Lists of the world’s longest-performing bands generally include groups like the Rolling Stones or Golden Earring or the Beach Boys. Those lists are usually overlooking an act: Exile, now in their 57th year, who are still recording and playing live, having found fame as both a pop and a country act.
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Guitarist, songwriter and vocalist J.P. Pennington has been with Exile since 1963, and the lineup today, as it has been for more than a decade, includes Pennington, lead singer Les Taylor, bassist Sonny LeMaire, keyboardist Marlon Hargis and drummer Steve Goetzman. The band recently signed with new management and booking companies, and clearly shows no signs of slowing down; if anything, they’re ramping up big-time for 2021. Pennington talked to American Songwriter by phone from his Kentucky home about what the band has been up to while in, well, exile during 2020.
“We’re all 70 and over now,” Pennington said, “and we’re all still in great health and we’re all still working, still having fun, still making a living. We had a lot [of shows] on the books this year after March, which, of course, we couldn’t do, and when everything got cancelled we moved it to 2021. But there’s always a lot to do that keeps us going so we’re gonna hang in there. Since March when Covid hit, I’ve written 42 songs; I’ve probably only written 42 songs in the last five years. And I feel like it’s been some of my most honest work, so if there’s one good thing that comes out of this pandemic it’s that the creative process has blossomed a little bit, so I’m thankful for that.”
Pennington said that he and LeMaire, who are largely responsible for the band’s string of number one country hits in the ‘80s, have also been writing with Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame member Sharon Vaughn (Willie Nelson, Randy Travis). “Sonny and Sharon and I started out in March writing for a Christmas album, and then all our Christmas shows went away and everything sort of fell apart. We wrote five Christmas songs and then we realized that Christmas, as far as the touring goes, wasn’t gonna happen. So we decided that we were gonna release one song called ‘Kid at Heart’ as a digital single. Next year we want to have a new secular project out, and then, next Christmas, we’d like to have an entire Christmas project out too. So we’ll be pretty busy with all that if things go as planned. We’ve got plenty of songs.”
Pennington said that one thing that has kept Exile popular all these years is that they play what the people want to hear, and that means sticking to playing the songs without long jams. “We’re not that type of band,” Pennington said. “I’ll do a short guitar solo in certain songs here and there, but our arrangements are very simple and to the point. We’ve always felt that when you’re playing in front of people, the people are there for a reason, and that’s your songs. That’s what brought them there. And we always felt like that the songs should be performed the way they know them.”
“We haven’t changed any arrangements or melodies,” he continued, “or elongated any songs to any degree, really, in the last 35 or 40 years. We just stick to the program. A lot of people say, ‘Don’t you get bored playing the same songs?’ And I always tell them that we’re just so thankful for why we’re here, that when we play these songs they’re fresh to people. That’s all that we can ask for. We try to keep that mindset. There’ve been times when I’d like to take ‘Kiss You All Over’ and make it 16 minutes long, but the people who pay money for those seats, that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there for the song they heard on the radio, so that’s what we try to stick to.” Pennington is also the co-writer, with the late Mark Gray, of “Take Me Down” and “The Closer You Get,” two Exile songs that weren’t hits for the band, but were number one records for Alabama.
Pennington said that there’s no end in sight for the band, not while they’re still able to do it. “I think it’s the music, man, I really do. It just keeps us young, keeps us with a spring in our step. As long as there’s a light at the end of the tunnel we’ll keep on goin’.”