle.”

Penn admits that it’s often impractical to assemble a roomful of musicians in one place at one time to record in his preferred old-school manner. “I’m glad to have a real band on my record, but you can’t hardly get a budget for that any more,” he says. He covered the expenses for making the album himself, with the understanding that if the finished product was good, London-based label The Last Music Co. would release it.

“I knew [Last Music president] Malcolm Mills was wanting it,” Penn says with a good-natured laugh. “He had offered me a ‘nut’ on it if he liked it. He loved it, so the check is in the mail.”

Listening to Living on Mercy – and talking about the album with its creator – one gets the distinct impression that its making was a very enjoyable experience for all concerned. Penn says that his fellow musicians “were all wanting me to make a good record, and you can hear that. They had a good time, and I had a good time; It was all fun.” And for Dan Penn, fun is a key element for a successful recording session. “Fun goes right on your record, just like distress goes right on your record,” he says.

The album was made in two sets of recording sessions. The first took place at Buzz Cason’s Creative Workshop in Nashville, an historic studio used by a long list of top artists including The Doobie Brothers, the Faces, Leon Russell, Roy Orbison, Olivia Newton-John and many others. “I cut the first six songs there, and then we took three or four weeks off for some reason or another,” Penn says.

At that point, Penn still found himself several songs short of an album. So he did what he always does: he wrote more.

But once those new songs were ready, he found that the Nashville musicians he wanted weren’t available. “I couldn’t get the pickers there,” he says. “They were all busy, and I couldn’t make it all line up. It’s pretty tough to get these really good pickers and really good studios together.”

But Dan Penn knows plenty of good musicians, and he has access to the best studios. “I went got a hold of Jimmy Nutt, down at the NuttHouse [Recording Studio], in Sheffield/Muscle Shoals, Alabama,” he says. “Jimmy helped me put it together, we got the musicians all lined up, and suddenly we had a day.”

Living on Mercy is of a piece with Penn’s writing for other artists. He says that it’s never been his goal to write with an ear toward a particular genre. “I always liked R&B pop, and pop music period,” he says. “So I always try to just write straight ahead: Not too much blues, not too much country.” He believes that approach has the potential of hitting the widest possible audience. “At least, it used to,” he says with a laugh. “These days, you don’t hit nobody.”

With so many classic songs to his credit, it stands to reason that Dan Penn would have some good ideas regarding what makes a great one. “The hook: that’s always good,” he says. “And for me, it’s the groove.” But what about lyrics? Not quite as important, Penn believes.

“A lot of people, they’re really centered on the lyrics,” he says. “I’m okay with good lyrics, but to me, the groove is above the lyrics.” With a hint of bemusement, he adds, “I get tired of people in Nashville talking about lyrics, lyrics, lyrics.” What a great song really needs, he says, “is something that you can shake a leg to.”

It’s fair to wonder if live audiences will get the opportunity to shake a leg to any of the tunes from Living on Mercy. In the short term, at least, the COVID-19 pandemic makes that an unlikely prospect. But although challenges will remain even post-pandemic, Penn remains open to the idea.

“That’s all to be seen,” he says. Speaking about the period prior to the pandemic, he notes the he and Spooner Oldham still did shows. “And on a good night, we were … pretty good!” But he acknowledges that – not unlike the difficulty in getting musicians together for a Nashville session – putting together a touring band isn’t a simple task.

“It takes a lot of rehearsals and a lot of money to move these guys around,” Penn says. “If we’re gonna play big shows or overseas, it would take some doing to get them all together and get them there. If I’m gonna play, I’d like to have them.” But he allows that he has already had some conversations with Clayton Ivey, the featured keyboardist on Living on Mercy.

“Clayton’s kind of the [band] leader,” Penn says. “And he says, yeah it can be done. So after all this stuff is over, we might be able to go play behind this record. I sure would like to.”