Songwriter Dan Penn doesn’t put out albums under his name very often. The celebrated co-writer behind numerous Memphis/Muscle Shoals-era soul hits, including “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Dark End of the Street,” “I’m Your Puppet,” and “Cry Like a Baby” has released only a handful of studio recordings since 1973, beginning with his solo debut Nobody’s Fool.
Penn’s latest, Living on Mercy, comes 26 years after his previous effort, 1994’s Do Right Man. The 78-year-old songwriter doesn’t have a specific explanation for why that is.
“I don’t really know why,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I’m not your regular artist on a label. I haven’t had a label in a long time, until now. There hasn’t been any reason to cut one.”
Penn’s in fine form as a vocalist on Living on Mercy, choosing carefully from a pile of songs he composed over the years. The title track, a laid-back, organ-spiked meditation on grace, simply sounded good (“It just came off,” he says) and wasn’t intended to explicitly or implicitly address the present state of the world.
“I don’t have any motives like that when I’m cutting or writing for me or others,” says Penn, who splits his time living between Nashville and his hometown of Vernon, Alabama. “The world be damned, it’s gonna do what it does. I’m not gonna write about that. The best I can do is stay away from all that stuff.”
In “Edge of Love,” premiering Wednesday, Penn weds a muscular blues-rock groove and Memphis horns to a depiction of falling in love and defining a relationship. “You got me walking on a high wire baby/Somewhere between yes and maybe/Maybe the fall might save me,” Penn sings in a soulful purr, selling it with a sly wink. Penn wrote it with late songwriting legend Wayne Carson (“Always on My Mind,” “The Letter”) and originally intended it for Arkansas duo the Cate Brothers.
“That’s my personal favorite on the album,” Penn says. “We were up in Springdale, Arkansas, about 20 years ago. [The Cate Brothers] were putting down some of their songs in their little studio in their house and me and Wayne were out in the car writing songs for them. We wrote ‘Edge of Love’ and ‘Living on Mercy.’ They put them down for us, but we never could get a deal together for them and it just kind of dissipated. But I had the demo, and it was Ernie Cate singing and his brother Earl Cate playing guitar.”
Elsewhere on Living on Mercy, Penn takes that Memphis groove and ties it to a tale of Nashville struggle and success in “Down on Music Row.” There’s a Bill Withers-style acoustic groove that anchors “See You in My Dreams,” and in “Soul Connection,” Penn nods to the funky gospel-soul of Stax duo Sam & Dave and Steve Cropper’s guitar work. His tunes still primarily come out as Sixties R&B, he notes, but it’s always been about seeing what happens in the room with collaborators.
“When the music starts or the melody starts, if somebody starts singing or somebody starts playing, things start to move and you can create a ‘feel,’” Penn says. “And I’m always after a ‘feel.’ If I can create that, I know I’m on my way.”