Paul Thorn: Tupelo’s Traveling Troubadour

Story Birney Imes | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

Editorial photo for summer 2013 Catfish Alley cover story

Singer/songwriter Paul Thorn at the Country Store and Restaurant, a fish and steak restaurant, that until recently was also a convenience store near his home in the Union community in Lee County, Miss.

Back in the days before the songwriting and the boxing, Paul Thorn happened to be watching TV when a commercial came on advertising sky diving lessons. He phoned his cousin.

“I think I was temporarily insane,” he says.

The insanity lasted for a while. Thorn made more than 160 jumps.

“I’m telling you, when that door opens up, it’s real. It’s the most real thing. It’s dangerous and it’s scary. Don’t do it.”

At that time in his life “dangerous and scary” had irresistible appeal for the singer/songwriter.
During a short and remarkably successful turn as a professional boxer, Thorn climbed into the ring for a nationally televised bout with middleweight champion Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran. That fear-ridden episode produced a swollen face, a lifelong memory and a song that became the title track of his first CD, “Hammer and Nail.”

Less traumatic was when he walked out on stage during a school talent show and morphed into a sixth-grade version of Lionel Richie. “I got up and sang ‘Three Times a Lady.’ The girls went berserk,” says Thorn. “I went from being a social outcast to being the most popular boy on the playground. I had all the girls going my way. I didn’t know what to do with ’em, but I had ’em.”

Singing in front of people is something that’s never bothered Thorn, be it as a just-discovered talent opening for Sting in front of 13,000 fans in Nashville; as a 6-year-old performing for one of his evangelist father’s ever-changing Pentecostal congregations or as the relentlessly touring troubadour he is today, moving from night clubs to private gigs to concert halls.

Paul Thorn has a new house. Confronted with its soaring two-story living area and log construction, the first-time visitor would not be faulted for thinking he had just walked into a Colorado ski lodge.
Leading up the stairs to a landing that sports a billiard table and neon beer signs, Thorn has hung his paintings, including one of himself and his wife entitled “The Amazing Lovers on Fire.” He began painting after a 1997 pilgrimage to Paradise Garden, the Georgia home of visionary painter, Howard Finster. Two years later Thorn got married at Paradise Garden, and Finster sang a song he wrote as part of the ceremony.

The house sits halfway between Nettleton and Plantersville, two small towns among the dozens within the gravitational pull of Tupelo, Miss. It is in this world, in these small towns and the places between them, where Thorn grew up. And where he mines a rich lode of material to craft his ballads of trailer park lust, small town hypocrisy and lost love.

UNFILTERED AND UNEDITED
Though Thorn seems to have had a penchant for putting himself into frightening situations, meeting people is not one of them. He is a fluent talker, who in conversation seems to be constantly testing phrases and ideas he might use in a song. One senses that Thorn is largely unedited, a trait which has delighted some talk show hosts and stunned others. Like in a May 2012 interview with National Public Radio’s Melissa Block about “Walk in My Shadow,” a track on his latest CD, “What the Hell Is Goin’ On?”

Thorn: “‘You make me hungry you make me weak you’re like a hot biscuit I want to eat.’ Now that’s what a guy from Mississippi would say.”
Block: “Have you used that line before?”
Thorn: “I use it on my wife all the time. I sneak up behind her when she’s washing the dishes.”
Block: “How does that go over?”
Thorn: “Well, it depends on whether she’s ovulating or not, you know. Because that’s when they like that kind of thing the most.”

A LIFE FULL OF STORIES
Thorn is foremost a storyteller, one who happens to have a guitar. And, he is blessed with an abundance of material. This is, after all, the rural South where lives and families have been intertwined for generations, a place where a scrap of information like the year you graduated from high school or who your sister married brings into play volumes of data. This is a place where storytelling is not yet a lost art.

Paul Thorn’s genius, if he can be said to have one, is his ability to distill the commonplace into an elixir that is both familiar and yet weirdly mysterious.
“When I’m out and about in the world, I keep my eyes and ears open to experience things about the human condition,” says the songwriter. “I go to coffee shops, and I’ll sit and talk to a stranger. It’s amazing what’s going on in people’s lives if you’ll just take a little time to talk to ’em. That’s where my songs come from.”

Thorn’s life has had its own ups and downs. At 18 and at odds with his father and the church over premarital sex with his girlfriend, he moved out, bought a used trailer and got a job in a furniture factory making sofas, recliners and love seats. He played once-a-week gigs at a local tavern and a Tupelo pizza parlor.

The musician seemed destined for perpetual obscurity when the impossible happened. A talent scout heard him at one of his gigs and before you could say “hound dog” a covey of A&R (artist & repertoire) executives descended on Tupelo.

Thorn quit his job of 12 years at the furniture factory and flew to L.A. where he signed a deal with A&M Records. A Cinderella story this was not to be. Thorn’s discovery came as the label was changing hands, and his new CD vanished from sight.

“I was as green as grass … I thought I was going to be a household name,” he says of the experience. “I learned the hard way that record companies throw you against the wall and if it don’t stick, they go on to something else.”

Thorn returned to Tupelo and with his song-writing mentor, Billy Maddox, resolved to take control of his own destiny. That was countless road trips and 10 albums ago.

Thorn and his band — who with the exception of the bass player, have been together two decades — play around 175 gigs a year, including one this past December in Germany. Later this year they will tour Australia.

“Every day a new opportunity presents itself,” he says, “which is good since I just got this new house and the payment book showed up.”

Thorn stays in daily contact with his fanbase through Facebook.

“In today’s world if you don’t have an Internet presence you’re going to go out like the dinosaur,” he says. “I have built a relationship with my fans because I care about my fans.”

After shows Thorn greets waiting fans, signs CDs and poses for pictures.

“If you shake their hands and have a moment with them, you got ’em for life. I learned that from John Prine.”

LIFE ON THE ROAD
Touring is not a vacation, Thorn says.

“I’ve got to be a gatherer,” he says. “I’ve got to go out there and provide for my family, and I’m thankful I can do it.”

For Thorn life on the road has its price — loneliness.

“The thing that breaks my heart is being away from my family,” he says. “Some people don’t want what they have; I want what I have. I love my wife; I love my kids. When I pull out of the driveway, I’ve got tears going down my face.”

When on the road Thorn salves his longing for home with his art.

Editorial photo for summer 2013 Catfish Alley cover story

Thorn says his art is a kind of therapy for him, a way to break the long hours of monotony on the road between gigs. “You can sit there and work on a piece and eight hours have passed,” he says. Many of the subjects of this drawing are based on actual fans. Thorn’s manager Billy Maddox appears in the upper right corner.

“It helps me from dying of loneliness,” he says. “You can sit there and work on a piece and eight hours have passed.”

Thorn’s pictures, made with colored pencils and markers, are the visual equivalent of his songs. Some celebrate well-lived lives; others offer an unflinching look of life at the desperate edges, complete with sagging flesh, leering eyes and rural depravity. To accompany a CD by the same name Thorn in 2010 published Pimps and Preachers, a book of his drawings and accompanying commentary.

And while Thorn and his father long ago made amends, they have irreconcilable differences on religion.

In a July 2008 commentary for NPR’s “This I Believe,” Thorn talked about his spiritual journey.

“It will be like coming out of the closet,” he began.

Thorn went on to condemn the religion of fear in which he was raised.

“I believe in religion without fear. [In my travels] I met people who didn’t pray to Jesus. … I saw good, sincere Buddhists, Moslems and Jews all walking in the light, as they knew it.”

“I had to break away from the God I was supposed to believe in to find the God I could believe in,” he concluded.

Thorn says he was surprised by both the amount and vehemence of the response he got from the piece.
In the meantime, the singer/songwriter, who calls himself an evangelical agnostic, continues his search convinced he won’t find all the answers to his spiritual questions in one place.

“No bucket you’ll ever find that doesn’t have a hole in it,” he says.

Editorial photo for summer 2013 Catfish Alley cover story

Thorn maintains an ongoing dialogue with his fans through daily postings of comments and videos on Facebook.

PAUL THORN ON TOURING, THE MUSIC BUSINESS AND LAUNDRY DETERGENTS:

On the music business: “Back in the ’70s a record company would nurture an artist. In the American Idol age, if you don’t pop right out of the box, you’re done.”

On the business of music: “One of the reasons we’ve been able to have a career — and I’ve been doing this full-time since 1997 —  is we (Thorn and his band) always live beneath our means. Every time I leave the house I don’t lose money, I make money. That’s why I’ve been able to have a career.”

About his producer and longtime partner Billy Maddox: “Billy produces the album, drives the vans, books the hotels. He is a working fool. Right now you can call him and he’s probably booking hotels, talking to my booking agent. I mean, he’s on it. He actually works harder than I do.”

The tour bus: “We tried a bus for a while, but gas is so expensive we travel in a 15-passenger van with a big trailer behind it. It’s luxurious. We all got our own bench and we all have our own Mexican blanket. We also fly a lot.”

On being interviewed on national television: “I respect everybody and I’m not in awe of anybody. They are just as flawed and insecure as I am, sometimes more because people expect so much of them.  They really keep those studios cold (so people’s make-up won’t run). It’s kind of like being in a strip club. While you’re there they treat you good, but when the show’s over, they’re ready for you to leave.”

On the differences in religions: “To me religion is like a bunch of laundry detergents lined up. They all claim to get yo’ clothes white … and they want you to buy their brand. I’ve tried a lot of different detergents and they’ve all got some good ability to clean. I don’t completely buy into any of ’em any more, and that makes a lot of people mad. If yours sets you free, you’re set free.”