By Lynne Margolis
“Paul Thorn may be the best kept secret in the music business. He and writing partner Billy Maddox turn out songs like a Mississippi Leiber & Stoller that put me in mind of Harry Crews creations — absolutely Southern, absolutely original, full of heart and humor and surprises and streetwise details of trailer parks and turnip greens and love and lust that have the unmistakable ring of truth. And he sings them with the soul and pure joy of a true artist.” — Kris Kristofferson
That description is as good as any for this son of a Pentecostal preacher who began singing at tent revivals and collecting coins in a tambourine at age 3. Thorn learned early on how to turn every Southern-culture-on-the-skids experience into alternately hilarious and moving tales of trailer-park lust, lover’s vacations, dying heroes, undying love, damnation, salvation and the many roads to redemption, all dressed up in righteous rock ‘n’ roll. His set-ups and songs are delivered in full-on Southern hick mode, but don’t let his Tupelo, Miss.-born cornpone accent fool you for a minute. He’s a serious student of human nature whose preacher-man cadences and rise-up messages really will grab your soul.
“I stand for anybody who’s passionate,” Thorn says. Whether it’s the passion of fire and brimstone or the passion of illicit love affairs, it’s all fodder for Thorn’s stories — and his visual art; Thorn also paints. Several of his albums feature his work, done in a cartoonish style resembling that of the late Rev. Howard Finster, who first inspired him with just two words: “Do something.” The famed reverend (and album illustrator for both R.E.M. and the Talking Heads) wound up singing at Thorn’s wedding before passing away.
Thorn’s life is filled with similarly eclectic chapters, such as his televised bout with Roberto Duran during his professional boxing days, and his discovery by Miles Copeland, manager of Sting and the Police. Since Thorn turned to music full time in 1997, he’s more likely to be found on public radio stations than Saturday night matches, and that’s just fine with him. He’s also proudly independent; while still on good terms with Copeland, Thorn started his own label, Perpetual Obscurity, several years ago. Despite the name, he’s been steadily gaining fans, several of whom became Thorn converts after hearing him perform on one of the three Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches cruises he’s been invited on. We spoke (and laughed) just after spending a week cruising the Mexican Riviera on Sandy Beaches cruise No. 14, just two weeks before the release of his latest album, A Long Way From Tupelo.
Your new album’s title is taken from a song about a guy whose car breaks down in the middle of the country outside of Tupelo, Miss. He meets a woman and they wind up having an affair. I take it that’s not based on you, correct?
Just about everything I write about is based on something. It’s like a fantasy, sort of. Even when you got a man you love, and you really love him, no question, you still may fantasize about someone else. … If a woman tells me I’m the only man she thinks about, that’s a bald-faced lie. In that case, I don’t want her, because she’s a liar.
What about “What Have You Done to Lift Somebody Up?”
I have a thing I like to do. I like to remind people that all they need to do to spread happiness is be kind. It’s really easy to make people feel good if you just pay attention. … the way to make somebody’s day is something so simple, like telling them how much you like their hairstyle. … It’s become such a negative society we live in, I just wanted to put that song out there”
A lot of your song intros take on a preaching cadence and your messages are often steeped in religious tones. Does that come from your preacher father?
I’m a lot like my father, no doubt about it. He spent his whole life helping others and still does. … My music’s kind of like going to church with a six-pack.
You once told me about your encounter with Howard Finster at his Paradise Gardens (in Georgia). Explain again how he affected your work?
He inspired me as a visual artist. Technically, he wasn’t very good, but what made his art powerful was the strong message he tried to get across. He believed in heaven and hell and the struggle to do good vs. the struggle to do evil. I don’t necessarily have the same vision as Howard but I have my own vision. … You’re trying to say something through an art form.
I see you’re going to be playing at the Dallas House of Blues in March. Have you ever tried to get any of your artwork in one of their collections?
The House of Blues (is) kind of like a Cracker Barrel with music. I like Cracker Barrels. But I think they don’t change their collection once they put it up when they open.
You named your record label Perpetual Obscurity. Do you feel like you’ve been laboring in obscurity?
Well, I’ve been doing this as a full-time thing since 1997. The thing that keeps me going is that every year since I started it, it’s gotten bigger. … I’d rather have it slowly get bigger than suddenly get smaller.
How did you wind up getting on the Delbert cruise?
I’ve been on it three times (2005, 2006 and 2008). How I got on the Delbert cruise. One day I was working out at the gym. And my cell phone rang and I picked it up. And it was this guy on the other end and he says, “Hi. This is Delbert McClinton. I heard your album and I want to know if you want to come on my cruise.” I went the first time and he had me back two times since then.
What’s the attraction?
Well, first of all, I get to perform with a living icon, Delbert McClinton, who has taken me under his wing and has helped me a lot. I get to hear other musicians. I get to meet all of them and hang out with them.
Do you do much collaborating with other artists when you’re on the cruise?
When I’m on the cruise, I don’t write. I do my shows. And the rest of the time I hang out with my family. As much as I love the music business, that’s the one thing I don’t love — not getting to spend enough time with my family.
Billy Maddox has been your right-hand guy/co-writer for a long time. What about the rest of the band. Are they pretty solid?
I’ve had the same band for years. We’ve been together a long time. [They’re described on his MySpace page as follows: Paul Thorn: vocals (the important ones), songwriter, acoustic and electric guitars, life coach, theopolitiphilosophist, main guy; Billy Maddox: songwriter, record producer, every music business job description you can think of, carnival barker, other main guy; Jeffery Perkins: drums, mayor, incendiary device, gospel singer; Doug Kahan: bass, vocals, stunt driver, shape-shifter, exotic dancer; Michael Graham: keyboards, studio engineer, resident expert, black-ops; Bill Hinds: acoustic, electric, and slide guitars, vocals, zen-skeptic, moisture.]
You’ve been able to stay out of Nashville, out of L.A. You’re not exactly a Texas troubadour although you kind of fit in. Do you think you’re better off when you stay out of the industry hot spots and in your own area?
Well, when you’re an independent artist you really don’t need that. When I put a record out, I hire a publicist, I hire somebody to distribute my record. I get all the things I need when I got a record out, but other than that, I don’t really need to be in any of the music cities because I got my own studio here where I live and there’s not anything I really need. Well, now, I take that back. I did just do a string of shows in New York. I did it for press because if you really want to get noticed in the broader world, you have to have a presence in New York or Los Angeles because that’s where the main press and television is. March 19, we’re doin’ the Conan O’Brien show. And I don’t have a date yet, but we’re doin’ the Jimmy Kimmel show, too. And we’re doin’ the NPR stuff like All Things Considered. You familiar with that?
Oh, sure! Yeah.
But I had to go to New York and play a small show two or three nights in a row to get all the writers out who write for the national publications, and the TV talent buyers. It’s a whole lot of things that go into it, so in answer to your question, I do go to a lot of the music cities where they do the things. I don’t choose to live there. I go there when I need to go there.
You’ve been a public radio/Americana/college station darling for most of your career …
I guess so.
Has that served you pretty well?
Yeah. It’s like water drippin’ on a rock. It’s just been drippin’ a long time and it eats through the rock eventually. Like I said, I never took any giant leaps forward, but I’ve always took little steps, every day, it seems like. There isn’t any one thing that puts you on the map. I live in Tupelo, Miss., a small town, you know, people here, they might hear that I’m gonna be on the Conan O’Brien show. In their minds, that means I’ve made it. You know what I mean? In their minds, they say, “Oh, well, you’re off to the races now,” not knowing that, yeah, it’s nice to be on the Conan O’Brien show, and it’ll create a little buzz for about a day, and then it’s forgotten.
You’ve never done Conan before?
No, I have not. And I’m lookin’ forward to it. It’s a good show. I’m just sayin’, one appearance like that doesn’t necessarily change your world. It’s not any one thing that’s gonna make anybody successful. It’s gonna have to be a bunch of little things.
Now here’s a question that writers like to ask and artists hate to answer, but I’ll ask anyway: If you had to describe your music, how would you do it?
Well, 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? I don’t know what it is. It’s American rock ’n’ roll, for lack of a better term. I don’t really know. You’re right, it is a hard question because I don’t know what — it’s so much better if someone else tells me what I am.
OK, you’ve given me my Texas opening here with that mention of ZZ Top.
Hey, I’ve got lots of references about Texas, I mean, you know (his cell signal drops out, but eventually returns). Yeah, I’m familiar with the Texas scene. I’ve done a ton of shows opening up for Robert Earl Keen; Jerry Jeff Walker actually recorded one of my songs (“Where I Was”). I know all those cats. I know … I don’t know if Rodney Crowell’s a Texas guy or not …
He is! He’s a Texas native.
I’ve done a bunch of shows with Rodney. I know all those guys. Every time I’ve came to Texas I’ve always had a great time. People have been real nice. I guess the glitch in my Texas thing is I just haven’t played there very often. But I’m actually playin’ South by Southwest this year. I got that comin’ up.
Oh, you are? Do you know when your slot is?
Not of the top of my head, but I’ve definitely got that happening.
Well, that’s a really good place to get noticed. I’ll make sure I look out for ya. But anyway, you mentioned Lawrence Welk and ZZ. Lawrence Welk, you’re sayin’ that for laughs, I suppose … I don’t hear too much polka in your music. Now about ZZ, they’re good old Southern boys …
There is polka. Polka dots! (He’s referring to a line about a “blue and white polka-dot mini-skirt” in “Ain’t Love Strange.” On the cruise, several women donned polka-dotted outfits and danced onstage during the song.)
You know what I always thought would be really cool? Because you and Fred Eaglesmith have some of the same kind of stand-up comedian aspects to your music. I thought it would be really cool to hear you guys together sometime.
I just spent the last week with Fred.
So you two hung out together (on the ship)?
Yeah, we’re friends. When we were in (Puerto Vallarta) Mexico on our last shore excursion, I bought a Mexican wrestling mask. And I saw Fred walking down the street and he didn’t see me and I started charging and running toward him and he didn’t know who I was. I scared the shit out of him. I ran up to him like I was gonna jump on him and beat him up and right when I got up to him I stopped and stuck my hand out and said “Hey man, it’s Paul!” and his eyes were big as half-dollars.
You should have worn it onstage one night. That would have been really interesting.
You know what? I’m not makin’ this up. The last night, the last show we did, me and my entire band came out onstage for the encore wearin’ Mexican wrestling masks.
I missed it! ‘Cause I sat through part of that show. Damn.
Yeah. Right before the encore, we came out with our wrestling masks on.
Did you do any surf guitar like Los Straitjackets?
No, I don’t do dat. I don’t play guitar well enough.
That’s a good thing, actually.