Paul Thorn in concert at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte last year
Trying to describe Paul Thorn’s music is like trying to describe that proverbial elephant. Whatever part you depict, you end up expressing just part of the truth and conveying a distortion. Perhaps the most helpful point is to mention that Thorn hails from Tupelo, Mississippi, and like that other famous native son Elvis Presley, Thorn combines country and soul and gospel and blues to create a sound that just rocks.
“Like Elvis, I grew up singing in church,” Thorn says. “The difference was my dad is a Pentecostal minister at that church. I was three years old the first time I sang in front of a crowd when my dad put me on the pulpit, and I have been singing ever since.”
What Boxing Taught Him
Well, that’s not exactly all Thorn has done. Besides working a myriad of odd jobs, Thorn was a successful professional boxer. His most famous fight was a nationally televised bout against the legendary Roberto “Hands of Steel” Duran. Thorn lost, but he held his own.
“What I learned from boxing is that you can’t rely on hype,” Thorn says. “That’s something you see quite a bit of in the music business. Someone is always being touted as the latest Elvis or whatever. You can’t believe it. You have got to go out and prove it.”
He speaks from experience. Thorn was signed to a major label contract back in 1997 and made appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel Live. He opened shows for big name artists like Sting, Jeff Beck, and Mark Knopfler.
Thorn’s big break never turned into a lucrative career, but this hasn’t stopped him from making music. In fact, he’s still playing with the first band he assembled after making his first record. They’ll be touring with him when he plays the Redstone Room in Davenport on March 8 and the Mill in Iowa City on April 12. This includes drummer Jeffrey Perkins, bassist Doug Kahan, keyboardist Michael Graham, and guitarist/backup singer Billy Maddox.
A Family Affair
Thorn’s father the preacher was a big influence on him, but so was his uncle, who was a pimp by profession. That explains the name of Thorn’s latest album, Pimps and Preachers. He’s not engaging in hyperbole—many of the songs are autobiographical and discuss the life lessons he learned from both men. The differences between the two showed him that there were no absolute truths. He saw that sinners and saints both have their merits and their faults, and he learned not to be judgmental based on someone’s superficial qualities.
“If you only live in one world, that’s the only world you will understand,” Thorn explains, “but life is not so simple.” Thorn’s lyrics are full of an understanding of one’s limitations and tolerance towards others. “I believe there is good in everyone,” he says, “although that doesn’t mean I have to like them!”
“One thing that both preachers and pimps are notorious for doing is something called ‘getting on your ass,’ ” Thorn says. “This means they jump on you. Criticize you. They make you feel small. They do that to control you. The difference is, the preacher doesn’t stop there. He gives you a way out. I guess I am the preacher’s son because I feel it’s my job to show people life may be hard. We all face hardships and hard times. But there is a light at the end.”
Music for Honest Ears
“I always end my songs with a ray of hope,” Thorn says with a laugh. “I believe we all have the power to change one’s life. You may not have the power to change the world, but you can change yourself—and that may change the world. We all have an obligation to ourselves to try.”
For Thorn, that means approaching one’s music with sincerity. He says he understands that musicians have to entertain, and his own songs are filled with good humor and rollicking beats, but that one has to be true to oneself. “One thing that pisses me off is when I hear some 40-year-old man trying to have a hit singing words that would sound right coming out of a 15-year-old kid’s mouth, just so some 15-year-old will buy them,” he says. Without naming names of some current country stars, Thorn expresses his dismay at what people will do to sell records.
“It says in the Bible that you will see a wise man walking while a foolish man will ride,” Thorn notes. “When people hear a great song, like ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ or ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ by Kris Kristofferson, they will buy it. Those are songs that had meaning, not just fluff. But if record companies wonder why people don’t buy that crap they hear so often at the radio, well, they ought to listen to it with honest ears. Then they would know.” He cites Kristofferson, Roger Miller, Burt Bacharach, and Tom Waits as his biggest influences.
“They might be different from each other, but they are all great songwriters,” Thorn says. “None of them would probably even get on the radio these days.”
Thorn mentions he’s been talking on the phone while walking through Wal-Mart, getting a few things before he leaves on an extended road trip with the band. In Tupelo, there’s nowhere else to buy supplies. “I hate sticking it to the little guy, but I don’t have any choice,” he says. “I’m glad there’s the Internet so people can buy my music, because the brick-and-mortar record stores are dinosaurs. They are just the things of the past. A musician has got to tour and have a fan base to make a living.”
He updates his Facebook page daily so he can connect with his fans. You can see his artwork there. Thorn created his own album cover art. And one can order his new book. “It’s also called Pimps and Preachers and has more stories and pictures about the world where I came from.”
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