Paul Thorn: Living the Blessed Life of a Southern Troubadour
Paul Thorn’s new album Too Blessed to Be Stressed stakes out new territory for the popular roots-rock songwriter and performer. He explains it this way: “This time, I’ve written 10 songs that express more universal truths, and I’ve done it with a purpose: to make people feel good.”
I sat down with Thorn before a nearly sold performance of the Southern Troubadours — an acoustic evening featuring him and fellow masters of storytelling, Ruthie Foster and Joe Ely. Thorn’s trademark humor is abundant throughout the album and he is notorious for raunchy tales at his shows, filled with dubious characters, so finishing an interview without breaking down in laughter was a notable task, but one that offered a deeper insight into this gifted artist.
Rick Bowen: How long have the Southern troubadours been out on the road?
Paul Thorn: This only the third or fourth show of this run and it’s been a ton of fun.
Who put this together? Are you three old friends?
A combination of managers and booking agents. I met Ruthie at a festival in Canada some years ago and Joe at another one, and we got acquainted and had this idea to do a show in the round. We just tried it and people like it and seemed to want more of it. Our managers and agents got in touch with these performing art theaters. It’s been good so far.
Nice to take a break from the band.
I like to do something different every once in a while. I mostly tour with the band, but I enjoy doing something different. It’s really good to sit and listen to two other artists and hear what they do. It’s inspirational for me. When you’re a musician and travel all the time you get to see anything. So I get enjoy Ruthie and Joe every night, they’re great
Is it a challenge to play solo, versus with the band?
Not really. Having a band came later in my life. I’ve had the same band for twenty years but prior to that I played mostly solo acoustic. My father is a Pentecostal minister so since I was three years old I’ve sung in church and been real comfortable being in front of people. I don’t get any jitters about being on stage.
Bill Hinds your guitar player does most of the heavy lifting in the band, he’s a monster player. It must be tough to step into those shoes to fill out the tunes.
That’s right. There are so many great guitar players that have big names and are great, like Eric Clapton, Warren Haynes, and Hendrix. They are all house hold names, but I honestly believe that Bill is just as good. He can hang with anybody. I hope that as this thing that I do grows he will become more of a name as a guitar player. People need to know about him.
Your whole band is powerful. It’s in your bio how singer songwriter albums can be dull, but you focus on having a band sound.
The reason it sounds like a band is, it is my band. It’s not a bunch of session players. You know when you have professional studio musicians play on your record it will sound amazing. But it will not sound like a band. That is one of the things I take pride in that our records do sounds like a band. My producer slash songwriting partner Billy Maddox. I give him a lot of credit for how the records sound. Him and my keyboard player slash engineer Michael Graham.
Everybody has a couple jobs then. I met your drummer-slash-road manager.
My drummer comes out to be my road manager when I do my acoustic thing. He’s real good at that stuff.
Everybody has a couple hats to wear.
It’s like if you’re working at McDonalds and your job may be to keep the hamburgers flipped, but somebody may need help over there getting the chicken strips out. Jump in where you fit in and try to be helpful.
You have one foot in the blues world and another in rock and country. Do you find it hard to find a niche? Or do you just do your music and not worry about it.
The second one. I do my music and try not worry about it. You know I’m not a Blues artist but I’ve noticed when you go to a Blues festival, the people that I see mostly at those festivals are middle aged people up to old people. You don’t see young people. They are there for one reason: to be entertained. You know and sometimes, as much as I love the blues, after a while every song starts to sound the same. There’s nothing wrong with (starts to sings blues riff) nothing wrong with that, but if you hear ten songs in a row like that it gets a little boring to be honest. So one of the things that has been a strength for us is we have a bluesy side, but I’m a singer songwriter. But if the people out in front like it we do ok. There might be somebody out there complaining “This ain’t the blues!”- no, it’s really not. It seems to be something that people like and why I’ve gotten invited to the party. So I’m just glad to be here.
You are telling real stories and that is truth behind Blues, Country and real American music.
I try to tell as much truth as I can without getting myself into divorce court.
[laughs] I’ve heard your records. Your wife must have thick skin.
Yeah she does. Nobody tells all the truth. If we did we wouldn’t have any friends.
You are like a man on mission with the new record. You say you’re out to make people feel happy with songs that are uplifting like ‘Everything IS Gonna Be Ok,” mixed with a little socio political comment on ones like ‘Mediocrity Is King.’
It seems like there are more sad songs than there is anything, and there is a place for that. But I’m in a blessed season of life right now. My family is healthy. My career keeps growing. Everything is good. I felt like I wanted write a bunch of songs that said that. Most of the songs on the record “Too Blessed To Be Stressed,’ are saying that. There’s a little bit of commentary about the condition of the world, but it’s all constructive. There’s no point in criticizing something just for the sake of being critical. You want it to be constructive and hope that the listener will say “oh yeah, I thought that too, but you singing it makes me want to do it.”
Give power to the people.
That phrase “I am to blessed to be stressed,” was from a lady I used to go to church with. She would always say that when she would enter the church. It stuck in my mind, and wanted to make it into a song because most people, if you examine your life, there is more good in your life than bad. That is what I was trying to get across in this record. I did my best to say that.
I tried to make all the songs real sing along. I tried to make the choruses real simple. Because one the things I love is to do a show and hear people start singing along. The opening track ‘Everything Is Gonna Be All Right,’ is so easy to sing. When the listener starts singing it, it puts a little something positive into them they didn’t have before.
That goes back to church and the tradition of singing together.
You know when I was kid I heard this sound coming down the aisle, you know the church was real quiet. This swoosh, swoosh, and I turned around and this good looking women was coming down the aisle and her panty hose brushing together making this swoosh swoosh sound. I said “I’m too blessed to be stressed.”
That is one of your calling cards- the great stories in between the great songs. Did you fall into that naturally or did someone teach you that?
My father was a preacher and my uncle was a pimp. Those two men were both very charming and very quick on their feet. They had tons of stories. A lot of that stuff I do I got from them. I just grew up around the whole story telling thing of taking a story and slightly exaggerating it for entertainment. That kind of story telling seem to thrive down in the Mississippi area.
Do you think having built in southern charm helps you deliver the message in your music a bit easier?
I don’t know. I think anybody anywhere can get it across if they are sincere. If you’re saying it and you don’t mean it, people see it. You got to be sincere and mean what you’re singing. I try not to be mean spirited and do anything that is hurtful to someone. I like to make jokes, but I generally make fun of myself first. That’s what is funny. When you make fun of yourself the listener out there will know exactly what you are talking about because they are guilty of the same stuff.
Where do you get the characters for some of these stories?
Well they‘re people I know. You can ask me anything about some of these songs and can tie it back to a person I know or an event that actually happened. My family is, shoot! And my friends they are not decent people. [Both laugh.] It’s easy to smile in a family photo because you only got to hold it for two seconds. Then you can go back to being mad again.
Rick J Bowen