Home, for Thorn, is Tupelo, Miss. That City Weekly finds the road-hardened singer-songwriter here is and isn’t a surprise. He was born here about 43 years ago, and you know how some folks like to die in the same spot they were born. Thorn seems to be one of those guys, but he’s nonetheless calling his sixth set of roots-rock tunes A Long Way From Tupelo (PaulThorn.com).
Distance, however, can be figurative. So is life experience. In his time, Thorn has been a preacher’s son, a professional boxer and a troubadour. Each required some travel, whether or not it entailed movement. You see where this is goin’? A guy can go on a journey without leavin’ his front yard. That’s the crux of Thorn’s songwriting style: experience.
As a boy, Thorn sowed his musical oats singing and playing tambourine while his daddy worked his flock into a spiritual tizzy. It was his first paid gig—he earned enough money to buy his crush a Coke. His boxing days were a detour. He was good enough to fight Roberto Duran on national TV in 1987 but eventually returned to his first love, music, when his cousin—then the keyboard player in Parliament-Funkadelic—introduced him to songwriter Billy Maddox (“If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie, I Don’t Want to Go”). Maddox would collaborate with Thorn on his debut album Hammer and Nail (A&M, 1997) up through A Long Way from Tupelo and, later, become his manager. It’s all very cinematic.
“A song should be like a movie,” says Thorn. It should have a beginning, a middle and an ending. You should show some progress in the end.” Thorn’s arc is pronounced, and a little jagged, but it—and his songs—show growth. “I’ve lived a little,” he says, drawling in his best Tupelo drawl, “My songs are like hand sanitizer—they’re about 99.9 percent [true].”
So when he fires up his voice—gravelly like Springsteen’s and as earthily spiritual as John Gorka’s—and sings his imageless films about home, the characters, places and situations (wherever they are and wherever they transpired) that make home “home,” he sings with conviction. Drawing on experiences of providing pulpit percussion and pugilistic punishment—or just playing his songs in Anybar, USA—Thorn crafts scenes that evoke the most stirring moments of our own lives and teach us lessons along the way.
“The thing that gave me my musical ability,” he says, “was growin’ up and hearin’ all the great music in church. It’s just really great music. I developed an ability, as a child, to play in front of people … it was such a building block.”
In a way, he’s preachin’—only his chapel is often a smoky bar. But it’s all the same to Thorn who may be a long way from Tupelo but never far from home.
“The story of Jesus says clearly that he went to church when he was a kid, and when he was a grown man, he quit goin’ because he wasn’t gettin’ anything out of it anymore,” Thorn says. “Then he just kinda went out and started hangin’ out with people and talkin’ to them in a nonjudgmental fashion … listenin’ to their stories. And he had compassion for them because he understood what people went through that led them to where they were. So that’s what I kinda do. The only time I go to church now is when somebody dies. Because I get my spiritual food, for the most part, out in the world.”
Rock & Blues Festival @ Snowbird on Saturday, Aug. 2, 5:30 p.m.