Music Interview: Dan Penn

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Is it harder now than when you were starting out writing songs in the ‘60s?

It is harder now – they don’t ask me for songs in Nashville and I’m a pretty fine writer! Once in a while, every five years, a producer will call me and ask me to bring in a song for somebody and I’ll do it, but otherwise I don’t even go down there – it’s a closed deal. It’s all about publishing and younger writers who they can get cheaper. You might get in if you know somebody, but it’s hard – if you see somebody, they might tell you ‘no thank you, my friend – we’ve got all the songs we need.’

Another of my favourite songs on the album is ‘Blue Motel. It actually mentions the title of one of your most well-known songs, ‘The Dark End of the Street’, in the lyric, which is also about being unfaithful.

Yeah – I put that part in there. The Cate Brothers were working on that song, but they were lost with it and they came to me to help them with it – I put that line in there and it got ‘em going. It’s their song, but I’m riding along with it. I’ve always loved that song and I said ‘I’m going to cut it.’ You have to put your foot down when there’s something that you want to do. I’m proud of it.

Can I ask you about ‘The Dark End of the Street’, which you wrote with Chips Moman? It was a hit for James Carr in 1967. Is it true that you set out to write a classic cheating love song?

Every songwriter in the South wanted to write a great cheating song, like Hank Williams’s ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’. I was around when Rick Hall [producer at FAME Studios, Muscle Shoals] cut Jimmy Hughes’s big hit about cheating [‘Steal Away’]. I saw that and it was in my brain, but I didn’t want to copy it. We wrote ‘The Dark End of the Street’ in a hotel room, during a country DJ convention – everyone was having a good, old rollicking time and so were we. We were playing a card game, but we got tired of that, so we went into a room, there was a guitar and we wrote the song. We took the song to Memphis and James Carr got it. 

Didn’t you write the song in half an hour?

Yeah – that’s about right. We were probably in the room for an hour. 

I hope you gave yourselves the rest of the day off?

No – we went back to playing cards!

So many people have covered that song. 

Do you have a favourite version?

James Carr’s – nobody can touch that record. It’s the sound – he sang it well, but it’s the sound…

Your version of it is good.

Mine was fair, but it wasn’t no James Carr!

Back in the ‘60s, when you were working with Spooner Oldham, you used to write two or three songs a night. That was pretty good going.

Sometimes we would write two or three songs a night, but they wouldn’t all be good. I always felt like we needed to keep writing because we didn’t know what we were doing. You know what? I never did find out what I was doing. I’m still in the dark, but I know the feeling you get when you write a great song – when it feels right and you’re having so much fun, it’s a blessing. Your heart feels so good.

Living On Mercy by Dan Penn is available on vinyl, as a digital download and on CD. (Last Music Company). 

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