Paul Thorn at the Ark
Sacred and secular
Singer-songwriter Paul Thorn has said that his music is "kind of like going to church with a six-pack." Thorn knows whereof he speaks. He grew up in Tupelo, MS, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, soaking up deep soul gospel music in white and black churches, but he was "dis-fellowshipped" as a teen after it came to light that he had sex with his girlfriend. He's lived a colorful life that at one point involved six rounds in the boxing ring with Roberto Duran on national television. From that experience he harvested a great song, "I'd Rather Be a Hammer (Than a Nail)." A stint working in a chair factory brought him into contact with various other characters of the Southern streets, and he chronicled their stories in song as well. He was discovered by Miles Copeland, brother of Stewart Copeland of the Police, and he attended his first concert when he opened for Sting in front of 13,000 people in Nashville.
The songs Thorn accumulated were by and large pretty funny, and he can easily play to urban crowds like those at the Ark, where he appears Friday, June 17, with cleverly satirical portraits of Southern culture. In "800 Pound Jesus" Thorn tells a tall tale of a suicide attempt cut short when the titular eight-foot-tall, rebar-and-concrete "rock of ages on our gravel road" catches the depressed victim in his arms when he leaps from a tree; the grateful narrator repays the favor by buying the statue "a flock of ceramic sheep."
Thorn has said that growing up in church was good training for a musical career because it taught him how to work a crowd. There's more than a little of the church service in Thorn's shows, with upbeat rhythms drawn from black gospel music and well-controlled interaction that takes the audience just a bit outside of its comfort zone. "How many of you are here with someone you're in a relationship with?" Thorn asked an
Ark crowd one time before announcing grimly that statistically half of those relationships wouldn't last.
And indeed most of Thorn's songs aren't played, or aren't played completely, for laughs. One of his staples is "Mission Temple Fireworks Stand," a horn-driven portrait of a black preacher who runs a tent revival and a fireworks sales outlet under the same roof. Thorn's preacher warms to his theme:
He said everything I'm selling
is all going up in smoke.
This world is like an atom bomb:
it's ready to explode.
When the trumpet sounds and the Lord comes back,
I promise you one thing:
I'll be a human bottle rocket,
and I'll go out with a bang.
Some of Thorn's songs draw on country wordplay rather than black gospel, but the mixture of humor and sharp edge is similar in songs like his new "I Don't Like Half the Folks I Love."
The songs on Thorn's latest album may be his best yet, because he let some of them come close to home. "Pimps and Preachers" tells of a man whose father was "Satan's angel" but whose uncle "worked for the Lord"--Thorn's own situation, but with the role models reversed. What becomes of the son?
Now I'm standing on the corner,
Recruiting hungry seekers.
I'm starting a new religion:
I call it Pimps and Preachers.
Its philosophy: "Get out there in the game. Don't sit up in the bleachers." Paul Thorn has certainly done that with his music, fearless and hugely entertaining at the same time.
[Originally published in June, 2011.]