by Michael Buffalo Smith
(Originally appeared in GRITZ print magazine issue #11, Summer 2005)
Paul Thorn is one of a kind. A good ol’ Southern boy who was raised in Elvis’ home town of Tupelo, Mississippi, Thorn has a mighty voice and a knack for writing songs that can make you laugh one minute and cry the next. We caught up with Paul for a one on one interview to trty an find out just where all of his Southern fried talent stems from.
Tell me about where you were born and raised?
I was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I only lived there as an infant because my Dad was a preacher and then we immediately moved into the Tupelo, Mississippi area where I have lived most all of my life.
What was it like growing up as the son of a Pentecostal preacher?
It was a good training ground for my music career. We went to a lot of black churches where the music was really good and my Dad was a flamboyant evangelistic minister. That taught me a lot about how to work a crowd and how to connect with people. It was probably one of the greatest training grounds to learn about entertainment.
When did you actually become interested in the music industry?
That would be when my girlfriend that I lived with in a trailer left me for a Marine after I cheated on her, and I brought that on myself and she had every reason to leave but when she left I was alone in the trailer a lot. So, like a lot of lonely people, I started going to bars and trying to fill that empty void in my life. Up until that point I had only played in churches. There was a black blues guitar singer there in the little joint and he knew I sang and so he asked me to get up and sing with him one night. So for the first time I sang in a secular setting and the lady that owned the club hired me. It started snowballing from there. The next thing I know I am singing in nightclubs like a lot of performers.
Tell me a little bit about working in a chair factory, and how you came to do that?
When I got out of high school, I was not a very good student and not college material. So I went straight into the chair factory. I did that and joined the National Guard and working in a chair factory. Then on my off days and nights I would get with my song writing partner Billy Maddox who was mentoring me on song writing. By the time I met him, he had just written a big song that Hank Williams Jr. had done called “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie Then I Don’t Want To Go.” Billy was this great country songwriter and he schooled me on how to put songs together.
My uncle who is a professional boxer was working with me teaching me to learn how to box. I did learn how to box quite well. It got out of hand when I started boxing because I was winning all these fights and the next thing I knew I was a nationally rated fighter. The highlight of my career was when I fought on national television against Roberto Duran.
What was the deal with that, wasn’t there a controversy over that?
What happened was when I got the fight, everyone on paper gave me no chance of winning. What really startled people was that it was a good fight. I gave a good account of myself and that kind of shocked people and they were not expecting that. The fight was scheduled for 10 rounds and I fought six rounds and gave a good account of myself for six rounds but he did cut me really badly over my eyes throughout the exchange and after the sixth round the cuts were so bad the attending doctor stopped it between the sixth and seventh. I mean he was the better fighter, and there was no doubt about it but I was in the fight and did get a lot of punches in and I did cut him above his eye and I felt good about that. I was good at boxing but did not have that extra something that made me good enough to be a world champion, but I was close. It was a wonderful experience being a boxer.
So as far as kicking it into professional gear how was it that you were discovered?
After I fought Roberto Duran and lost to him I fought for a year after that. Then I got to a point where I realized that I was pretty good but not good enough to be a champion. So instead of staying in the sport and getting hurt I just got out of it and went back into writing songs. All these years of boxing and working in the chair factory, all along I continued to write my songs. When I went back into playing my music I had this huge catalog of songs I had written.
So I was playing in the pizza restaurant in Tupelo, Mississippi and this guy came in and he worked for Miles Copeland who managed Sting and The Police. He heard me playing all these original songs and he asked me for a demo tape and said he wanted someone to hear those songs. I gave him a demo tape and didn’t think much about it. Then a few weeks later, I got a call from Miles Copeland. He was interested in flying me out to Los Angeles and talk to you about getting a record deal. So I was green as grass, and got all thrilled and excited about it. Then they flew me out to L.A. and I got signed straight out of the pizza joint and straight out of the factory. I got signed to a deal at A&M Records, was able to quit my job and got a publishing deal.
I didn’t have to work anymore and it was kind of shocking. I had a huge catalog of songs. Being a preacher’s kid I had never been allowed to go to concerts growing up, so the first time I went to a concert in my entire life was when I opened for Sting in Nashville. Right out of the factory and the pizza joint within a month’s time I was opening for Sting at this big amphitheatre in front of about 13,000 people. Everybody asked me if I was nervous, but I have to say this that I wasn’t nervous. All my life all I had ever done was stand in front of people at church performing or boxing. The only thing that always made me scared was boxing. It is a terrifying thing to know in advance that you are getting into a ring with someone who is going to try to put a hurting on you. You know?
(laughs) Yeah. It may be easier to do that than to play in front of family.
Oh, playing in front of your family is one of the most nerve racking things you will ever do. In fact, not to long ago, and it didn’t happen in the end, but I got offered an opening spot to open for Brooks and Dunn. I got offered that. To be honest, I am not a country artist and I was not crazy about doing it. I looked at the money of it and decided that for eight shows I would do it. One of the shows was in Tupelo. I decided to do all the shows except the one in Tupelo. (laughs)
I was on tour with Toby Keith a couple of years ago, one of those mainstream country tours and when I played in Tupelo, my hometown. It was a nightmare. All these people that I didn’t know all of a sudden knew me and they wanted to come to the show. It was horrible. So I was going to do these Brooks and Dunn shows but not in Tupelo.
How did you end up opening for these mainstream country folks?
How I got the Toby Keith job was Toby got one of my cd’s and just liked the songs. So I did it and it was a large experience. I hadn’t had that much fun since I got my thang caught in a ceiling fan! (laughs)
You have toured with lots of people. Who comes to your mind as one of your favorites?
Toby is the only country artist I toured with but there have been a lot of great ones. Everybody from Mark Knopler, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac, Robert Cray, Junior Brown, Marianne Faithful. I did a bunch of shows with Wishbone Ash. I am the most famous guy you have never heard of. (laughs)
Out of all those people did you make some friends out of them?
Oh yeah, I made friends with almost all of them. Most of them are really nice, but there are a few that you can’t get close to because they are too self-involved.
How long have you been doing your visual art?
I have been doing it since 1998. That started after I met the Rev. Howard Finster. He sort of pushed me to get involved and I only met him a few times but he impacted me and actually ended up singing at my wedding. I got a video of it.
I wanted to interview him but never got the opportunity.
He would have been a fun interview because he likes to talk. You might have had a hard time getting away from him because he loves to talk.
Just for fun, this infatuation with Marjoe Gortner, what is that about?
Well, there was a film that came out in the 70’s called Marjoe, and it was a documentary about this man who as a child was the world’s youngest ordained minister. He was a very charismatic kid and could preach. His parents would take him on these tent revivals and they exploited him. Because he was so young he would draw large crowds and everyone would come to see this kid preacher. His mom would sew big giant pockets into his little jacket and they would put money into these pockets. His parents would say "if you would put ten dollars into the offering plate Marjo will give you a kiss." So they made all this money off of him.
They didn’t really have their heart in the right place when they exploited him. So when he became a grown man he went back into the tent revival circuit in this movie to expose this sort of thing. I was always fascinated by that film because some of the things he experienced I myself could relate to. After he made this documentary he made some really bad movies and even tried to have a singing career but none of that ever got off the ground. So he sort of just dropped off the face of the earth and I have been trying in vain over the years to find him and maybe through this magazine it could get back to him. He is someone I would like to meet because I admired that film he made and it impacted by life.
(laughs) Everybody has a different way of writing but for you is it the music first or the lyrics?
I usually get a lyrical idea first. I will run it by Billy and then he will give me his opinion of what he thinks about the idea and then if it is good we get a guitar and plunk around with it. I have been on a dry spell for a long time. I have not written in about one year and then finally all of a sudden some things have happened through living and now I have something to draw on.
So you draw on life experiences?
I try to. One thing that has been a present thing in my life has been some people in my life that have gotten involved with crystal meth and I see how it can make bad things happen to people when they get on drugs and how it changes them.
That’s lifting people up like we talked about.
Yeah, exactly. I don’t want to write something totally down. Maybe something bad happened in the song, but I would like to give people a way out. GIve people a solution or otherwise you are just moping and bitching.
Like the songs that came out of Seattle in the 90’s. When all that hit, it was depressing to hear all that down stuff. I liked what you said about what have you done to lift somebody up?
That is the direction I want to go in. I just wrote that song, "What Have You Done To Lift Somebody Up?"
Sometimes you just have to tell it the way you feel it. Do you have more fun playing solo acoustic or playing with the band?
It is two entirely different things. I love playing with my band. I don’t guess I have a favorite and it just depends on what the night is. They are all good on a good night.
Do you tell as many stories when you are with the whole band?
Yeah, in my opinion anybody can go out and sing their songs, but I like to entertain people tell stupid jokes and just have a good time and the songs are just dressing on the cake. I like that.
Some bands just come out and play just one song to the next and no thanks or anything. If you do that, they are better off staying at home and just listening to the record.
Some of that might be that they are just nervous, or maybe they have never been in an environment that I have been in. Maybe they are just staying in their comfort zone.
Tell me about skydiving?
I have not done it in awhile, but I did have about 160 jumps. I enjoyed it and it was very dangerous and there was not much margin for error. I did it for a few years and I had a great time. I quit because I never was able to get over my fear. I was just as terrified the last time as it was the first time. It is terrifying and there is no margin for error. It’s worse than boxing really. You may get busted in the nose but there is a good chance you will walk out alive. It was something I did, that gives me another memory of being scared shitless other than boxing. (laughs) You know?
(laughs) So you are not really a professional thrill seeker then?
No, (laughs) I don’t know why I did it.
Because it was there...
I just saw some people skydiving on TV and I felt like I should try it. I am focused on my music now and as long as I can do it I am going to try to maximize that.
Tell us a little bit about the latest CD you have done and your thoughts on that...
So far my records have been this "Burn Down The Trailer Park" persona and with Are You With Me? I wanted to do something a little more melodic and I wanted to try to use horns. I got the Muscle Shoals horns and hired these girls that used to sing backup with Bob Seger. I wanted to go for that Muscle Shoals sound. Some people said it was the best thing I ever did and some people hated it. But that is a good sign because if you please everyone you will be Tim McGraw and Nelley singing together. When you see a rap artist on CMT something is going on wrong.
What’s next and what do you guys have planned?
We are shooting a concert DVD with the band is and it is going to be a long, labor of endeavor and we want to capture a really good performance and document this season in our lives and then when we are dead and gone there will be footage that we existed and that we are having a good time. Maybe they will pan out into the crowd and it will show them having a good time too and then someone in the future will see that and say that they would like to do that too.
Let’s run down a list of who’s who in the band and give them a shout out in the magazine...
The guitar player is George Heinz from Lookout Mountain, Georgia. My bass player is Doug Cahan from Nashville, and the drummer Jeffrey Perkins also from Nashville. The only other band member from my hometown Tupelo, Mississippi where I live is Michael Grail. They are all top drawer and I would put them up against anyone. We all get along great and the fun factor is really high. Times change, seasons change and people change, but when it is a pretty picture snap it. We are going to try to anyway.
How about your buddy Billy?
As I said earlier in the interview Billy is my song writing mentor. He does so much more than that. I feel sort of like a kid in the Special Olympics and when their 100 yard dash went they ran the wrong way and they got a trophy anyway. Billy is a great artist and songwriter and there is no doubt that I would even be here tonight without Billy. No doubt about it. Gotta give them their roses when they are here.