Friday evening around 6:30 Paul Thorn and his band were relaxing and eating sandwiches in the mayor”s conference room at City Hall. Thorn is an intense and muscular ball of energy who at 44 looks as though he could go a few rounds with a middleweight boxer.
It wouldn”t be the first time. Years ago Thorn famously went mano a mano with Roberto Duran. Though he may have lost the fight, Thorn came away from the experience far from empty handed. As he has done before and since, Thorn converted pain into art with the song, “A Hammer and a Nail.”
The band members, mostly Nashville pros, were idly finishing their food and doing what touring musicians do a lot of, killing time. A woman police officer from the CPD came in and Thorn”s drummer asked her to handcuff and blackjack a fellow band member. “He wants to see how it feels.”
Thorn was talking with a friend while finishing a small bag of Lay”s Potato Chips and a Gatorade. As the friend left Thorn called after him, “I”m glad you stopped by, but I”m not sure why.”
Thorn”s quick, offbeat and uncensored wit has made him a darling of talk shows including Late Night with Conan O”Brien. Last year I happened to hear a Bob Edwards interview with Thorn on XM Radio. Topics that morning ranged from a long-ago girlfriend from church camp to Thorn”s short-lived boxing career to a discussion of doggie bras. Edwards said later the interview generated the largest response of anything he had done.
Thorn is one of those stand-alone geniuses Mississippi seems to produce with disproportionate frequency. The deep South offers a fecund soil for hothouse flowers such as Thorn. Here, away from the pressures and influences found in the urban North, they are able to mature in their own way at their own speed.
The son of a Pentecostal preacher, an hour laborer in a Tupelo chair factory and an erstwhile pro boxer, this trailer park troubadour, as he”s been called, takes the classic themes of unfulfilled dreams, cheatin” hearts and lost love and imbues them with the redneck ethos of northeast Mississippi where he”s spent most of his life.
With humor and pathos, Thorn tells musical stories that in turn ask us to examine our lives.
In “When the Long Road Ends,” Thorn eschews the story; instead he looks us straight in the eye and asks …
Who were you loyal to?
What were you passionate about?
What did you believe in,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt?
Who were your teachers?
Did you have one true friend?
These are things worth knowing,
When the long road ends.
I look down at my children,
And they look up to me.
Each day I pray for wisdom;
To be the father I should be.
Thorn co-writes his songs with Billy Maddox of Sulligent, Ala., and they record there in a studio they own together. Fiercely independent, Thorn has little need for the star-making machinery of the record labels. “Instead of making a penny a CD, I make $15,” he said. The name of his Sulligent-based record company is Perpetual Obscurity Records.
Much like the singer songwriter Lucinda Williams, who enjoys a devout but far from mainstream following, Thorn continues to build a fan base through the energy of his live performances. According to his Web site, the Paul Thorn Band has 12 bookings in May, three of those as the opening act for Bonnie Raitt.
Thorn is a brilliant and uninhibited talker.
Friday night during his Market Street performance, he had to ad lib while his drummer made repairs.
“Right down here in front is a woman in a polka-dot miniskirt,” he said. “She”s wearing a T-shirt that says, ”I love boxed wine.”
“If I weren”t married, I”d ask her to go with me to the Dairy Queen.
“As it is, we”ll just have to settle for being one another”s fantasy.”
Look for that polka-dot miniskirt in a future song.
At another point in the show, he asked if anyone in the audience would bring him and his band a funnel cake. A 10-year-old named Dylan obliged. Between songs Thorn munched on the sugared pastry. Later in the performance, Thorn gave his young benefactor a jar of pickled pig”s feet.
The preacher”s son is nothing if not irreverent when it comes to organized religion.
“You”re going to hell if you don”t buy my CD,” Thorn told the crowd.
Thorn has a sermon or two of his own, even if it”s not hellfire and brimstone.
“Most organized religion is like a steel hammer that”s used to beat us down and make us feel perpetually guilty and unworthy” Thorn has said in an interview. “I”m not about that. When folks hear my music or see my show I want them to walk away with a healthy dose of joy.”
Friday night I”d say the Reverend got his wish.
Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]