CD Review: Dan Penn – Junkyard Junky (self-released)

For someone who has never had a hit record as an artist, the legendary songwriter Dan Penn has certainly accomplished everything else there is to accomplish in the music business. A key part of the Memphis soul scene in the ’60’s, Penn put himself on the map with possibly the greatest R&B hit of the decade when he wrote the song Dark End Of The Street, a hit record for singer James Carr that established Carr as a hitmaker and Penn as a songwriter and producer of note.

Penn eventually went on to write song for and/or produce such acts as The Boxtops, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas and a host of others as well as releasing the occasional solo album. Penn originally resisted singing his own songs other than on demos as Penn did not want to be the star or go on tour, he just wanted to write songs, produce and be the ‘man in the shadows’ for the acts he worked with. Though humble about his voice, legend has it that Penn’s demos were often better than most of the finished versions of songs by the artists who ended up recording his songs. It has also been said that so many of his songs had become hits because the artist who covered them had to really work at the process of singing them better than Penn.

While most of Penn’s songwriting hits and production successes happened in the ’60’s and early ’70’s, Penn has remained active ever since, producing a succession of acts and writing songs with various co-writers. Finally recognizing the appeal his demos have had with his fans, Penn has begun to release his new ones on CDs though he says he will never release his ’60’s demos as he feels no one would really want to hear them. I could go on and on about how wrong THAT little statement is (with all apologies to Penn, who seems to be out of touch with what all of us soul music junkies want to hear.) but let’s concentrate on this little gem, shall we?

Junkyard Junky’s cover art pictures an obviously happy Penn heading into the junkyard to presumably look for spare parts to fix one of his cars. The liner notes speak of Penn’s love of junkyards as a teen and he thanks several of the owners of the yards he has frequented in his life while indulging his hobby of fixing cars. Interesting life for a legendary songwriter and producer, wouldn’t you say? I guess it’s true – you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy. Penn seems as down to earth and easy going as his classic soul songs, which most likely is the reason for his sucess. In his classic songs, and still evident on the fine songs on this set, Penn comes across as an everyman and fills his songs with details and nuances that mean something to the average person. He doesn’t overload the song with verbiage, put in ten syllable words or concepts that are not easy to grasp – Penn writes for the average Joe. And that’s not to say he dumbs down his songs as there’s a very fine line between the vapid childish pop that fills the radio today and Penn’s homilies to life and love but Penn knows how to walk it, er…write it and get his point across in an honest way that cannot be denied because it speaks directly to your heart.

Those who love soul music with a tinge of country will love this album as it is filled with songs like those classics from the heyday of Memphis soul. Not to mention Penn’s voice, which sounds world-weary yet friendly like your uncle but can convey the deepest love and the deepest pain you can imagine, often within the same song. Great, great stuff.


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