It’s been nearly two years since Paul Thorn released Don’t Let The Devil Ride, a collection of gospel songs that reach back to his boyhood days in the Pentecostal church. Though Thorn has spent the last touring cycle turning audiences into congregations alongside The Blind Boys of Alabama, who also sang on the album, don’t expect 2020 to be a continuation of that unique outing.
“We had a great time doing that,” said Thorn of touring with The Blind Boys in a late January phone interview. “But now that page has turned, and I’m going back to what I started as and that’s a singer-songwriter. When people come to the show, they’ll be hearing a lot of music from my whole catalog. I have thirteen records out, and we’ll be playing the nuggets from all of the albums in the past.”
Of course, seeing a career-spanning set should by no means be considered chopped liver, as Thorn has, without anywhere near the fanfare he deserves, built one of the most impressive album catalogs of any artist on the Americana scene since releasing his debut, Hammer & Nail, in 1997. As a live performer, Thorn is near-legendary for the connection he makes with audiences, and his shows have played a prime role in building a dedicated fanbase without the benefit of mainstream radio play.
It’s a relationship that didn’t happen by accident and as authentic as it gets for the down-to-earth Thorn.
“The biggest thing I think that has propelled me was something I learned from my father, who was a Pentecostal minister, and it was the importance of loving everybody and being good to everybody,” Thorn said. “When I go out on the stage, I do my show and I enjoy it– but just like my father, when the show’s over with, I go out on the floor and I shake peoples’ hands and take pictures. I’ll stay there until the line is completely gone. And also like my father,
when I get up on stage, in between songs I’m talking. I want to say something they can take home with them. It might be something funny or it might be something that will help them get through tomorrow. That’s number one on my list, and I think that resonates with people, and I think that’s why they come to shows because my whole thing is I like to make people feel better than they felt when they showed up.”
Hailing from Tupelo, Mississippi, the city that also birthed Elvis Presley, Thorn split his childhood between white churches where his father preached (which leaned toward country music) and an African-American branch where he was introduced to the rousing sounds of rhythm and blues-inflected gospel and frequently played bass in the church’s ensemble. Add in a healthy dose of rock (which he listened to away from home with friends because secular music was banned in the Thorn household) and blues, and that’s pretty much the stylistic palate Thorn has worked with throughout his career.
But music wasn’t Thorn’s only pursuit. In fact, Thorn had a whole other occupation well before he released Hammer & Nail.
In stark contrast to his father’s strict religious upbringing, Thorn was also close to his uncle, Merle, a one-time pimp who moved back to Tupelo after several years– his whereabouts were unknown to the family.
Merle had been a boxer, and he taught Thorn the sweet science and remained his nephew’s trainer as he embarked on an in-ring career.
From 1985 to 1988, Thorn estimates he fought about 50 bouts as an amateur and professional. He had considerable success, reaching a ranking of No. 29 in his weight class while amassing a professional record of 14 wins against four losses.
“I have lots of great memories from being a boxer,” Thorn said. “One thing I took away from boxing is a coward and a hero are the same thing, but the difference is a hero moves forward in the face of fear and a coward don’t do anything. I learned how to not be a coward. I learned that sometimes, even when you’re scared, you’ve got to move forward. You’ve got to face whatever’s there. And, boy, has it really helped me in my life, boxing has. It was a hell of a
Thorn reached a pinnacle in 1988 when he fought the legendary Roberto Duran in Atlantic City in a nationally televised bout. He lasted six rounds before the fight was stopped after Thorn had suffered a severe cut over his eye. Thorn said Duran was indeed in a different class as an opponent.
“The obvious question people ask is, ‘Did he hit hard?’ Yeah, he hit hard! But there are guys in bars that hit hard. What made him special from my point of view is he was incredibly hard to hit,” Thorn said. “His defense, his ability to make you miss, that was what made him special.
“He was a genius,” Thorn elaborated. “He knew how to sucker you and make you do things and make you overextend yourself. What he was doing, he took me to school, man. He just was very patient, and when I would throw punches, he would duck and he could anticipate everything I was doing. And then when the moment was right, he just threw a right hand over the top and it popped me right on the chin. And I went down! It was an incredible experience, just fighting him for six rounds. The doctor stopped it because I had a bad cut– but the thing, it’s something I’ll never forget. There are not many people who can say they got in the ring with Roberto Duran.”
Later this year, Thorn will get back in the musical ring with a new studio album that he just finished recording at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis with producer Matt Ross-Spang (known for his work with John Prine and Margo Price among others).
“Sonically, I wanted it to sound like it was from another time, an earlier time,” Thorn said of the new album. “And Matt, one of his skills is he’s really good at getting vintage sounds. A lot of it is because of Sam Phillips Recording Studio. A lot of vintage equipment gives you that sound. It was the perfect marriage of material and how it sounded.”
Largely penned with Thorn’s long-time songwriting partner, Billy Maddox, and Thorn said the new songs are among the most personal he’s ever recorded.
“I know this sounds like another cliché, but it truly is unlike anything I’ve ever done,” he said of the album. “Actually, I’m going to go a step further– I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done, the best thing I’ve ever been involved in. I truly believe that, I do. I’m proud of all my other [albums], don’t get me wrong. I’m so proud of them. But this is something that I feel like is special.”