Earlier this year Casual Records headed Stateside, where they had arranged for many of the leading lights featured on the Country Got Soul compilations to gather together in order to record with one another again for this unique project. With Dan Penn handling production from his basement studio, located just outside of Nashville, ‘Testifyin’ took shape over an intense ten-day period. The album sees the likes of Tony Joe White, Larry Jon Wilson, Donnie Fritts, Bonnie Bramlett, Billy Swan and George Soule lay down a slew of new tracks, backed by such legendary figures as Clayton Ivy on piano and organ, David Hood on bass, Spooner Oldham on Wurlitzer and Reggie Young on electric guitar as well as members of the Muscle Shoals and Memphis Horns.
These are the real old timers – the white southerners steeped in soul from the 60’s and 70’s - composers of classics such as ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’, ‘I’m Your Puppet’ and ‘Do Right Woman’ – coming together to delight in each other’s company, relive a few old memories and conjure up a few future ones.
Tales of heartbreak, tales of hope, torch songs and jams, the songs just came tumbling out; 13 of these feature on ‘Testifyin’; more are still in the can ready for future release. The recording sessions were also filmed by Don Letts, who has put together a documentary on the making of ‘Testifyin’, which is expected to be televised later in the year. It is also likely that several of the artists will be coming to the UK for live shows in the coming months.
Penn recalls the early days when country and soul music first overlapped in the South: “There was a lot of meanness going on between black people and white people, but there was also a lot of love”. It’s the love of the sweet soul sounds that comes shining through on Country Soul Revue – Testifyin’
For background details to the ‘Country Got Soul’ series and much more information on the recording sessions, please see the sleevenotes attached.
For more information on Casual Records: www.casuallondon.com
COUNTRY SOUL REVUE - TESTIFYING
In Dan and Linda Penn’s kitchen, there is a covey of empty Wild Turkey ceramics above the wood cabinets. The wattle necked and plumed shaped containers have been dry and non-reproductive for the last 25 years. There is a fine sheen of dust covering their hollow feathers.
Below the birds, a framed sign on the wall reads, “In the cookies of life/ Friends are the chocolate chips”. No one can argue against the sentiment’s corniness. But the basement-recording studio is filled with singers and players that have been connected to one another’s lives and sessions for the last forty years, so the sap feels as real as glue.
A tape machine is rolling. The sound of Muscle Shoals, Alabama is rising into the kitchen.
Over the last year, the London based label, Casual Records released two compilations titled Country Got Soul. Filled with white southerners from the 1960’s and 1970’s hollering and crooning their version of black soul music, the songs speak of friendship, fighting, food, drinking, traveling, and love. Lots of love and all kinds of it, but mostly those that have gone lost, misplaced, and damaged; the kinds that plead, whine, mourn, repent, and stir irrepressible in memory. Safe to say, this is music smothered in pathos.
The voices of those songs belong to Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, Tony Joe White, Larry Jon Wilson, George Soulé, Bonnie Bramlett, and Billy Swan. As writers and singers, they didn’t distinguish the racial lines already drawn in music, so much as they blurred their social meanings, breaking down histories and politics by lacquering a kindred spirit on top of a different southern background, all awash in soul music’s sound.
On the heels of the compilations’ critical and commercial success in the UK, Casual Records has gathered the living and able to record with one another again. With Dan Penn producing, legendary session players are tucked in every crooked corner of his basement studio: Clayton Ivy on piano and organ, David Hood on bass, Spooner Oldham keying the Wurlitzer, Reggie Young on electric guitar, and members of the Muscle Shoals and Memphis Horns. In a time machine, you could place yourself at their past sessions. Once there, you would be in the company of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Wilson Pickett, and Bob Dylan.
Dan Penn carries himself like a man who was born comfortable in his skin. He wears denim overalls, blue and pressed, everyday. He is sitting in front of the mixing board with a rounded toothpick between his teeth.
“I ain’t got time to floss,” he teases, dry as firewood.
And maybe he doesn’t. In the last few years, Dan Penn has released a live album with Spooner Oldham recorded during a European tour and a collection of demos, Blue Nite Lounge, available only on his website. His basement has been renovated into a proper studio where, after this session is complete, he’ll begin recording a new Frank Black CD, Donnie Fritts’ third collection of creaky, funky hymns, and Bobby Purify, who, with his brother, James, sang the Dan Penn/ Spooner Oldham hit “I’m Your Puppet.”
Dan Penn released his first solo record, Nobody’s Fool, in 1973 on Bell Records. Before that he co-wrote classics “Cry Like A baby” and “I Met Her In Church” for the Box Tops, while also owning the seat as their reputable, tough-necked producer. His next record, Do Right Man, was released on Sire in 1992 and features faithful and soulful updates of his other southern standards like “Dark End of the Street” and “It Tears Me Up.” Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, and James Carr, among others, have sung his songs. As a writer, singer, and producer, he makes music that sounds lucid and effortless.
There are two black and white photos hanging on the downstairs wall. In one, Dan Penn leans against a hearse, looking crisp and greased. It is an enlarged snapshot from his days in the Pallbearers, a now legendary 60s R & B band that traveled throughout Alabama and Mississippi. On the opposite wall, there is a photograph of a group hug outside of 3614 Jackson Highway, the address of the legendary Muscle Shoals studio. It is taken during the 1974 recording session of Donnie Fritts’ Prone To Lean album on Atlantic. The framed embrace is a document of all the men involved: Donnie Fritts, Jerry Wexler, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Tony Joe White, Dan Penn, Eddie Hinton, Spooner Oldham. Produced by Jerry Wexler and Kris Kristofferson, it is a wobbly, chunky affair, perfect in its sincerity and playfulness. It is full of the self-effacing, poignant stomps and the neo-realism ballads that leak from Fritts’ pen and organ like a signature.
Donnie Fritts has a voice like cup of sausage gravy: warm and bumpy. He can wrap up insecurities, longing, friendship, and love in a single choked note and drop it as loud as a cough or as hushed as a whisper. It is that raw sensitivity that keeps him more comfortable as a resident in the spotlight’s peripheral glow.
As Kristofferson’s keyboardist and friend, Fritts landed spots in what have ended up becoming art-house cult films: Monte Hellman’s masterpiece Cockfighter and Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Convoy, and Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, from which his renegade cowboy album cover photograph was taken. Even on film, Fritts is masked or murkily lit, always tucked away or in disguise. Listening to the classic songs he co-wrote as sung by other singers, like Ray Charles’ “We had it All” or Dusty Springfield’s “Breakfast in Bed,” there is a tenderness that is unavoidable. But hearing Fritts’ versions, like on 1997s Everybody’s Got a Song, he sounds more like a man with something on his mind than a proper singer. It is this distilled and poetic humanness that is his greatest gift.
In the corner, coffee is brewing. It is a Sumatra blend that Larry Jon Wilson brought with him. His friend, Mickey Newbury, turned him on to it 30 years ago. The recipe is simple: 7 scoops (6 heaping, 1 regular) and it’s dark and rich. Linda Penn was a friend of Mickey Newbury’s, too. She sat with him at her kitchen table as he wrote “Frisco Mabel Joy”, bouncing lyrics off her till three in the morning, while Dan Penn slept in the other room. Now, it is three in the afternoon and Dan Penn is wide-awake, positioning microphones in front of Larry John Wilson’s white bearded face.
Larry Jon Wilson is a large man with endless charm. He is well read and filled with a life deep in stories. Signed to Combine Publishing on the strength of an unsolicited demo, he went on to record four records for Monument that glorify the chug and tumble of Georgia life. He appeared in the film Heartworn Highways with his housemate, Townes Van Zandt, and he was in the studio when James Brown recorded “Get on the Good Foot.” He went to the same military school as Fidel Castro and has done voice-overs for CNN, TNN, and CMT. Whether it is the yarn of a song or a conversation, his voice is as deep as a lake.
Larry Jon Wilson is recording two new songs for the album, “Friday Night Fight at Alice’s Place” and “Sapelo”. The first song is a straight narrative where every detail is hinted at by the song’s title. It could have been a forgotten song from his first record, New Beginnings, with its talk of trouble and wink of fun. Under the band’s groove, he slaps and picks his guitar like he’s waking up a wet dog. But “Sapelo” is different from anything else he’s ever written. The song, named after the tiny island off the coast of Georgia, reaches its arms around the landmass, squeezing its heart and history into a tight four-minute bubble, soulful and mysterious.
Spooner Oldham spreads his Wurlitzer over the top of the song with his trademark jelly. He is a thin, quiet man that looks like he’s been taking it all in for a long time. He never overplays, he just hangs his notes, like a hat tossed on a hook, while listening to everything settle around him. It is a cool politeness, which is the beauty of David Hood, Clayton Ivy, and Reggie Young, as well. Everyone sits back. David Hood’s bass, big and balanced, rests only on the beats that sustain their weight. Reggie Young is known for where he doesn’t play as much as what he does play; each guitar phrase a carefully chosen word. Clayton Ivy leads all the session men. He writes the charts and navigates the band. As a band, they are a mood: a boat rowing on a bed of honey.
There are other beverages besides strong coffee. Empty bottles of O’Doul’s and Diet Dr. Pepper are scattered around. There is a table full of snack food (“nicky-nackies,” as Linda Penn likes to call them): Craisins, Goo-Goo Supremes, and mixed nuts- all a far cry from the days of speckled eggs and dexies. The party mix these days are a shaken bag of pretzels and Chex that Donna, Donnie Fritts’ wife, sent over for the session. And that bowl of fun was devoured hours ago.
The next day, the horn section shows up: Harvey Thompson and Charlie Rose, from the Muscle Shoals Horns, and Wayne Jackson, who makes up one half of the Memphis Horns. Charlie Rose and Harvey Thompson spend their summers with Lyle Lovett, adding humid horns to his arid Texas swing. Wayne Jackson signs my copy of his solo album, Sweet Soul Medicine, and takes a phone call from his wife, excited to learn a Peter Gabriel song he played on was just sold to a car commercial with residuals to follow. In a few days, he’ll be touring Europe with Jerry Lee Lewis.
Junior Lowe drove up with his band from Muscle Shoals. He was a session player at Fame Studios and it is his bass line, fat and spare, on Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” He looks like an outlaw, wiry and dangerous. They record a lean instrumental called “Super Soul Beat,” part funk, part Ike Turner rock-n-roll. Every Saturday in Muscle Shoals, the Junior Lowe Band play late into the night. Bonnie Bramlett, once half of Delaney and Bonnie, sings, “Where’s Eddie?” It is a song written by Fritts and the late Eddie Hinton and recorded as soft pop by Lulu. In Bramlett’s hands, it is a late night beckon, loud and sexy, to a missed friend. When she sings, you can almost hear the back of her throat purr.
Before Billy Swan arrives, everyone around agrees he’s one of the nicest men alive. When he opens his mouth to sing the Donnie Fritts/ Arthur Alexander song “Come Along With Me,” his kindness transforms into a fifteen year old’s innocence. Arthur Alexander cut the song for his 1972 Warner Bros. album, as well as the Billy Swan song “Lover Please,” which was left off the record and released as a single. The Fritts/Alexander collaboration began as a friendship when both were staff writers for Combine, and something seems solidified hearing Billy Swan sing it now. His voice, more than the others, seems unaffected by time and stands out in its lollipop cleanliness: pretty, hopeful, and warm.
This is a stark contrast to Donnie Fritts’ “Adios Amigo,” a eulogistic, organ-heavy farewell to his friend, Arthur Alexander. His performance is rough and choked and perfect, and it occupies the most sentimental moment on the record. It is a song he wrote with Alexander and recorded once before with Dan Penn for the Arthur Alexander tribute CD of the same name. It says goodbye with love, humor, and an absence of tearful clichés.
Billy Swan produced the first Tony Joe White LP, Black and White, in 1968, which included “Rainy Night In Georgia” and the alligator-grandma-eating cabbage-classic, “Polk Salad Annie.” Tony Joe White was already here and gone, before most of the others showed up. He had to leave town for a tour of Australia. He sang his low plains, neo-cowboy ballad “Drifter” and a cool Wah-Wah gut-punch called “Who You Gonna Who-Do Now?” His “whomper-stomper” guitar drips a surreal twang and thud over both. He keeps his blues in the swamp, a location that has been an incubator and adjective for his songs for more than thirty years. His voice is reserved and shy on his ballads and poker-faced for his rockers. He sounds like he wears boots while he sleeps.
George Soulé recorded White’s song, “Jaguar Man,” earlier in the week, too. It’s a high-pitched, jangly rocker about a man with a head-to-toe leopard skin wardrobe and charisma to match. It fits Soulé well, who already returned to his reservation casino home to deal dice and mix with women. Soulé is a songwriter whose voice has rarely been heard. He had a minor R&B hit with “Get Involved,” a single on Fame in 1973. In fact, this is the first time he has recorded in twenty years.
When Dan Penn takes his turn to step in front of the microphone, it is to sing Merle Haggard’s “Rest of My Life.” Dan Penn isn’t a man who enjoys many country songs, but this one seems to fit him. He pulls it like Sinatra and everyone is blown away, except one person.
“It didn’t tug at my heart. It’s good, but Penn can do better. I just didn’t feel it tug,” says Linda Penn, her fist loosely clenched, tapping her chest. She would know best, and her husband doesn’t doubt her, so Dan Penn walks back in front of the mic and tries it again. When he finishes, Linda is smiling. This time, everyone’s aorta is elastic.
Then, on “Chicago After Awhile,” a song Dan Penn co-wrote with Narvel Thomas, Rufus Thomas’s son, he lets it go. It is about following your heart and a woman on a criss-cross pattern of Middle America. Again, his singing makes it all feel true. When someone asks where he learned to sing that way, he says, on the cusp of a smile, “Some days you step in, some days you step over.”
Donnie Fritts and I go out to his car to listen to music. He plays me, by request, a bootleg of the Rolling Stones covering “We Had It All.” Keith Richards is singing and the band is breaking down around him, as each lyric unfolds and celebrates the failed relationship that Fritts co-wrote with Troy Seals over 30 years ago. Next, he plays me a demo of a song called “One Foot in the Groove.” Like his song “Sumpin’ Funky Goin’ On,” it is the type of tongue-in-cheek funk Fritts is known for. But this one, co-written with Tony Joe and Lorraine White, is darker and funnier.
A few years ago, Fritts was in the hospital for a heart operation and kidney transplant. One day, he answered the phone high on medicines. “One Foot in the Groove” was how he described his physical condition to the person on the other end of the line. He promised himself, then, that he’d make at least one more album. Inspired by a brush with death and a chemically induced malapropism, Fritts has the title track to his next album and another great song.
The day’s session is over. It is dinner time, so we caravan to a Mexican restaurant twenty minutes away because this is where, Dan Penn tells us, they have the best tacos in town. As usual, he turns out to be right. Not surprising, since he seems to rarely say anything unless he is sure of it. He looks pleased, sitting at the head of the table, in front of chips and salsa, beside his wife and among his friends.
When you ask Dan Penn too many questions about the past, he begins to wince.
“You know, they say those are the good old days, but, really, these are.” He looks at Linda and smiles. Then, he pushes more guacamole in Donnie Fritts’ direction, noticing that his friend had finished all of his. In the early 60s, Tommy Roe recorded “Sorry I’m Late, Lisa” at Fame Studios as a B-side. It was the first song someone recorded that Penn and Fritts wrote together. Their friendship has endured as long as their music, something that’s value is lost on neither of them.
I tell Dan Penn the obvious: that his songs are everywhere. I hear them while I ascend in elevators and shop in supermarkets, wait in offices and drink in bars. His music and its legacy, like everyone’s here, is ubiquitous. It has integrated itself (though quieter and less crass than others of the same generation) into culture, language, and sound. Sheepishly, I ask him how that feels.
“It feels good. It feels real good,” he says, and takes another bite of a taco.