Singer-songwriter evokes his past on Pimps and Preachers
Heaven and Hell. The spiritual and the secular.
These dual forces have influenced, and sometimes haunted, many musical greats, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver. So perhaps it’s fitting that singer-songwriter Paul Thorn resides in Mississippi, a state steeped in the Devil-at-the-Crossroads lore of good and evil. Like those iconic figures, Thorn has felt the presence of powerful and conflicting influences in his life and his music.
“The title of the [new] record is Pimps And Preachers,” Thorn says in his pronounced Southern drawl, speaking by phone from his home in Tupelo, Miss. “It might sound like some catchy phrase, but it really has a meaning to me. The meaning of it is my father was a Pentecostal preacher and my uncle was a pimp. As a kid, these two guys became my mentors, so I had the benefit of learning from people who dwelled on both sides of the tracks–the dark and the light. The title track, ‘Pimps And Preachers,’ is just a tribute to my father and my uncle, and the rest of the songs sort of tell you what a person who grew up around pimps and preachers thinks like. My philosophy of life is all over this record. This record is like taking two shots of tequila and then going to Sunday school. It’s like going to Sunday school with a buzz.”
Thorn will bring that buzz to Birmingham when he appears at WorkPlay on Friday, June 4. He is touring in support of the new CD, which will be released on June 22 by Perpetual Obscurity Records of Sulligent, Ala. The record has received strong positive notices. The San Francisco Chronicle refers to Thorn as “Kris Kristofferson backed by the Stones,” National Public Radio calls Thorn’s music “a lusty mandate set to a chorus of hallelujahs,” and Rolling Stone magazine calls him “a Southern-rock Bob Seger.” He has also built a reputation as an engaging live performer, with quips and between-song anecdotes that are as popular as his music among his core fans.
In an industry filled with characters and entertaining back-stories, Thorn still manages to stand out from the crowd. Raised on the expressive hymns of the Pentecostal church, Thorn took a turn at professional boxing before returning to his first love of music. He released his debut album, Hammer & Nail, in 1997. Thorn has spent his career blending elements of rock, soul and country into his own sound.
As a son of the South, Thorn wears his past like a badge of pride, and his thoughts turn to the church again when I ask about his musical upbringing. “With my dad being a preacher, we had the benefit of going to two different kinds of churches,” Thorn says. “They had the church where the black people went and the church where the white people went. In the white church, they sang a country-style gospel, and in the black church they sang a soulful type of gospel. I had the benefit of getting a taste of all of that, kind of like Elvis did as a child. It’s really molded who I am as a singer, musician and entertainer. Even though I don’t sing gospel music, I’m heavily influenced by that.”
In addition to the musical foundation Thorn received in church, he saw the way a preacher could command the attention of a crowd, and that has perhaps been his most profound influence. “At the shows, I don’t just do the show and leave the stage,” he says. “I go out and greet people as they’re leaving and thank them for coming. If they want something signed, I sign it. That’s one of the things I got from growing up as a preacher’s kid. That was part of the whole experience–shaking hands and meeting people and inviting them back. It’s the same process. You’ve got to be sincere, because over a period of time people will know if you’re sincere or not, so I try to give them a moment. When they’ve paid their money to come see me, they’ve given me a moment, and I’m going to give them one back.”
If you ask Thorn to name some of his musical influences, you won’t hear the usual litany of singer/songwriters that almost always includes such familiar names as Dylan and Springsteen. Instead, Thorn remains loyal to showmen that incorporated elements of music and variety into their performances. “People ask me who I study and who I listen to,” he says. “I study entertainers more than I do singers. When I say that, I’m talking about the great ones like Dean Martin, who was a tremendous singer but had a variety show where he would sing a few songs and tell jokes and pretend he was drunk. He made everybody who was watching the show feel like he was doing the show specifically for them, and there are few entertainers around like that anymore. And Porter Wagoner, some people might think he’s a corny country singer, but I beg to differ because he was a classic entertainer who sang great songs and was funny. That’s what I want to try to keep alive. I want to be an entertainer and make people feel good and have an interaction.”
While Thorn often reflects on his past, he is keenly aware of the ever-changing music industry in the age of the Internet, satellite radio and iTunes. As a result, he has found a way to combine his love of audience interaction with the necessity of using modern technology. “There’s so much going on and there is so much music out there that it is hard to stand out,” he says. “The method we choose is to try to win battles every night. When I say that, I mean we go do a show and we try to do a good show that people talk about when they leave, and we encourage people to become Facebook fans. Also, if people send us an email, we will send them the title track off the new album for free. Hopefully, they’ll like the song and it perpetuates growth for our mailing list. In today’s world, if you don’t have an Internet presence, it’s going to be hard to get noticed. Our mailing list continues to grow every night.”
Thorn recognizes the challenges presented by technology and admits that some of the mystique of live shows has been lost thanks to YouTube and an abundance of concert DVDs in the marketplace. “It gives me the challenge of trying to come up with fresh material and to come up with fresh things to say during the show,” he says. “When someone’s seen my show on YouTube, I don’t want them to come to a show and hear the exact same thing, so I’m faced with the challenge of having to keep it fresh and it keeps me sharp.”
In addition, Thorn relies on his audience for inspiration when he tires of his most well-worn songs. “How many times does Percy Sledge want to sing ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’?” he asks rhetorically. “But when he sees the looks on the crowd’s faces and hears them shout out, then that makes him want to sing it again. I have songs that people want to hear and sometimes I might get tired of them. But when they respond and smile back at me, then it’s all fresh again.”
Thorn will be on the road almost constantly from now through October, with around 50 shows booked across the country. The first leg of the Pimps and Preachers tour will keep him away from Tupelo for more than a month. Like any artist who
is also a family man, Thorn feels the strain of being separated from his loved ones. “It’s a little over a month, and for some people that might not seem like long, but it is when you’ve got a wife and two kids and you can’t see them for that long,” he says. “That’s the hardest part of what I do and the thing that really takes its toll on me sometimes. But as far as the work itself, what I do when I’m out there is extremely enjoyable.”
And the details of Thorn’s boxing career? “That was a long time ago,” he says. “The fight I’m most known for is a fight I had in 1988. I fought on national television against Roberto Duran. I got stopped at the end of six rounds because I had a bad cut. Being a pro boxer was a great experience, and it prepared me to go out into the world and face my fears.”
I could talk to Thorn all day, but everything must come to an end. I ask if he has any parting words. “Tell the people what my daddy told the congregation when he was up on the pulpit,” Thorn says. “If you read this article and you know I’ve got this show going on and you still don’t come, you’re going to Hell.”
Thorn will perform at Workplay on Friday, June 4, at 9 p.m. To buy tickets—which are $18 the day of show and $16 in advance—call (205) 380-4082 or go to www.workplay.com. You can read more about Thorn at www.paulthorn.com or www shorefire.com. To receive a free copy of his CD’s title track, “Pimps and Preachers,” email pimps@ paulthorn.com.
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.