"One took me to the darkness,
one led me to the light.
One showed me how to love,
one taught me how to fight.
I guess you could say I am an overachiever.
And I owe a debt of gratitude
to pimps and preachers."
- From the Paul Thorn song
"Pimps and Preachers"
Like that other singer from Tupelo, Miss., church is where it all started for Paul Thorn.
"We went to black and white churches," Thorn said. A thick Southern drawl comes across the telephone, its pitch a couple of octaves higher than his singing voice.
"The music in the black churches was rhythm-and-blues oriented and the music in the white churches was more country western. So I think how I was molded as a musician was by growing up in the churches."
A son of a Pentecostal minister, Thorn began singing in front of people when he was just 3 years old. Speaking in tongues came later. And before he entered the same profession as his hometown icon Elvis Presley, he was a fighter.
"Why do we argue? Why do we fight?
Everybody thinks God's on their side.
Just count to 10 before you throw a stone.
Whatever you believe, you might be wrong."
- "You Might Be Wrong"
Thorn says he got his "mojo" from his father and uncle, who both encouraged an indefatigable spirit for any endeavor. His two mentors' livelihoods were a contrast, but Thorn came to the conclusion that there was good and bad in everyone.
The youngster won 27 out of his 30 amateur boxing matches, good enough to turn pro. He aspired to win a world title when the middleweight was pitted against one of the sport's all-time greats, Roberto "Hands of Stone" Duran, who won by technical knockout when the young challenger was too bloody to continue. Thorn fought a few more times and with a 14-4 record he left the ring to step upon a stage.
"I gave it my all," he said. "I just didn't have the natural ability to be a champion."
"She cooked me biscuits and collard greens.
She even told me, I was her king.
But then she whispered, I'm going out.
I think I know what that's about."
"I can't sleep, I'm such a wreck.
She's got a hickey on her neck.
I'm getting worried I am gonna buy
some Jezebel a pesticide."
- "Weeds In My Roses"
Gardening is the passion of Thorn's friend, Elvin Bishop, a Tulsa, Okla., native who has lived the second half of his life in Northern California. Perhaps its because of their roots that both Thorn and Bishop's music is often been described as southern rock.
During the heyday of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, southern rock dominated radio. Bishop wrote the hit song "Fooled Around and Fell In Love," and became a nationwide star.
Thorn, self-deprecatingly titled one of his albums "Still No Hits." But he's successful enough to perform all across the country, and when he comes through California he visits Bishop, and the two chat on a porch, where the host with an acoustic guitar played his tune "What the Hell is Going On." Thorn was so moved he covered the song and used it for the title of his latest record. The entire album is comprised of songs others have written, an aberration in the career of a prolific songwriter with eight studio albums. He's a compelling storyteller with homespun wisdom and humor who carries a notepad in his back pocket.
"The hard part is getting an idea," he said.
"Well I bought me a shirt at a yard sale
just like the one Garth Brooks wears.
I'm gonna wash and blow dry my mullet
and put on some clean underwear.
Pretty soon I'm gonna make it in Nashville
but for now it will have to wait.
Because right now I'm singing karaoke
in a restaurant while everybody eats a catfish plate."
- "Honky Tonk Neanderthal"
Thorn's music can fall in different categories: country, Americana, southern rock, blues. When he's on stage, however, he transcends any musical definition. Sure, he sings songs, but he also has a conversation and rapport with the audience.
"I've got old Dean Martin shows on DVD and I study those," he said. "When I was a kid I really didn't understand the brilliance of Dean Martin but now that I am grown, I study those videos and I pick up tips from him and other people because those old-school entertainers are just fantastic and the world doesn't need to let that type of entertainment die. It will work in front of any audience. It will work in front of a blues audience or a country western audience. It's just entertainment. I consider myself an entertainer more than anything."