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Troy University honors songwriters Penn, Oldham with the Hall-Waters Prize

April 12, 2019

Troy University has honored a pair of celebrated songwriters who helped shape the soul, pop and rock music of the ‘60s and ‘70s with the Hall-Waters Prize for Excellence in Southern Writing.

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham are legendary figures in the Muscle Shoals music scene who have written and performed on some of the most iconic pop songs in history. They are the first songwriters to be honored with the Hall-Waters Prize, and the duo accepted the award during a ceremony on Friday, April 12, at the Troy Campus. 

They said it was an unexpected honor to receive an award whose past recipients included celebrated novelists and poets. 

“It’s a surprise and unexpected, but it’s always good to be included in someone’s memory in a good way,” Oldham said. “I can see the relation, because songs are another way to share experiences and tell stories.”

Penn said the award was a great honor.

“This kind of fell out of sky,” Penn said. “We didn’t know we were writers, other than little tunes. Now we are getting a book award. Maybe I’ll go write a book.”

Presented annually by TROY’s Department of English, the Hall-Waters Prize honors people who have made significant contributions to Southern heritage and culture in history, literature or the arts. Although many of its past recipient have been authors, Dr. Kirk Curnutt, chair of the Department of English, said it was a logical choice to honor celebrated songwriters Penn and Oldham. 

“People, I think, sort of wrongly assumed that this award is a book award, but in our English department we have a very simple saying, ‘writing is writing.’” Curnutt said. “There are not a lot of differences between writing a novel and writing a song. There’s the voice, there’s the form and the dynamics. So to be able to have the talent to produce is varied and important to us culturally here in the South.”

Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, center, holding the Hall-Waters Prize trophies. From left to right: Walter Givhan, Senior Vice Chancellor for Advancement and External Relations, Greg Swem, Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., Oldham, Penn, Hao Yin and Dr. Kirk Curnutt.
Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, center, holding the Hall-Waters Prize trophies. From left to right: Walter Givhan, Senior Vice Chancellor for Advancement and Economic Development, Greg Swem, Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., Oldham, Penn, Hao Yin and Dr. Kirk Curnutt.

Penn was still a teenager when a demo recorded with his band, Benny Cagle and the Rhythm Swingsters, called “Is a Bluebird Blue?” caught the ear of Conway Twitty, who made it a hit in 1959. At 20, he became the first in-house songwriter at FAME Studios (short for Florence Alabama Musical Enterprises) in the Shoals, working closely with founder Rick Hall.

A few years later, Penn relocated to Memphis, Tenn., where he wrote the classic “The Dark End of the Street” with Chips Moman and soon produced several hit albums and singles for the Box Tops, whose lead singer, 16-year-old Alex Chilton, later became of one of the most lionized cult figures in rock music.

As the resident keyboardist for FAME Studios, Oldham remains one of rock’s most highly sought sidemen, earning him inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Musicians Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Oldham performed on such classics as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” while his proto-funk electric piano drives Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”

After relocating to Los Angeles, Oldham backed artists as diverse as Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Since coming back to Alabama, he has worked with Bettye Levette, the Drive-By Truckers, and many more.

Before accepting the award, Penn and Oldham shared stories and discussed and the craft of songwriting with students in the John M. Long School of Music. On Saturday, April 13, they will speak at the Alabama Book Festival, in Montgomery, before performing a concert that evening featuring the numerous hits they wrote for Janis Joplin, the Box Tops, and Aretha Franklin. 

The Hall-Waters Prize was endowed by TROY alumnus Dr. Wade Hall, an author, former member of the faculty at the University of Florida and professor emeritus of English at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. Past winners include Rep. John Lewis, Bobbie Ann Mason, Pat Conroy, Natasha Trethewey, Cassandra King, and Ace Atkins, among others.