WMKY

Paul Thorn

Sep 9, 2021

Paul Thorn
Credit NPR

Muddy Bottom Blues

Program #260 (September 10 at 8:00pm and September 11 at 3:00pm)

Before establishing himself as a purveyor of muscular American roots music, Tupelo, Mississippi's Paul Thorn lived several other lives.

The son of a Pentecostal preacher, he was a champion prizefighter in the 1980s who fought Roberto Duran, a professional skydiver, and a factory worker. Since releasing 1997's Hammer & Nail for A&M, Thorn has balanced blues, rock, gospel, country, and soul in a singular strain of Americana with songs that embrace the human condition with their humor, irony, pathos, tenderness, heartbreak, grief, anger, and joy. Thorn possesses a singing voice that is equal parts gravel and honey. He is also an exhibiting painter.

2002's Mission Temple Fireworks Stand garnered his first international exposure. His breakthrough was 2010's charting Pimps & Preachers. 2014's Too Blessed to Be Stressed offered what he called "positive anthem songs" and simultaneously placed on rock, indie, and Christian album charts. 2018's Don't Let the Devil Ride featured several gospel songs that inspired him while growing up. It included guest spots by the Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, Bonnie Bishop, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It peaked at number one the Blues Albums Chart. In August 2021 Thorn released Never Too Late to Call, a collection of organic demos built into songs with producer Matt Ross-Spang.

Thorn was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the son of a Pentecostal minister. His family moved to Tupelo when he was an infant. He spent his youth and adolescence singing in church and traveling with his dad to revivals. He picked up the guitar, organ, and piano along the way. The other big influence in his life was his father's brother, a pimp. He claims to have learned about the light and dark sides of life from each.

Though music was part of Thorn's daily life, it wasn't his first choice as a profession, boxing was. During the 1980s he fought professionally. His 14-4 record included winning the Mid-South Middleweight Championship in Memphis, Tennessee, and the opportunity to fight four-time world champion Roberto Duran on national television, although he lost. Realizing he would never be a champion, Thorn got his kicks as a skydiver (169 jumps) and spent a decade paying the rent by working in a furniture factory -- all while writing songs and scuffling to play gigs wherever he could find them.

While playing at a local singer/songwriter's night at a pizzeria in 1997, BMI's Roger Sovine heard him and was impressed by his songs, singing, and stage persona. The exec asked if he could share Thorn's name with Nashville record labels. A few weeks later, Thorn played a showcase for several labels at the very same Tupelo pizzeria. One of the attendees was A&R man Wyatt Easterling, who was Miles Copeland III's partner in the Bugle Publishing Group. He brought Thorn to Nashville and within the month, Thorn was on the road opening for Sting. The artist subsequently signed with A&M, and before year's end he recorded and released his major-label debut, Hammer & Nail.

Given the connections of his label and management company, he was able to open tours for a wide range of top-tier performers. Thorn left A&M -- which had just been acquired by Universal -- and signed to Copeland's Ark 21 for 1999's 14-song Ain’t Love Strange. Co-produced by Thorn and engineer/co-writer Billy Maddox (as "Sweet T" and "Black-Eyed Pea", respectively) it sold respectably but didn't chart. Thorn and his band toured the record across the country and Europe for the better part of two years.

In the new millennium, Thorn decided to play by his own rules. He founded Perpetual Obscurity Records and issued Live at Short Street Package Store. He entered studios in Mississippi and Alabama with his own band and Maddox, and cut his celebrated breakthrough, Mission Temple Fire Works Stand. Adorned with his own cover art, it was issued in 2002 to international acclaim.

He was profiled and interviewed in many publications, and got regular airplay and a feature on NPR. The ensuing tour was grueling but beneficial. Thorn played high-profile shows on his own and with artists including Bonnie Raitt. The songwriter took on the weighty subject of love for 2004's Are You with Me? using a warmer, smoother, yet stripped-down production style for songs that actively employed R&B and Caribbean-based grooves. A seeming shift in sonic direction, it nonetheless carried all of of Thorn's hallmarks as a songwriter.

He took a four-year break from recording, though he still gigged frequently in the United States and Europe -- as evidenced by 2005's So Far So Good: Best of the Paul Thorn Band Live. He returned with 2008's A Long Way from Tupelo, which melded his previous stylistic explorations into a resonant brand of Americana using more polished production. It was his first album to chart, peaking at 27 on the Independent Albums list.

In 2010 he released the humorously yet poignantly titled Pimps and Preachers. The title track was a tribute to his father and uncle, and alongside other wry observations about life in songs like "I Don't Like Half the Folks I Love," "You Might Be Wrong," and "I Hope I'm Doin' This Right." The cover again featured his artwork and peaked at 12 on the Independent Albums chart.

2012 saw the release of What the Hell Is Goin' On?, a collection of covers. It included his readings of tunes by Rick Danko, Allen Toussaint, Elvin Bishop, Donnie Fritts, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and others. It too peaked at 12. In 2014 Thorn released Too Blessed to Be Stressed with the McCrary Sisters as his backing chorus. Employing the musical vocabularies of gospel, country, rock, and R&B, his songs pursued his favorite themes, among them Saturday night sin and Sunday morning repentance and renewal. The album peaked at 15 on the Independent albums chart and number five on the Christian Albums charts.

Thorn was a road dog for much of 2015 and 2016 in Europe, the States, and the Caribbean, and was also exhibiting his paintings. 2018's Don't Let the Devil Ride was 14-track covers set that reveled in Southern gospel, soul, and blues -- though he did include a stellar read of the O'Jays' Philly soul/gospel classic "Love Train." He recorded at legendary soul studios across the South and enlisted a host of legends as guest performers including the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Bonnie Bishop, and the McCrary Sisters. The album spent more than 20 weeks on the charts and peaked at 17 in the Top 200; it also topped the Blues and Gospel charts. Three months after its release, Thorn's sister Deborah was diagnosed with cancer; she died just four weeks later. He was shattered. A night owl for many years, she'd provided companionship and counsel to her brother during late-night phone calls from the road.

In 2019, Bill Hinds, Thorn's guitarist for 30 years, left the band; he was replaced by Chris Simmons (formerly of the Leon Russell band). In December of 2020, Thorn released the single and video for "It's Never Too Late to Call," inspired by the conversations he and Deborah enjoyed during those long nights.

In August of 2021, Thorn issued the full-length Never Too Late to Call. Recorded at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service Studio, it was co-produced and engineered by Matt Ross-Spang, who built full tracks from organic demos. Thorn co-wrote "Sapphire Dream" with his daughter Kitty Jones for a duet. Another song, "Breaking Up for Good Again," featured a guest vocal from his wife Heather.

(provided by Allmusic)