John Pennell

“Some lines don’t rhyme but they flow…”

Interview with John Pennell, bluegrass songwriter and musician.
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly.

In the middle of September 2013 I interviewed John Pennell – a tall, blond, blue eyed gentleman, who I met through our mutual friend Kathy Chiavola. He is the author of Alison Krauss’ early hits (“Too Late to Cry,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Foolish Heart,” “If I Get My Heart,” “Borderline,” “Don’t Follow Me,” “In Your Eyes”) and played bass in her first band. He lives now in East Nashville, with Canadian wife Julie Pennell, who is also a singer/songwriter. They perform as a duo and are a lovely couple. Over lunch, John shared with me some interesting things about his music, life and other things…

-Hi John! Where does your name come from? Is it German?

No, I think it originated from France. But I have also Welch ancestors.

-What is your home state?

Champagne, Illinois.

-Is it there, where you met Alison Krauss?

Yes, that’s where she’s from. I’ve known her since she was 12. Her dad was my German teacher in high school. Me and my friend had a little band and we needed a fiddle player. I was playing with Paul and Andrea Zonn. He was a professor at the University of Illinois and Andrea was his daughter. She is a great fiddle player and singer. Currently she plays with James Taylor. My mom read an article about young Alison winning a fiddle contest. At the time I was working in a leather store. I made a leather case for a friend’s drum kit and he told me about Alison as well. He was giving her drums lessons. He gave me her number and I called. We got together and formed a band. This was I think in 1984. First she fiddled for us and then she said: “I sing too!” She did “Blue Kentucky Girl.”

-When did you move to Nashville?

In 1996. I played with Alison for a while and was teaching as well. I left the band.

-How did you become a songwriter?

I probably started when I was in high school, but I didn’t really pursue it very much. One of the first songs I wrote was “Too Late to Cry.” I was in a music school program in Arizona then. I wrote about 14 songs for Alison, which are on her first two albums. One was covered by Eva Cassidy and another by Alan Jackson. Eva is one of my favorite singers. She was a big fan of Alison. She actually came to hear us one night when we played at the Birchmere. She loved the album “Two Highways,” especially the song “As Lovely as You.”

-Have you studied music?

Yes, I have a Master’s degree in music theory and composition.

-Is songwriting a craft or more talent and inspiration?

I don’t know. It is both.

-How important is rhyme? Do you rhyme the lines in your songs?

Yes, but not always. Some lines don’t rhyme but they flow and go with the melody.

-What do you write first, the lyrics or the melody?

It depends, sometimes they come together. Sometimes I keep a tune in my head for many years until the right lyrics come.

-Where do you get the ideas for your songs?

From anywhere. Mostly from not very good relationships, broken hearts. I try to write some new chord progressions, different from the previous songs.

-Is it harder to write slow or fast songs?

It depends on the inspiration. I wrote many fast ones because of the bluegrass genre. I guess many writers will say that they are more difficult.

-Do you write in the morning or in the evening? Do you have a drink when you write?

Whenever and whatever. Sometimes I have too many drinks and think I have written a great song. When I hear it in the morning it is not so great (laughs).

-Do you use any songwriting tools, computer programs?

No, just the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

-Do you work with other writers?

I do, yes. “Jacob’s Dream” is a co-written song. It is on the album “A Hundred Miles or More” (Alison Krauss).

-Who are your favorite songwriters?

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Carol King and there are many others. In country music: Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.

Are you working on a new song now?

Yes. I’m writing it with a friend from Ireland. It is about an event in Derry, which happened in 1972. It is called “Bloody Sunday”.
It is about a boy killed in this massacre.

-Do you have somebody in mind who could sing it?

Well, we thought about Alison, but she doesn’t take political topics. But if we focus more on the emotional aspect, maybe it could work.

-Do you write only bluegrass songs?

No, I do all kinds: country, rockabilly. What rockabilly artists need to do is, delve in the bluegrass repertoire and adopt it into rockabilly. There is so much great new material written in bluegrass. That’s what Elvis did, in the example of “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. He made it a rockabilly song.

-What do you like about bluegrass and old country music?

To me, it gets in your gut. You feel something. It is real and honest, very emotional. But I love classical music too. And jazz!

Thank you John! Nice meeting you.

Lilly Drumeva