Mississippi-bred Paul Thorn sings of preachers, pimps, and small town America
One way to hear about the real-life effects of Capitol Hill rivalries is to read the newspaper. Or you could talk to somebody who travels to small towns for a living, entertaining the downtrodden and picking up fans along the way. Enter Paul Thorn—a Mississippi singer/songwriter who has been traversing America’s back roads for more than a decade, crafting musical stories based on the lives of the common man and pumping blood back into the heartland.
By anyone’s standards, Thorn has had a colorful life: son of a preacher, nephew of a pimp, furniture maker, and professional boxer—he’s famous for his nationally televised fight against Roberto Duran. But it wasn’t until the Southern son picked up a guitar and began giving a voice to some tunes that had been knocking around his head, that his body and soul became aligned. Thorn’s gritty tunes are full of mesmerizing, yet familiar characters, which mesh into a modern-day Robert Johnson, standing at the crossroads of America and taking notes.
There’s something so familiar and ingratiating about a Southern drawl, that every conversation with Thorn begins to sound like the soundtrack to a “Mayberry R.F.D” episode. “I went into Wal-Mart the other day to buy a fishing pole and nobody was in that department—not a soul,” says Thorn, from outside a show in Kansas City. “Nobody came up to me and said, ‘Maybe you should get this fishing pole, or try this one over here.’ Finally somebody from a completely different department came over to help me, but they didn’t know anything about fishing. I want to connect with people. I want somebody who sells me a fishing pole to tell me how great that fishing pole is!”
Treating each show like he’s running a mom-and-pop shop, Thorn promises and delivers customer satisfaction, as he’s deeply aware of how crucial personal interaction is to his success as a performer and as a human being. “People are in trouble,” he says. “People don’t have jobs. In the town I live in, everyone worked for the furniture factory. But now that the business has gone overseas to the Orient, my community’s entire means of existence has been taken away. They don’t have jobs and they’re taking their wedding rings to pawn shops to get $80 to feed their families that week.”
Thorn knows that people have to scramble to come to his concerts these days. “It’s like seeing friends I haven’t seen in a year and I like to chit-chat with them,” he says of his fans. “I learned that from my father, who was a minister—people can tell if you like them or if you’re faking it. And I ain’t faking it.”
Although Thorn’s familial roots are in Tupelo, Miss., it was in Santa Cruz that Thorn realized his dream of becoming a full-time musician. “I’m looking forward to coming back to Santa Cruz, because KPIG was the first station that really embraced me,” he says, referencing his Friday night performance at The Rio. “When my first album came out, it didn’t do anything in the big picture—but Laura Hopper, who was the program director and started the Americana format of American roots music, heard my first record and started playing it.”
Soon, Thorn had an audience that knew the words to his songs, and today that fan base has expanded across the country. “Santa Cruz is the launching pad of my music career, because it was playing there that I realized I could do this,” he says.
Paul Thorn plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19, at The Rio, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25/adv, $40/Golden Circle. 423-8209.
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