By Lynne Margolis
(LSM Oct/Nov 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 5)
Though Paul Thorn didn’t release his first album until 1997, it’s not a stretch to say he’s always been in the entertainment business. From his Pentecostal-preacher dad’s tent revivals, where he started singing at 3, he learned the power of language and cadence; from his days as a professional boxer, he learned how to throw (or take) crowd-pleasing punches. And when you’re born and raised in the town that produced Elvis Presley — 130 miles from Memphis and 88 from Muscle Shoals — it’s entwined in your DNA. All of which helps to explain why he’s so good at spinning plain-spoken tales of downtrodden souls and Southern discomfort into uplifting songs filled with insights that seem simultaneously simple and brilliant, personal and universal. In an earlier era, grandmothers would have lined their walls with renderings of Thorn’s wit and wisdom as counted-cross-stitch homilies — neatly framed truths worth remembering.
The tile of his new album, Too Blessed to Be Stressed, would be one. The track “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy” is another. His 2010 release Pimps and Preachers contains humor-tinged confessions such as “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love,” “Tequila is Good for the Heart” and “I Hope I’m Doin’ This Right.” (His self-deprecating humor extends to his label name, Perpetual Obscurity Records.) As that album title suggests, Thorn’s always straddled the poles between heaven and hell, good and evil and right versus wrong, generally from the perspective of those who can’t even grasp the ladder’s bottom rung, much less climb it — but still, they might see the light when others don’t.
Thorn says he’s not religious, but his combustibly funky rhythms, swampy blues and rock-edged tunes are often infused with true gospel fervor. Occasionally, though, he switches to gentle, heart-tugging — and equally powerful —love ballads. Always, he reminds us that compassion might be the most important quality humans possess. Or should.
In his country-boy Southern drawl, Thorn discussed his latest work a day before heading back to his Tupelo, Miss., home — the subject of “No Place I’d Rather Be.”
The new album definitely has an upbeat sound, which reflects the message you’ve said you want to convey about positive encouragement. Does it seem like everything’s really going to hell right now, or do we just perceive that because of so much negative coverage?
It’s a little of everything. The media is really negative and there’s so much downer stuff goin’ on. Even in music; there’s only so many songs I want to hear about missin’ a girl, you know? My new record, I think of as the Americana Kool & the Gang. I liked their music because it made people feel good when you heard it. I’ve been around a lot of people who are smarter than me and wiser than me, and they have shared some things with me that I just decided, I’ll make ’em into songs and put ’em on a record.
That makes you as wise and smart as they are if you knew what to do with the information.
Well, so much bad information is being given out, and advice that don’t work. I wanted to share some nuggets that I learned do work. Like the song titles — one is “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy.” That was something my grandpa used to say. And what he was sayin’ was, hang around people that encourage you. Because there are people who want to be your friend but not really, because they want you to be beneath them. If you ever get a leg up and do something you like, and they ain’t God no more, then they get upset. Know what I mean?
Yup. There’s a lot of that jockeying for position in this world, unfortunately.
Yes, there is.
This album forsakes some of the sly sarcasm and political commentary you’ve done in the past, although you’ve got “Mediocrity is King.” There are also fewer narrative, story-type songs. Your press release says you wanted people to feel like you’re talking directly to them. Is that why there are fewer characters?
Yeah, they’re not stories, they’re more like anthems. They’re positive anthems. Look at the song titles: There’s one called “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy,” one called “Everybody Needs Somebody,” one called “Everything’s Gonna be Alright,” one’s called “Too Blessed to be Stressed.” I have to say I’ve probably gotten a better response at my shows singin’ these songs than any songs I’ve ever put out. People want to sing the lyrics; the choruses are real simple, and it seems like they just start singin’ along right off the bat. It’s really wonderful how it’s bein’ received. You know, nobody’s gonna like everything you do. I heard a few folks sayin’ it wasn’t their cup of tea, but I can’t please everybody. From the majority of the people, it’s been well received. And it seems like it’s touchin’ people, the sentiment of what we’re sayin’ in these songs. I can just see people out in the crowd; they’re swaying [together]. Without being corny, it really is kind of like a revival. Everybody comes to the show, we sing these songs together and everybody leaves feeling refreshed. What could be wrong with that?
That’s one thing I noticed about the melodies; they’re just so pretty. They make you feel good all by themselves, even without the lyrics.
Good. That’s what I was hopin’ for. And I do admit — once again, I don’t want to sound corny — but I really believe that music has healing power. And I believe that it can make people feel better. I know this because I’ve had people come up and tell me that it made ’em feel better. To me, that means mission accomplished. I’m proud of what me and my band and my producer produced. I’m really proud of it.
You’ve got [gospel singers] the McCrary Sisters on three songs. Did you originally get to know them through the Delbert McClinton cruise or was that a previous association?
You’re correct. I met them on the Delbert cruise. And I actually recorded their vocals on the  cruise. We brought some recording equipment, and I went ahead and logged time; we literally took some recording equipment into a cabin on the boat, and we just sang it right there. It was great. They’re about the best at what they do, you know?
I know. I love hearing them, and they fit so well with what you’re doing on this album.
I think so. The stars were really lined up. I’m really proud of this record, because of, mainly how I’m singing, it makes people feel. Y’know, if you can make people feel somethin’, then that’s great. It appears as if they feel somethin’, because they keep tellin’ me they do when they hear these songs.
“What Kind of Roof Do You Live Under” really does sound like a sermon, as if a preacher is asking his flock, “What kind of person are you?”
Well, you know, I grew up in church. I was a preacher’s kid for 18 years, so the language of the church — even though I’m not a Christian artist or a religious artist, or a religious person, for that matter — that dialogue is just ingrained in the way I talk and the way I write.
Who’s Carlo J. Ditta, the author of “Get You A Healin’”?
He’s a songwriter out of New Orleans. I just heard the song; never even met the man. I just liked it so much that I wanted to record it. You talk of a feel-good song; that’s really a feel-good song. My producer and songwriting partner [and manager], Billy Maddox, found it on Spotify. It’s the only song on the record that I didn’t write. But if it’s a good song, I don’t care.
How do you and Billy approach songwriting together?
We’ve been writing together for 30 years. We just click real good together. He’s actually my songwriting mentor. He was a little older than me when I met him and he was already havin’ success as a hit country songwriter. And even though I’m not a country artist, I like the way that good country songs are put together, and that’s the style of writing I have; my songs are like little stories.
A couple of songs on here sound kind of Stonesy: “This is A Real Goodbye” and “Old Stray Dog and Jesus.” They’re a nice mix of rock and blues. How do you arrive at a sound like that versus something that sounds more revivalist?
I don’t really set out to write a song that sounds like this or that. I just sit around with my guitar and play, and whatever comes out, that’s what happens. I just have fun writin’ songs.
How about “Old Stray Dog and Jesus”? It sounds like a homeless person’s per-spective; not exactly uplifting. But does it help to remind people …
Oh, no, if you listen to the whole song, it’s about the downward spiral of drug addiction. The plus side is that at the end of the song, the guy’s in rehab. When you hit rock bottom, which is where he is, you got two choices: die, or go to rehab. And so really, the guy’s recovering, that’s the hook — that’s the positive ending to that song. He’s in the Glory Road Recovery Home, he’s got a dog, he’s got a sack of dog food, a pack of cigarettes and he’s tryin’ to get back on track.
I also thought of it as possibly helping to remind people how good they really do have it. Most people are not in drug recovery.
It goes to show what I’m talkin’ about. The song can mean one thing to another person, but either way, it means something positive. Because in the beginning, it paints a picture of what the bottom looks like.
Once I asked you to describe your music and you said, “It’s influenced heavily by gospel, but it’s not gospel. It’s sort of a cross between, shoot, I don’t know, Lawrence Welk and ZZ Top.”
Yeah, I still kinda think that’s it.
And I didn’t think to ask then: Did you grow up listening to Lawrence Welk?
Of course! [Imitating the late band leader] “A one anna two anna” … I loved that show! When I was a kid, I liked to see the bubbles flyin’ through the air. I loved The Lawrence Welk Show.
I did for a long time, too. And then suddenly, it just felt completely unhip and I couldn’t watch it any more.
Well, the definition of hip is being who you are and enjoying what you really enjoy and not following a trend. That’s what being hip is, to me.
You know, the people who dress hip, and they follow whatever Lady Gaga’s doin’, that ain’t hip, that’s just stupid.
I agree. Maybe she’s trying to be a trendsetter, but she definitely goes over the edge. When she just sits down at a piano and sings, I kind of like her.
I’m not criticizing her; she’s very talented. I just used her as an example. Her and Madonna. I like Lady Gaga, but it’s just Madonna all over again … Some of the songs almost sound like the exact same songs. I can actually sing the lyrics of one of Madonna’s songs over a Gaga song; it’s just perfect. I think the powers that be up in the corporate world know that the new generation comin’ up never heard of Madonna or don’t hear her music, so they just do it again. They do the same thing again, ’cause they know the work.
It’s just like fashion; they recycle it every 20 years.
I mentioned earlier how strong the melodies are on this album — not that they aren’t on your previous work, but they all sound sweet here, and you’ve got that beautiful ribbon tying it up at the end with that love song to your wife and family, “No Place I’d Rather Be.” Did you always know that had to be the last track?
Well, I’ve gotten into the habit of whatever the last track is on any album, I want to do something poignant and meaningful, to leave people with a thought, you know. That song is about wantin’ to be home, and people who are truck drivers, people who are soldiers, people who are traveling salesman, they all can relate to that song. I felt like it was worth putting on there, ’cause I think it might let some other people know exactly how they feel, being away from their loved ones.
You sang “Doctor My Eyes” on this year’s Jackson Browne tribute album, Looking Into You. Did you get to pick the sng or did they pick for you?
That’s the song they wanted me to do. I was asked to be on that project and there were a lot of superstar singers on that record, which made it a big thrill to me to get to be on it. We flew down to Dallas, where they were recordin’, and we recorded it in one day. What you’re hearin’ was done in just one day. I’m very proud of it.
It’s one of the strongest tracks on there. I thought it really gave respect to the artist without just mimicking the original.
I’m very fortunate because I’ve had the same band for over 20 years. And it’s a real band; it’s not just a bunch of session guys who get hired to come in and play the songs. I think that comes across on the recording; because we’re such a tight unit from playin’ together, it really clicks. It’s somethin’ that I’m very proud of.
After all this time, are you guys each other’s best friends?
They’re my family. Well, I have three different families. I have my fans, that’s one of my families that I love. And I have my band, that’s a family I live with some of the time, and then I have my most treasured family, my biological family.
You’ve done several Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches cruises and you’re slated for next year’s. Got any stories to tell about those experiences?
I don’t know if I have any good stories to tell, but Delbert is getting close to retiring. I’m making a concerted effort to take his spot and be the ambassador of the whole thing, because it’s become apparent that a lot of people are goin’ on the cruise to see me and my band. So we’re just trying to get it to where, when Delbert leaves, I can continue on and be the flag-bearer for the future.
That’s awesome, because a lot of people would not be able to face losing it; it’s like summer camp — a big reunion every year. I’ve done a few of them, including the first one you were on. I remember dragging people to see you, because they had no clue — then they became converts. So, would you take over booking, or how would that work?
Well, it’s in a transitional phase right now. The main thing that’s gonna have to happen is, you know, there’s lots of other artists on the boat, but what it’s gonna get down to is when people call to get a ticket on the cruise, they’re going to be asked who is the main artist you’re coming to see. For lack of a better analogy, it’s like I’m running for office. I need people, when they order their tickets and they’re asked who they’re mostly coming to see, if they really mean it, to say me. Because if I’m gonna take this thing over, the company I’m working with [Sixthman], they’re gonna need to know that I can draw people on the cruise. So I’m asking all people that are my friends to let them know that they’re comin’ to see me. It would really help out a lot.
Next year, you’re also touring with Ruthie Foster and Joe Ely. How did that come about?
I received a phone call from their booking agents. And they wanted me to do this in-the-round thing, just me and Ruthie and Joe. We’ve already done a few and it really went over good and was well-received.
The piano on the album cover … we had several decorated pianos around Austin at one time for people to play. Where was that one?
Lee Harrelson took those pictures in Clarksdale, Miss. We were just drivin’ around looking for someplace to shoot pictures. I saw that piano on the side of the road sittin’ under an overhang on the street, and we just went out there and started takin’ pictures. I don’t even play piano. I can’t even play piano. But I just like the way the piano looks. It has a really nice vibe to it.
It carries the message, in a way.
Yeah. It had the words “Be the change” on it. And I thought, “Man, that’s perfect!” It went along with the positive theme of my record.
I haven’t asked anyone this question before, but I’m curious: What do you wish someone would write about you?
That’s a hard question. I wish they would — well, I don’t wish that anybody writes anything about me. Maybe hope — better than what they write about me, I hope that what they would think about me is that I’m a nice person. And that when I get onstage, I try to give the people something that they can take with them beyond just a show. I would like them to go home with a thought that will maybe help them a little bit with whatever trouble they might be havin’ in their life. I would like to be known as somebody that makes people feel good. If I could be known for anything, it’d probably be that. There’s no greater honor than to be a servant, to me. I like to be a servant to my friends, I want to be a servant to my family, be a happy servant. Yeah, the more I think about it, when I die they can put on my tombstone: “He was a happy servant.”