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Roots rocker digs deep into musical heritage

By JACK W. HILL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published November 29, 2012 at 3:08 a.m.

paul-thorn

Paul Thorn

— Paul Thorn’s roots rock resume includes the normal musical stuff — singer-songwriter, guitarist and bandleader — but there’s stuff on it that few other musicians get to include, such as middleweight boxer, chair maker and folk artist. And Thorn gets to proudly note that he grew up, and still lives, in Tupelo, Miss., the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

“Elvis and I have a lot in common,” Thorn says. “He grew up singing in Pentecostal churches and I grew up with a dad who preached in them. My dad preached in both black churches, where I got to hear rhythm and blues music, and at the white churches, where I heard a lot of country music.

“I learned from my father that a preacher had to do more than just preach; he also had to entertain, because you want people to come back the next week. So I learned, not necessarily to preach, but to entertain.”

And Thorn, 48, has been attracting fans to his shows since the mid-1990s, following a “day job” stint in a furniture factory making love seats and recliners, and a decade as another type of entertainer on a different type of stage — a boxing ring.

“I did that for eight years and I was good enough to be the No. 9-ranked middleweight in the United States, but I wasn’t the best in the world. I was in a nationally televised fight in 1988 against the former world champion, Roberto Duran.”

BoxRec, a boxing website, lists Thorn’s boxing statistics: 10 victories and three losses, one of which was to Duran. Thorn proudly says he lasted six rounds against Duran. After he lost, he says, he decided to get out while he still had all his wits about him.

“I took it as far as I could take it, and I have some nice memories,” he says.

Playing music became a gradual sort of job for him, he reckons, starting with a regular gig at a Tupelo pizza parlor. One night, someone saw his show and said he would send a tape of Thorn’s songs to Miles Copeland, who managed Sting and The Police.

Before long, Thorn was opening a Sting concert in Nashville, Tenn., before a crowd of 13,000. Oddly, it was the first concert Thorn had ever seen, let alone been a part of, since he grew up as a preacher’s kid. He was not nervous, thanks to having sung in churches and been in boxing rings.

In 1997, Thorn released his first CD, Hammer and Nail, the title song of which provides the lesson he learned from Duran, when he asked him why he had received such a pounding; Duran answered that “he would rather be a hammer than a nail.” Thorn followed that CD with Ain’t Love Strange in 1999, Mission Temple Fireworks Stand in 2002, Are You With Me? in 2004, A Long Way From Tupelo in 2008, Pimps and Preachers in 2010 and in May, a collection of cover songs, What the Hell Is Goin’ On?

“People were always asking me what kind of songs did I like,” he explains, “and I thought I’d take a break from myself, so to speak.”

The album includes songs written by Buddy Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, while the album’s title cut was written by Elvin Bishop, who first played the song on his front porch for Thorn.

“It’s about modern times, and wondering how people are going to make it and how there are no jobs,” Thorn says.

Thorn has also opened shows for John Prine, Marianne Faithfull, Mark Knopfler, Robert Cray and Jeff Beck.

Thorn’s touring band, which has been intact for nearly 15 years, includes guitarist Bill Hinds, keyboardist Michael Graham, bassist Ralph Friedrichsen and drummer Jeffrey Perkins.

Thorn’s artistic inclinations are just a hobby, he explains. His album covers feature his art, which has been compared to that of Howard Finster, the Georgia folk artist whose art was sometimes used on album covers by R.E.M. and other musicians.

“I started in 1988 after I met Rev. Finster,” Thorn says. “Musicians have long stretches of inactivity, and it fills up some empty hours. I don’t really sell my paintings anymore, after becoming attached to them. I own my own record company, so I use them for album covers and on my merchandise, which includes lunch boxes, flasks, shirts and a coffee table book collection of what I’ve drawn or painted.”

Paul Thorn

Opener: Rob Baird

9 p.m. Saturday, Revolution Room, 300 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock $15 advance; $20 day of show (501) 823-0090 revroom.com

Weekend, Pages 40 on 11/29/2012

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