Penny Shute (Sutej) Menze
Storytellers have a certain knowing about them. Penny Shute Menze will tell you that with her quick laugh and a sideways glance. Not so much with a word….you’ll hear the words in her songs.
Snippets of a life that started in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in a hard and beautiful land alternately bitter cold and forest green. Emigrant grandparents with their stories about farming, building, mining, hard work, and maybe a little bootlegging. Booming in its copper mining glory days, and in the family for 70 years, her mother’s parents owned a tavern, where the family resided upstairs. Penny remembers visiting her grandparents and spinning on a red barstool while listening to the nickel jukebox.
An early road brought five-year-old Penny to Arizona. Mom had her in piano lessons and baton twirling. Penny was writing plays and performing them in school, but she wanted to be a country singer.... or maybe even an airline stewardess, or maybe both.
She flirted with the trumpet, but in fourth grade Penny found the guitar and a John Denver Songbook. She taught herself the chords and how to play. Her Dad raised her to be an outdoor girl and as a child her father had her working with him on construction sites. Even on school nights, you could find her camped out in the backyard, sleeping with her dog...always looking forward to hiking, camping, fishing, biking, riding motorcycles, collecting and polishing rocks. If you want to find Penny, look outside.
Penny started collecting stories when most girls were learning to apply makeup. As a teenager, she was at an outdoor mall walking past an open door to a little bar where this older man was playing guitar and singing country music. She meandered in and asked for a song and then asked if she could play one. She did. She apparently made an impression. The bar owner said that if she could play an hour on her own, she could audition for a job. Penny said she had an hour's worth of songs, and she'd be back. Armed with a tape recorder and a pause button, Penny started typing lyrics and learning songs, taped from the radio. A week later, she made $48 in tips at her audition. Enough to buy the silver letters for her belt. She couldn’t believe someone would pay her money to sing and play songs. There was no turning back. She went to learn more songs. Learning by audience song requests. Each request taking her to experience another Artist. One song at a time, through someone’s heartache or memory. She played taverns, breakfast restaurants, VFW’s and many a campfire. Occasionally she would enter a talent contest or pageant. While the competition was busy getting ready, practicing and primping, Penny was busy watching her toddler and tuning. This is where she would differ.
A few years passed and Penny got wind of a new band forming up in a small town called Show Low in Arizona’s White Mountains, so she auditioned. She got the job, packed up her five-year-old son and moved to the mountains. To get by, she got a day job as a Secretary, (all those years of typing song lyrics gave her an unexpected skill set!) She swore she’d quit as soon as the band started, but the band never formed. So it was a solo stint at an Elks Club and a jam session every Sunday night. Waiting all night to get called up week after week. One night Penny remembers being called up late and forgetting the words. The bandleader laughed at her. She got so upset and at the end of the night, with tears in her eyes, she let him have it. He said, “You really want to do this don’t you?” He told her he’d hire her for $10.00 a night and would work on songs with her. She said yes and was thrilled. This was her first band job and the $10.00 insured the babysitter was paid. To pull her weight she’d also haul equipment. Whatever it took to play music. On one of her first jobs, she remembers carrying the equipment in the club and stepping over passed-out patrons on the sidewalk. Once inside the club, she was relieved to see the patrons standing upright. Penny held down two jobs while raising her son.
Experiences came hard and slow. Bar fights, band fights, long nights and short on sleep. One night at a bar in Northern Arizona, where the band used to leave their equipment set up for days and weeks at a time, the band got a call from the club owner to come and get their equipment before midnight. The bandleader knew exactly what that meant. They came as they were told and got their gear. The next day, the bar burned to the ground. So it goes.
Stories of what not to do and almosts. Penny learned pretty quick how to dodge a microphone. You’d better keep your eye on the dancers, one loose spin and they’ll fall into your mike stand and put your teeth out. “Happened to me once. Didn’t lose any teeth. I got pretty good at watching and it never happened again.”
Memories of living at the King Cole Apartments with a one-car garage and old stained carpet. Until the music jobs started paying more, money was real tight, clothes were washed on a washboard by hand and hung out to dry, if they didn’t freeze first, while hanging in the garage. Moving into her first house, she laughs about coming home from work in a skirt and heels, chopping wood for the kindling box and getting up at 2 am to put more wood on the fire so she and her son would keep warm on cold winter nights. She says it wasn’t that hard unless the wood was green.
The music was almost enough. Thank God for the music, she will say. Learning about life from artists like Cline, Wynette, Haggard, Juice Newton, and Jennings. Old songs and new songs. A single mom in a one-horse town. The Devil whispers, “You don’t want to die old and broke. You don’t want to be left alone.” More songs and more stories. Trusting in something and time passes.
George Strait came to hunt elk, famous in the White Mountains for their size and coveted for the trophies. Penny got a 3 song demo and a press kit to George’s manager, but nothing came of it. She ended up sitting and talking to George about hunting instead of music. Her husband told Penny, “well at least you tried, now you can move on”. But this comment was not something she comrehended.....Penny was just getting started.
Eventually forming her own band, "Penny and the Loose Change Band" and after 15 years of steady work in Arizona, and two marriages, she decided in 1998 to make the big move. To Nashville. Playing downtown Nashville at Legend’s Corner for $20 a shift. The balance of her wage came from tips and cd sales. Penny recalls if you played a solo you didn’t have to split tips. Tips and sales were good and Penny was able to make a living on “Lower Broad” for 3 years. Nighttime she’d attend songwriter shows. Her heroes had become the songwriters. Mickey Newbury, Jimmy Webb and now Tony Lane. She sang on the Ryman Stage (home of the Grand Ole Opry) while auditioning for the Tammy Wynette Story. She’ll never forget the first time on that stage and waiting for 4 hours on those hard pews for her turn. It’s the stage where Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and all the great storytellers performed.
The heartaches hurt like hell. Growing pains in Nashville and making friends for life. After all the years of hanging on, Penny let go.
Nowadays in Nashville, she does what she loves…..the music….the writing. Now it’s different. In 2006, she connected with producer Alan O’Bryant and put together an acoustic roots sound with a bluegrass blend with some of the finest musicians in Nashville. Penny is home. This was what it is all about to her.
Walking in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents Penny has completed her family circle and is now experiencing her time between the U.P. of Michigan and Nashville, with an occasional trip back to Arizona and Croatia. She has plans to play music in Europe, the land of her forebears. She feels a kindred spirit there and is reaching back to where her grandparent’s dreams were born.
Penny recalls the hard times and the blessings of letting go. Sometimes you have to let go just to hang on. Wynonna Judd told her on an airplane never to give up on her dreams. She never did. She lives them.
“With all the gains and losses, I’ve learned how to sing. Sometimes when I sing it hurts inside. I always wanted to sing that way…but couldn’t learn how from a book. I had to live it first.”
Penny has a lot more dreams to live and a lot more stories to tell. You can tell by that look in her eyes.