Chief Copy Editor
Two Muscle Shoals “Swampers” were honored for their nearly 50-year-long songwriting tenure with the 2019 Hall-Waters Prize for Excellence in Southern Writing on April 12.
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, famous for writing songs for the likes of Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Musicians Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Kirk Curnutt, a professor of English and the chair of the English department at Troy, presented Penn and Oldham with the award and moderated the discussion.
Troy also held an open event for the duo to discuss their musical careers and the business of songwriting, particularly concerning the music culture of Muscle Shoals in the past and now.
Oldham began to find his love for music in hearing his father’s band play around the house when he was a child.
“I thought everybody had a band in their house growing up,” Oldham said. “They’d play out in the yard, under the shade tree, in the living room, wherever.”
Penn developed a love for music at a young age, as well, but he didn’t start playing guitar until his teenage years.
“I was around 15 or 16 (when I started playing guitar),” Penn said. “I saw I couldn’t make the football team, so I thought I’d better learn to play the guitar and maybe I could get a girl.
“It wasn’t long after that that I wrote ‘Is a Bluebird Blue?’” (recorded by Conway Twitty).
Shortly after learning to play guitar, Penn began writing more songs for Twitty, a country singer of the 1960s and 70s.
When Penn started writing professionally for Rick Hall, a music producer and founder of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals in the 1960s, he made just $25 a week, but he quickly moved up from his humble beginnings to write for various artists across several genres.
Even though rock and roll was hugely popular at the time, Penn preferred rhythm and blues from a young age. According to Penn, his love for the genre began at home with a little green radio.
“I heard so much R & B on the radio late at night,” Penn said. “When the family would turn in, I would too, and I’d turn my little radio on and I’d listen to WLAC until late.
“I just saw a lot more depth in that than rock and roll.”
One of the groups the duo wrote most for was the Box Tops, a rock group from the 60s. They recorded Penn and Oldham’s hit “Cry Like a Baby” in 1968, which reached the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in April of the same year.
Peter Garrett, a sophomore psychology major from Eclectic, said the duo’s stories of breaking into the music industry resonated with him as a former musician.
“As someone who was formerly in the music industry, a lot of what they were saying made sense and was reminiscent of things I went through,” Garrett said. “The music industry isn’t easy, and you’re not always going to find your ‘break’ in it, but with enough work and communication with others, you can make a good career out of it as long as you have the mental fortitude to carry it through.
“There’s not just a single path to take in music – you can choose many different ways to go about being successful.”