The first thing you notice is The Voice, unique and distinctive, the voice of a man who has walked a long, hot span over dusty Mississippi country roads. At turns soulful, raw, melancholy, brazen, funky, circumspect, serene, brooding, and mutinous, the voice expresses the range of human emotions, from forlorn grimness to incandescent optimism. And after repeated listens, you realize that his is not merely the voice of a poet but also of a merciful prophet, a summation not unjustified. Those who follow the career of Paul Thorn believe he is both.
His newest CD is A Long Way From Tupelo, a collection of songs which once again illustrates Thorn’s versatility and authentic connection to the music of the Mississippi heartland: blues, country, gospel, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll. Thorn excels as a musical storyteller. Maybe, given his background, he just can’t help it. His songs are conduits for that gritty part of the South where beleaguered wisdom is as likely from the bottom of a bottle of Johnny Walker Red as it is from the pulpit of an old country church. And the latest Paul Thorn CD remains true to form.
From Everybody Wishes, an ode to the complexities of finding the right one, to I’m Still Here, an anthem to human endurance, to What Have You Done To Lift Somebody Up, a rousing gospel number challenging us to step outside our own lives and simply help someone, to the softly beautiful When the Long Road Ends, with its Appalachian undertones asking us to contemplate what we’ve done with life, Thorn’s new CD represents the wisdom he has found in middle-years. Paul simply says, “I'm a little older now, and all the songs are about what's going on in my life. I'm 43 years old, and it's about what's going on in Paul Thorn's life at 43, pretty much.”
Prophets are called and poets are born so it’s no surprise that Paul Thorn is from Tupelo, Mississippi, the same music-drenched region that gave us Elvis. The son of a Pentecostal Preacher, Paul grew up shaking his leg and tambourine while singing in his father’s revivals. His first such performance was at the tender age of 3 while the congregates filed past and filled his tambourine with money. “After the service there was a little girl, also about three years old, who I had a crush on. I stuffed the money I got down in my pockets. After the service we sat around the back of the church and I bought her a Coke with the money I’d earned. That was my first paying gig and, I guess, my first date.”
Eventually Thorn developed other interests. Encouraged by his Uncle Merle, himself a professional boxer, he took up the art of fisticuffs and rose through the amateur and professional ranks high enough to climb into the ring in 1987 for a nationally televised bout against three-time world champion Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran. “I didn’t win the fight, but few did against Duran.”
Music, however, remained Thorn’s true passion. He had learned the guitar as a child, and he began writing what he describes as “cheesy love songs.” These were the sparks that kindled his musical career. During a family gathering at age 17, Paul ran into a first cousin, then a keyboardist for Parliament-Funkadelic. He played a couple of songs for his cousin Stan. Recognizing Paul’s natural talent, Stan introduced him to veteran songwriter Billy Maddox, who realized not only the teenager’s raw, innate musical ability, but also The Voice. It was obvious Thorn had absorbed the differing musical styles in and around Tupelo, especially the black gospel music that had surrounded him all his life. This meeting began a fruitful musical partnership that lasts through this day.
For twelve years, Thorn worked days and pursued his passion at night, writing with Billy and often playing in local nightspots, until he was discovered by Miles Copeland. Paul recorded his first CD, Hammer and Nail, for A&M records, then recorded Ain't Love Strange for Copeland’s Ark 21 label.
A couple of years after Ain't Love Strange, Thorn switched musical gears and record companies to record the critically acclaimed Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, a quirky collection of songs about people on the byways of backwater South. The title comes from Paul’s childhood. “Growing up a Pentecostal Preacher’s son, I went to a lot of tent revivals. In Mississippi, they use the same kind of tent to sell fireworks. It’s all about big business vs. the real thing.” In 2005, Thorn followed up with Are You With Me, 12 songs about love gone wrong - and right.
It was during this time that Paul began an association with current manager, Bob Brown. Bob immediately brought booking agency Monterey Peninsula Artists (now Paradigm) onboard, and he has become a vital, productive mentor and friend.
If listening to a Paul Thorn CD is satisfying, then catching a Paul Thorn show is a revelation. He is a superb entertainer fronting a band of musical veterans who know exactly what to do. He weaves his stories throughout; mostly funny ones about himself, people he has known, old girlfriends, and childhood discoveries. And his conversational tones conjure an old buddy sitting in the back of a ’69 Dodge pickup drinking beer on a dark, sultry Mississippi night.
His performance chops are no accident. Thorn is one of the hardest working people in the business and a hardcore veteran of the road. Before he became the main attraction, Thorn opened for some of the most established acts touring today including Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Sting, John Hiatt, Robert Cray, Marianne Faithful and John Prine. His tours are heavy and hectic, spanning over 200 dates a year in the United States and Canada.
Thorn is a genuine Southern paradox, a bona fide tough guy with a feeling for the social fugitive. Behind his songs simmer an old fashioned religious sensibility: that we really are accountable for how we treat people - the old and the odd, the on-track and offbeat, the strangers and the strange. His songs are filled with a demented optimism that says each life still counts; this is the all-important message that Paul wants to impart to his listeners.
If Merle Haggard is the poet of the common man, then Paul Thorn is the poet of the unheard; the commonplace and forgotten people who have been left behind in a Modern South rushing to score its share of riches from the suzerainties of Wall Street. Thorn is the real deal, never having broke bad with the people he sings about.
Thorn doesn’t vacillate when he talks about what he wants people to take from his songs. “When folks hear my music or see my show I want them to walk away with a healthy dose of joy. Most organized religion is like a steel hammer that’s used to beat us down and make us feel perpetually guilty and unworthy. I’m not about that. I want to lift people up and set them free.”
A true prophet is neither seer nor fortune-teller, but a truth-teller. Thorn is able to tell his truths in an entertaining, accessible, and poetic way, and he has developed a legion of hard-core believers all over the country. It is The Voice that attracts them, but it is who he is that holds them.
Paul might not admit it, but his musical career is nothing short of a continuation of the childhood singing and entertaining he did for his father’s revivals. However, things are different now. In Paul Thorn’s world the only price of admission is the cost of a ticket and the willingness to reach out to someone. Chances are that you will feel a little better, a little freer, when you leave it.
Or, as he sings in When the Long Road Ends…
When the long road ends we will rest for a while, I’ll hold your hand and we’ll share a smile, Then we’ll both look back over where we’ve been, We will have no regrets when the long road ends.
Spoken like a true poet and prophet, no matter what the down-home preachers say.