Paul Thorn

Paul Thorn
“Don’t Let The Devil Ride” biography

“This is the culmination of my whole life in music, coming back to my gospel roots,” says Paul Thorn about his newest album, Don’t Let the Devil Ride. “My message on this record is ‘let’s get together’—I want to help lighten your load and make you smile.”
The son of a preacher man, Mississippi-raised Thorn spent much of his childhood in church, participating in multiple weekly services with his father as well as at neighboring African American congregations, where he became entranced with the music whose infectious spirit is captured on the new album.
Don’t Let the Devil Ride collects soulful songs originally cut by black southern gospel groups, and features guests Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, the Preservation Hall Jazz Horns, and Bonnie Bishop.
The album was recorded at three temples of sound: the Sam C. Phillips Recording studio, whose namesake gave another son of Tupelo his start; at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where Thorn worked as a songwriter for legendary producer Rick Hall early in his career; and at Preservation Hall, where horn players from the celebrated jazz venue lent songs a New Orleans vibe.
The new release marks Thorn’s first time recording gospel music, after a dozen albums in roots-rock mode, though his upbringing has previously been reflected in his creation of a body of strikingly original songs. In his own songwriting, Thorn often addresses the foibles of human relationships, although he doesn’t favor the sacred over the profane.
As an accomplished painter, former professional boxer, and seasoned skydiver, Thorn has never shied away from new challenges, but cutting a gospel record was just like going home.
Thorn’s father Wayne was a bishop in the Church of God of Prophecy, a Pentecostal denomination, and Thorn was just three when he began singing and playing tambourine at services. Congregational participation was valued more than skilled soloists, and Thorn also found a showcase for his talents at Saturday night “singings.”
But his most memorable musical experiences were at an African American branch of his father’s church, the Okolona Sunrise Church of Prophecy. “There might be ten people playing the tambourine, but the rhythm was locked in, and they’d let me play bass. I loved the Appalachian gospel of my parents’ church, but it was a treat to play with those musicians. They worshiped in a different way and the music was different, and I feel blessed to have been in that church setting.”
The sermons in Church of God of Prophecy churches warned sinners of fire and brimstone, and it wasn’t uncommon for congregants to speak in tongues. But the lasting legacy for Thorn wasn’t a strong sense of guilt, as it was for many others who grew up in Pentecostal churches. “I think that they use guilt to intimidate you, but I don’t buy into that anymore. There ain’t no love in that.”
Instead he continues to be inspired by the strong sense of communion that was fostered by musical fellowship. “One of things that I take a lot of pride in is that I love everybody, and what I learned in church paid dividends. When I’m up there entertaining it’s also a glimpse of what my life has been, and how gospel music has molded me into who I am.”
Thorn’s parents wouldn’t allow him listen to secular music at home (in his teens, he had to hide his only two LPs - Elton John and Huey Lewis - from his father), so he listened at friends’ houses to Kiss, Peter Frampton and the bawdy “chitlin’ circuit” comedy albums that he credits with inspiring the dark sense of humor that pervades his lyrics. But gospel music remains Thorn’s most abiding musical touchstone, the sounds that first stirred his soul.
He was just 14 when sometime gospel artist Elvis Presley died - “the world stood still in Tupelo,” he recalls - and while the King’s records weren’t a major influence, Thorn emphasizes the similarity of their early experiences.
“Elvis literally went to a lot of the same churches I did. It’s almost identical how we started. When they filmed him from the waist up, it wasn’t vulgar, it was the moves he learned in church, dancing in the spirit.”
At 18 Thorn was caught sneaking out his bedroom window to romance a young neighbor, and his father presented the ultimatum of publicly repenting or “disfellowship” - losing his church membership. He chose the latter, and immediately took out a loan to buy a trailer (where he lived ‘in sin’ with that girlfriend), landed a full-time job at a furniture factory, and joined the National Guard.
Tupelo presented few avenues for professional musicians, but Thorn soon met his longtime songwriting partner Billy Maddox, who had strong ties to the musical hub of Muscle Shoals. The duo began writing under contract for Rick Hall, owner of the legendary Fame Recording Studios, where Thorn cut demos of their songs.
As a performer, Thorn was playing solo gigs in Tupelo for $50 a night, and further supplemented his factory income with boxing. He learned to box from his paternal uncle Merle, a one-time pimp celebrated in “Pimps and Preachers,” Thorn’s autobiographical song about his two mentors: “One drug me through the darkness/One led me to the light/One showed me how to love/One taught me how to fight.”
Thorn would box fourteen professional fights (10-3-1) as a middleweight between 1985 and 1988, with his most prominent match against four-time World Champion Roberto Duran. He lasted a respectable six rounds before a doctor stopped the fight due to multiple cuts.
Although proud of his boxing career, Thorn says that he’s not surprised he’s achieved more success as a performer. “I went a long way in boxing, and got to fight one of the greatest, but the reason Duran beat me and everyone else was that he had the ability to relax under extreme pressure. When I was in the ring I was nervous and afraid, but when I’m on stage I’m comfortable. I’ve been singing in front of people all my life, and I know what I’ve got to do.”
The songs on “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” co-produced by Billy Maddox and Colin Linden, likewise fall into that same comfort zone.
“We’re bringing Paul’s fans under the tent at a revival,” says Maddox, who likewise grew up listening to black gospel. “A lot of emotion goes on in those places, with people being saved while the band’s playing behind them.”
The exuberance of the music, says Thorn, evokes the warm-hearted nature of these social gatherings. “The first track, ‘Come On Let’s Go,’ it’s talking about going to church—that I can’t wait to see you, and see you how you’ve you been doing,” says Thorn.
Few of the songs here are well known. Maddox found most of them while digging through releases from small gospel labels in Mississippi and Alabama. “We just picked things that had a great pocket,” he says. “One person described the feel as ‘gospel lyrics set to stripper music’ and that’s pretty close. The songs are slinky and greasy and right in Paul’s wheelhouse.”
The most familiar track here is no doubt Thorn’s relaxed tempo version of the O’Jays “Love Train,” a song whose feel-good qualities readily adapt to a gospel setting. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, whose records Thorn listened to as a teen, made it a staple of their live performances.
The other songs stretch back much farther, but their themes - of redemption, taking stock of one’s life, and resilience in the face of troubles - are universal, making them readily adaptable to the fresh takes here. Nashville’s McCrary Sisters, for instance, lend a buoyant feel to “You Got to Move,” a northeast Mississippi standard, best known through a solemn, slide guitar take by Mississippi Fred McDowell.
The sisters’ father was a founder of the Fairfield Four, a capella gospel singers whose live radio broadcasts on CBS in the ‘40s and ‘50s were extremely influential. Fellow guest artists the Blind Boys of Alabama, founded in 1944, were founders of the “hard gospel” quartet style that dominated the era from which many of the songs on this record where drawn. Also joining Thorn on vocals is Texas-born Bonnie Bishop, who attributes her soulful singing style to spending her formative years in Mississippi.
Both Maddox and Thorn were longtime friends with Hall and the Phillips family, and Maddox says that recording in Memphis and Muscle Shoals was a natural extension of the whole process, and the only proper way to honor this particular body of work. “We were returning to the Motherland.”
Rick Hall died in January of 2018, making the whole experience that much more poignant for Thorn and co-producer Maddox.
“The last time I saw Rick he came into the FAME studio to say hello,” Maddox recalls. “We invited him to sit down and listen to the playback of a track we’d just finished. He closed his eyes and leaned over the console as the music played.
“About halfway through the tune he turned the monitors down, looked me right in the eye and said, ‘What have you done?’ I asked him what he meant. Then he got this big grin on his face and said, ‘Well, that sounds just like me.’ That moment validated everything about this record for me and Paul.”

Derek Senn

I discovered my love of music late in life. I am not one of those wunderkinds who started writing and performing at 5. But in a way that is good because music is relatively new to me. I love everything about being a singer-songwriter. I like it how influences make their way into my words and music. I like the challenge of writing a halfway decent song. I like the process that takes a scribbled idea through several rewrites until it is refined into a presentable song. I like the constant struggle of trying to be honest with myself and the search for a unique voice. I like the gut-check that is required every time I play to an indifferent, chit-chatting audience of 6 people. Why do I keep doing this? Because I have a passion for it.

So feel free to come along for the ride. I plan to keep writing and recording songs for the rest of my life. expect some butt-cringingly horrible moments and expect some great ones. And at some point, if you are not already a musician, I hope you decide to give it a shot, because making music is so much fun and you are never too old to start.

When I was in grammar school, I asked my parents for a guitar for my birthday. They got me one, and they also set me up with lessons. The teacher was a classical guitarist. In that first lesson he taught me the correct playing position for classical guitar and then he told me I had to grow out my fingernails. I never went back and the guitar sat dormant for about 10 years. Fast forward to 1993. I was 21 and traveling with my friend Chip through South America by bicycle. We were in Arica, Chile when the inspiration struck to drop $25 each on a couple of guitars. Back at our hotel, a Peruvian university student eyed the instruments, grabbed one, and started playing. He was good. So we asked him for lessons. He tabbed out some basic chords for us and we were on our way. A few days later, we took a bus to La Paz, Bolivia and we holed up for a month in a cheap, windowless hotel room and practiced chords. When it was time to get back on our bikes and ride to Peru we sold the guitars for a deep discount.

I still think the best way to learn the basics of guitar is to sequester yourself for a month, preferably in a windowless hotel room in La Paz, Bolivia, and learn a few basic chords. Ideally, you broaden your scope after that. As for me, I am still playing the same basic chords today.

I blew my chance to do anything constructive with music while in my early 20′s. I lived in a big old house on the mesa in Santa Barbara, CA with lots of very good musicians. There was even a soundproof band room. Sure, I played a bit and jammed and dabbled here and there, recording one song on a four track, but I never took full advantage of the opportunity. I’ll place the blame partly on that first guitar that had deteriorated since my first lesson. It was a miserable thing to play.

We jump to Y2K. I finally save enough to drop $700 on a decent Martin guitar and everything changes. Don’t listen to those people who say that instrument quality does not matter. Life is too short to play crappy instruments.

With the Martin I started playing a lot more. Granted, I still played the same three chords, but they sure did sound better. Then, for some reason I decided I wanted to start writing songs. I’m not sure when it happened, but I remember one particular catalyst:

I was visiting Chip (my bike trip mate) in Silver City, New Mexico. He was tending bar at an old saloon called The Buckhorn, which sits in the hamlet of Pinos Altos, which is nestled in the high pines (hence the town’s name) of the Gila National Forest. The Buckhorn is a great old saloon, and every Monday they have an open mic night. I happened to be there on a Monday so I went to the bar with Chip for his full shift, from 3 pm ’til close. It was a fascinating evening. I had never spent an entire day in a bar. We were the first to come and the last to leave. I arrived just before the town drunk and left just after him. Our intake was similar.

Anyways, the open mic was a really good one. It made me want to get up there and play a song, but I didn’t know any songs all the way through. So at that moment I vowed to start writing songs so that if I ever found myself at some random saloon on a Monday night with a hankering to sing a song, I’d have one (or fifty) at the ready.

Shortly thereafter, I came up with the idea that i would try to make a record every two years for the next 20 years. I’m not sure why I chose that time frame. It just sounded cool to be able to look back on ten albums at the age of 50. So, the next order of business was to buy a recording device. I got a Boss BR 1180, which is a digital 8 track recorder with a built-in hard drive and a CD burner. The idea was to record in the lo-fi tradition. I would do EVERYTHING (write the words and music, play the instruments, produce the songs, etc.) and the results would speak for themselves. So by the end of 2001 I had recorded 11 songs in the bedroom of my little hovel on Osos street in San Luis Obispo, CA. A few songs were great, a few were good, and a few were forgettable, but in the interest of keeping with my 20 year plan, the collection of songs was good enough to call my Debut. Thus, my first album, entitled The Wedding Industrial Complex, was distributed by Santa to about 10 friends and family members in Christmas 2001.

I didn’t have too may instruments for that first album. I had an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, a vibra-slap, an assortment of shakers, and a beat-up old snare drum. It was just as well.

Album #2 grew out of different circumstances. I had learned how to use the drum machine on my recording device, so for the first three songs I recorded for the album entitled The Sophomoric Effort, I used a synthetic drum track. After that I acquired a real drum set and a real bass guitar, so I started laying down live drums to my songs. Then I had a soundproof room built in my basement. This meant I was able to create my home brew of garage rock without driving the neighbors insane. I could yell into the microphone, play screeching, obnoxious guitar solos, and bang on the drums to my heart’s content. This was not altogether good, but it did mark a certain point in time. And in the grand scheme of my grand scheme, I am just marking the passage of time with my own soundtrack.

The Sophomoric Effort was strategically released just before Christmas of 2005 in order to take advantage of the Christmas buying frenzy. 15 copies were distributed to various retailers around the country.

During the recording of The Sophomoric Effort, I started to get tired of playing all by myself, so one day I asked my wife Melanie if she wanted to try her hand at the drums. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she said yes, and suddenly we became a punk-rock duo. At this same time, she became pregnant with our first child and the impending reality of fatherhood influenced my songwriting, as did the idea that I would be playing songs live with just drums, vocals and guitar. The album Baby In the Belly grew out of this era.

During this time I started abandoning home recording because we suddenly had a newborn to care for. But I was still motivated to record, so in the summer of 2006 Melanie and I went into the recording studio with Diego, our 3 month old son, and we recorded three songs live with no overdubs while Diego slept in the control room. The songs are rife with errors but there is a raw energy to those live takes that is quite dear to me. We rocked.

Our second son Charlie was born a mere 17 months after Diego, on August 25, 2007. Miraculously, Melanie and I managed to keep our little punk rock experiment on life support for the the next few years, but we never created any new product. We played occasional shows and that was about it. Frankly, we were never very good, but it was fun fun fun.

Also, during this time I started playing as a part-time bassist for a friend’s band called The Shamblers. It was a dream gig. I had an obscene amount of fun playing shows with them. We played really fun covers and some great originals. The lead singer of the Shamblers, Lucas Ohio, is still going strong musically in the bay area. Check him out at http://www.lucasohiopattie.com/

Around the time The Shamblers went their separate ways, Melanie and I stopped our little punk rock experiment. But I kept writing songs and recording demos in my basement and playing solo acoustic shows. And I had an incessant itch that needed to be scratched. After over a decade of doing the lo-fi home recording thing, i wanted to go into a proper studio and cut an album. I knew that the demands of home life would make it very difficult to record quickly and efficiently in my hometown, so I set my sights elsewhere and Tiny Telephone studios in San Francisco was the first place I emailed. I told studio owner John Vanderslice what I was looking for, that I was a solo artist with just a guitar and my songs and that I needed help with session players and production. John said he could bring my vision to fruition so I booked a 10 day session. Two months later I was at Tiny Telephone for that session and in 6 days of recording we had completed the album called The Technological Breakthrough. I have an essay in the liner notes of that album about recording at Tiny Telephone, so if you would like to know more about the process please buy the album and cozy up with the music and the liner notes.

In May of 2016 I spent another 6 days recording with John Vanderslice at his new Studio in Oakland. It was there where Avuncular was born. Two in the bag.

And in May of 2018 I began recording my third album, How Could a Man, with Damon Castillo at Laurel Lane Studios in San Luis Obispo, CA. The CD was officially released on April 3, 2019, with the streaming release set for May 10, 2019.

Yay.

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