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Something to Write About: Paul Thorn, March 8 at the Redstone Room PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 02 March 2011 09:59

Paul ThornThe cliché says that good writers mostly write what they know, so it’s little wonder that Paul Thorn has crafted an under-the-radar career as a respected songwriter and performer.

The title of his 2010 album is Pimps & Preachers, and he speaks of both from experience: His father was a minister, and his uncle was a pimp. “When I was a kid, them was the two guys that I hung around a lot,” Thorn said in a phone interview this week. “I got to witness what went on on both sides of the tracks of life – the dark and the light side of life.”

That uncle also taught the future songwriter to box and served as his trainer, and in 1988 Thorn fought (and lost to) Roberto Durán, considered one of the sport’s greats. Thorn also used to skydive.

In the mid-1990s, Thorn was plucked from a day job in a furniture factory and a regular gig singing in a pizza joint, signed to a major-label contract. And the first concert he ever attended was a Sting show – at which he was the opening act.

He met and befriended the famed outsider artist Howard Finster a few years later, and that inspired the singer/songwriter to seriously pursue his own artwork; Thorn did the cover painting for Pimps & Preachers and has a coffee-table book of the same name. Finster sang at Thorn’s wedding.

As eventful as his adult life has been, Thorn’s roots are clearly in his youth in Mississippi – where he still lives. He performed in church from the age of three, and his father’s brother gave him something different. After a decade without contact, his uncle re-entered the family’s life shortly after he’d given up pimping – when Thorn was around 12. “He had an awakening one day that what he was doing was wrong,” Thorn recalled. “But even though he left it behind ... he still had that ingrainment of being a pimp and being a petty criminal, basically. He shared a lot of that street wisdom with me. ...

“Thanks to the mentorship I got from my father and my uncle, I do pretty well with just about anybody.”

When Thorn was 17, a cousin introduced him to Billy Maddox, a successful country songwriter. Maddox took Thorn under his wing, and the two have been songwriting partners for the past three decades – including on all of Thorn’s albums.

“I guess I just had better-than-average talent,” the 46-year-old Thorn said when asked why Maddox chose to work with him. “I guess my ideas were good, and he just thought I had potential. He just wanted to nurture somebody, and I was the fortunate recipient of that.”

Thorn said a lot of songwriting boils down to experience and patience. “I spend most of my time waiting on a good idea,” he said. “I could write a song every day, but I can’t write a good one every day, because good ideas are few and far between. You have to live a little bit of life and let something happen, so you have something to write about.”

Although he started on a major label, Thorn has built his career slowly and steadily. His A&M Records debut was released in 1997, but it wasn’t until 2008 that he hit the Billboard charts – A Long Way from Tupelo hit number 191 on the U.S. album chart. Pimps & Preachers peaked at number 83, and also hit number 24 on the rock-albums chart.

Paste magazine praised the way the singer/songwriter’s latest album “mixes gospel themes with his rootsy rock ’n’ roll. The sacred and the profane pair nicely here, driven by Thorn’s dusky voice and subtle, often self-deprecating wit ... .”

(That wit was evident when Thorn deadpanned this warning to Quad Cities residents: “My dad’s a preacher, and ... if they know about the show and they don’t come, they’re going to Hell.”)

Thorn doesn’t consider himself a great songwriter, but he said he knew that music was his calling, comparing it to his stint as a professional boxer. “I think that’s why I’ve been more successful as a singer [than a boxer], because I don’t have the fear,” he said. “To be great at anything, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to have confidence in your ability.”

There is some anxiety, he noted: “When I stand on stage and sing a new song I’ve written, I have that fear: Is the crowd going to like this song? ... After I sing it a few times, I can tell you whether it’s going to become part of my show or not. If it doesn’t hit people ... I’ll basically just put it to rest.”

But there’s no stage fright for Thorn – even when he opened for Sting at his very first concert. “I’ve been in front of people singing my whole life,” he said. “The only difference I saw was it was a bigger crowd than I’d ever played in front of. ... Standing in front of people singing was probably what I was put here to do.”

Paul Thorn will perform on Tuesday, March 8, at the Redstone Room (129 Main Street in Davenport). The show starts at 8 p.m., and Paige Popejoy opens. Tickets are $12 and available from RedstoneRoom.com.

For more information on Paul Thorn, visit PaulThorn.com.

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