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Tupelo native, former boxer beats path to Helena

By JACK W. HILL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published February 13, 2014 at 2:54 a.m.

paul-thorn

Paul Thorn

Paul Thorn appreciates small towns, and their importance to legendary musical people and events. After all, Thorn is from Tupelo, Miss., and he’s proud to have become a fan of one of Arkansas’ most acclaimed musical sites.

“I love Helena, Arkansas,” he says, which he has proved by performing numerous shows, at the King Biscuit Festival (as recently as 2013) and at clubs and the town’s small former movie theater. “There’s a whole bunch of reasons why I love Helena. I became friends with Bubba [Sullivan] who has that great record store, and there are so many great people I’ve met over there.”

Thorn and his band will cross over the Mississippi River for another show Saturday night, and he promises there will be new songs. August is the target date for the release of a new album, his first since 2012, when he released What the Hell Is Goin’ On?, a collection of cover songs by the likes of Buddy Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (with the album’s title cut written by Elvin Bishop).

Thorn, 49, was born in Wisconsin, but grew up in Tupelo, where for a time he worked in a furniture factory, making chairs. He began pursuing music and boxing, but decided to concentrate on the career path less likely to result in damage from concussions. He proudly notes that he was no slacker in the ring.

“I lasted six rounds against Roberto Duran,” Thorn says. “It was an honor to get in the ring with him, and it inspired one of my songs, ‘Hammer & Nail,’ in which I asked him afterwards why he had to knock me out, and he summed it up real well; he said, ‘I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.’ I don’t know if I’ve still got all my marbles, but at least I can still sing and play my guitar. A lot of boxers don’t know when to quit, but I was fortunate thatI had people that cared about me and told me it was time to give it up.”

When his music began to attract attention, Thorn found a pal, Billy Maddox, to write songs with. There have been eight recordings so far, starting with Hammer & Nail in 1997. Thorn has gone on to open shows for John Prine, Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt, Toby Keith, Robert Cray, Sting, Huey Lewis & the News, Marianne Faithfull and Jerry Jeff Walker.

“One of my latest good things was getting to do a song on a [forthcoming] tribute album to Jackson Browne,” Thorn says. “I’m on there with Bruce Springsteen, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt and lots more. I get to sing ‘Doctor My Eyes.’”

Among Thorn’s sidelines are a variety of folk art projects - T-shirts, lunch boxes, flasks - plus a coffee table book of the paintings he no longer sells, but prefers to keep to himself.

“I used to have gallery shows, but now those are too personal for me,” he says. “That’s something that’s always been my hobby. I’m always doing it. I got encouraged to do more of it by the late Rev.Howard Finster, whose stuff was used as album covers by R.E.M. and The Talking Heads and so on.”

Thorn’s band has been with him for the long haul, with some racking up nearly20 years, Thorn reckons. In the liner notes for the CD/DVD package The Best of the Paul Thorn Band Live, Thorn writes blurbs for his band members, saying of guitarist Bill Hands, who has been around the longest: “I love him like a brother (We fight all the time.)” Of bassist Doug Kahan, Thorn says, “When he lays down a groove the joint starts jumpin’, the women start squealin’ and the men start cryin’.”

Drummer Jeffrey Perkins gets high praise: “When I’m having a bad show I will often turn my back to the audience and look at Jeffrey for a moment. He always lifts me up. His positive energy is addictive.” Keyboardist Michael Graham, also known as Dr.Love, has a singular talent Thorn salutes: “When he gets mad he can throw a suitcase farther than anybody in the whole wide world.”

Thorn is looking forward to his next visit to Phillips County, perhaps so that he can embark on another shopping trip: “The last time I played that theater there, I walked down to the thrift store in town, and found this great shirt for 50 cents. I think I may put that on especially for this show that’s coming up.”

Paul Thorn in “Live on the Levee” series

Opening act: Reba Russell Band 7 p.m. Saturday, Malco Theater, 422 Cherry St., Helena-West Helena Admission: $35 After party: 10 p.m. Saturday, party after the event, Manchester Cafe on Biscuit Row, 320 Phillips Road, Helena-West Helena; $15 per person, $25 couples (870) 572-5223 kingbiscuitfestival.com

Weekend, Pages 35 on 02/13/2014

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