Paul Thorn – No, Mas!
For a guy who grew up in the hometown of Elvis, was washed in the Blood of the Lamb, went six rounds with Roberto Duran, received pointers from Howard Finster, made three sterling discs of gospel-fueled R&B and southern countrified soul and has toured with Sting, John Hiatt, Jools Holland, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler and Toby Keith, Paul Thorn has somehow managed to stay below the general public’s radar.
The son of Reverend Wayne Thorn, Paul began performing in public at the age of 3, regularly singing and testifying in front of the Church Of God congregation (and on his parents’ TV show, “His & Company”).
In his teens, Thorn was coached in the art of fisticuffs by his uncle Merle, a professional fighter. Debuting with a couple of knockouts in a local tournament, Paul got the fever for it, he admits. “I turned professional, beat a series of fighters, and all of a sudden I was #29 in my weight class.”
Thorn got a call to fight Duran on an HBO card in April 1988 at the Tropicana in Atlantic City. Duran, who had held the WBC lightweight, welterweight and junior middleweight titles at various times in the ’70s and ’80s, was in the autumn of his career, but still a formidable enough opponent (he captured the WBC middleweight crown less than a year after fighting Thorn).
“The fight was scheduled for ten rounds, and I was so in awe of him that in the first round, I more or less just laid back to see what he was up to,” Thorn recalls. “In the second round — when we actually started throwin’ blows — he caught me with a right and knocked me down, but I got right back up, and I was so pumped that I didn’t even know I’d got knocked down. He split my lip, but I thought, ‘Heck, this ain’t so bad,’ and I started fightin’ him, and I cut him over his eye.”
Thorn landed more punches and made a decent showing, but he took worse than he gave and, by the end of the sixth round, cuts over both eyes, a split lip and a bad cut under his mouth caused the fight to be stopped — a TKO for Duran.
Thorn continued to fight for another year before returning to Tupelo and taking a job at a chair factory. For the next twelve years, he wrote songs while installing seat springs by day, picking up gigs at area venues by night.
“I was singin’ in a pizza restaurant when I got discovered by somebody who worked for Miles Copeland,” he says, “and they flew me out to L.A., signed me to A&M, and we made a record.”
But A&M was in the midst of the first of several corporate takeovers, and by the time Hammer And Nail was released in 1997, the label was effectively de-clawed. Thorn drew an opening slot for Sting, but with little promotion, the record died on the vine.
Thorn and partner/co-writer Billy Maddox then formed Perpetual Obscurity Records, releasing Thorn’s Ain’t Love Strange (a rollicking gumbo of soul, blues-rock and country gospel) in 2001. The disc was critically acclaimed, and Thorn’s catalog yielded some unlikely mainstream country cuts (for Toby Keith, Sawyer Brown and Billy Ray Cyrus). He continued to land enviable touring gigs, but minimal distribution limited sales largely to concert venues and Thorn’s trunk.
Thorn and Maddox finally landed a distribution and publicity deal with Virgin’s roots/Americana subsidiary Back Porch Records, which released Thorn’s new disc, Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, in August.
Coincidentally, country megastar Keith had become a dedicated fan of Thorn’s songs and invited him to open 30 dates of his high-profile summer/fall 2002 tour as a solo acoustic act. “Of course, I said yes,” Thorn says, somewhat bemused, “but although I’m very happy to be on this tour and flattered to be asked, I’m definitely not a country artist.”
Aware that he’s a fish out of water on the Keith dates, Thorn carefully pruned his set list, focusing on some of his more humorous, attention-getting tunes. “I’ve tried to keep it real upbeat,” he says, “and it’s been workin’ real good. I’ve been selling a lot of CDs, it’s been interesting, and it’s brought me some positive exposure to a new, large audience.”
Along the way, Thorn was inspired/influenced by the humble, energetic work of legendary folk artist Howard Finster (who sang and played his own “I’m Just Another Tack In The Shingle Of Your Roof To Hold Your House Together” at Thorn’s wedding), and he began adding drawings and paintings to his eclectic resume. He’s been increasingly involved in the artwork for each of his discs, culminating with the cover painting on Mission Temple Fireworks Stand.
Thorn’s muscular, gutbucket music deserves to be heard, but the Thorns won’t go hungry in the meantime. If push comes to shove, he can always raise your roof, fix your chair, decorate your wall or (if you aren’t Roberto Duran) clean your clock.