Dan Penn: Living on Mercy

In the mid-1990’s Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham performed for a special evening at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn. The story goes that Lou Reed (who performed Songs for ‘Drella and Berlin at the same venue) was in the audience, and he was so impressed by what he heard that he approached Penn backstage and said, “If I had written a song as great as “I’m Your Puppet” I would have given up song-writing right then.”

The term “living legend” is bandied around relatively indiscriminately, but in the case of Dan Penn the term is not far off the mark. Penn recorded his first single, “Crazy Over You” in 1960, but when Conway Twitty had a hit with Penn’s “Is a Bluebird Blue?”, the possibilities of writing songs for others must have become clear. Penn is now renowned for his ‘60s work at FAME and American Studios, and wrote or co-wrote a number of classic hits including “The Dark End of the Street”, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and Reed’s favourite, “I’m Your Puppet”. His songs have been performed by Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Percy Sledge, The Box Tops and Kelly Willis amongst others, and he is also a respected producer and engineer.

Penn’s history of writing with others, from Spooner Oldham to Chuck Prophet, seems to suggest he enjoys collaborating. On Living on Mercy only two out of the thirteen songs, the gospel infused “Down On Music Row” and the heartbreak shuffle “Leave It Like You Found It”, were solely written by Penn; there are another ten writers who wrote with Penn for the album. Despite this, Living on Mercy is a cohesive work, with an overall focus on love and lust.

Apparently when Penn writes songs with someone, he needs to know ‘em, like ‘em and trust ‘em, and he aims to work with musicians who can offer things he doesn’t really “know how to do”. One of the more familiar names may be Spooner Oldham, a long term creative partner (check out the album or DVD, Moments From This Theatre, to see Penn and Oldham performing together). Their lilting, sweet love song, “I Do”, is included here and is surely a contender for a “wedding classic”.

There are two songs written with Will McFarlane, who also plays guitar on the album. McFarlane has an impressive career having worked with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Etta James. With an emphasis on romance, both songs are knock-outs. Penn’s vocal swoops and soars above the perky piano of “Didn’t Hear That Coming”, and the smooth musical tone of “See You In My Dreams” demonstrates how to deal with heartbreak without seeming to break a sweat.

Another co-writer who also performs on the album is Buzz Cason, who adds background vocals along with Cindy Walker, Marie Lewey and Penn himself. Cason has had an illustrious career in the music industry; his work stretches from sessions with Elvis to being the voice of Alvin on several Chipmunks records, and his songs have been covered by Gloria Estefan, U2, the Beatles and Dolly Parton. Buzz is expressly referenced in his co-written song, the gospel tinged “What It Takes To Be True”, with the gently comedic spoken intro:

I was talkin’ to my friend, Buzz, one day
He said, “I wonder what it takes to be true”
I said “I know a couple of things”

This type of touch adds great character to the album, and ensures that it is a record with a distinct community feel, from the writing to the playing. Once Penn put down his demos, the first sessions for the album were recorded at Carson’s studio in Nashville during April 2019, followed by a second session in Muscle Shoals in February 2020, with a top tier band including Milton Sledge (drums), Michael Rhodes (bass) and Clayton Ivey (keyboards), and a full horn section (Charles Rose, Doug Moffet and Drew White).

Another notable contributor is Wayne Carson, the American country musician, songwriter, and record producer, who co-wrote two songs reflecting the danger of relationships; the title track, a country soul groove, darkly suggests desire is like an addictive “slow, sweet poison” and on the funky squall of “Edge Of Love” it’s like walking a high wire.

Love is often a tricky business but Living on Mercy is not morose as a result. “Soul Connection, written with the Cate Brothers, a twin-brother American singer-songwriter duo, sets out an almost telepathic ideal with some verve (and perhaps reflecting the special relationship between twins): the soul connection is “close to perfection”. The other song written with the Cate Brothers, “Blue Motel”, is not so much downbeat as atmospheric, with clandestine lovers meeting every Sunday at the honeymoon suite.

Both “Things Happen”, written-with Bucky Lindsey and Carson Whitsett, and “Clean Slate”, written-with Carson Whitsett and Gary Nicholson, sound like tender Al Green songs of L-O-V-E. and again use some of Penn’s spoken word magic; “One Of These Days”, written with Bucky Lindsey, is a heartening gospel contemplating mortality, and is the perfect closer to the album.

Living on Mercy exudes warmth and substance due to Penn’s uncluttered production and the expertise of the writers and performers. In a world where many jump up and down for attention, Living on Mercy is out there quietly on its own terms; subtle and understated, it has an authenticity difficult to match.



Label: The Last Music Company
Release Date: 22 OCT 2020