Paul Thorn, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Paul Thorn took an unexpected detour on the road to recording a follow-up to his most successful release, 2010's Pimps and Preachers. After writing many discs of semi-autobiographical tunes that have drawn comparisons to John Hiatt and John Prine, the critically acclaimed singer/songwriter - hailed as the "Mark Twain of Americana" - decided to do an album of covers. "I wanted to take a break from myself," he reveals, "do something different, and just have fun."

The collection, entitled What The Hell Is Goin' On? (due May 8th on Perpetual Obscurity/Thirty Tigers) finds Thorn putting his own gritty rock stamp on some of his favorite songs. There are some names familiar to Americana fans (Buddy Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard), some lesser-known (Foy Vance, Wild Bill Emerson) and some surprises. The Buckingham/Nicks tune Don't Let Me Down Again originated on that duo's debut, not during the Fleetwood Mac era, while the Paul Rogers/Free song that Thorn chose to cover is an obscure one, Walk In My Shadow.

The idea for a covers album grew as Thorn encountered tunes that meant something important to him. "I would hear them in the tour van or I'd be at a festival and see someone perform them live," Thorn says, "and I'd say 'That's a great song, I wish I had written it!'" One thing all the writers of these songs have in common, according to Thorn, is that they are true artists. "They don't just write songs in an effort to become popular or follow trends," he explains. "At the risk of sounding corny, they write with their hearts. None of these songs are cookie-cutter tunes like you hear on the radio today. They all have real depth, which is very appealing to me."

The set covers subjects that are familiar territory to Thorn, from the spiritual pull of Miller's Shelter Me Lord to the spirited fun in Big Al Anderson's Jukin'. Thorn, so skilled with his own character studies, plays storyteller with such lurid tales as Hubbard's Snake Farm and Emerson's Bull Mountain Bridge. Emerson (who has written for George Jones and Tammy Wynette) is someone, according to Thorn, who "can tell a story in a song like nobody else."

What The Hell Is Goin' On? also delivers songs of love and salvation. Vance's Shed A Little Light and Eli "Paperboy" Reed's Take My Love With You are emotionally powerful tunes. The latter particularly expresses Thorn's feelings about being on the road and missing his family back home: "Being a touring musician is a blessing and a curse... and Eli put into words what I feel like sometimes."

What The Hell's centerpiece is the powerful title track, a blistering look at life in modern times that was penned by blues-rock icon Elvin Bishop. "We are living in a new world where people are very connected, but also at the same time are disconnected," Thorn states. "I believe technology in moderation is good but too many folks are walking around wearing ear phones and some have forgotten the lost art of basic social skills."

The song also is significant because he has developed a friendship with Bishop over the years. "I sometimes visit him at his house when I'm out in California and he always gives me a jar of his homemade jelly that he makes with fresh kiwis from his garden," Thorn recalls. "He sang this song for me on his front porch one day and it blew me away." It was also a treat to have Bishop perform a guitar solo on the tune - which Thorn describes as "wonderfully raw and dirty." Other special guests on the album are Delbert McClinton (another Thorn idol) and the marvelous singing McCrary Sisters.

The heavy lifting on the album, however, was done by Thorn and, as usual, his touring band (guitarist Bill Hinds, keyboard player Michael Graham, bassist Ralph Friedrichsen and drummer Jeffrey Perkins). "The guys in this outfit are a tight unit and a well-oiled machine," he proclaims. "I've had the same guys in my band for goin' on 15 years and they are incredible musicians." Another long-time collaborator is Billy Maddox, who steered the ship and also served as What The Hell's producer. The sense of camaraderie among Thorn, his band and Maddox contributes to the disc's loose, live performances. The lived-in quality is undoubted aided by the fact that Thorn and the band had already played these songs live and honed them into what he calls "crowd-pleasers."

Thorn has been pleasing crowds for years with his muscular brand of roots music - bluesy, rocking and thoroughly Southern, yet also speaking universal truths. The Tupelo, Mississippi native worked in a furniture factory, jumped out of airplanes, and was a professional boxer before sharing his experiences with the world as a singer-songwriter. Pimps and Preachers, which topped the Americana charts for three weeks and broke into the Billboard Top 100, perfectly exemplified the vivid scope of his songwriting and illuminated his family background. While his father is a Church of God Pentecostal minister, his uncle (his father's brother) spent time as a pimp, and Thorn was influenced by both of these men. Mining these "saint and sinner" scenarios, Thorn crafted a disc that All Music Guide lauded as "a great rock & roll album," while The Nation labeled it "an incredible find."

When Thorn and his band hit the road, he'll be performing both his captivating originals and these favored covers, because, as he says, "there are so many great writers out there whose songs need to be heard." Thorn also might slip in a new song or two as he already has started writing more songs of his own for the next album.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Here We Rest: The first motto of Jason Isbell's home state got changed in the early part of last century to a Latin phrase that translates to "we dare defend our rights". What starts out as peaceful idyll descends into a defensive posture with the threat of bellicosity just beneath the surface. That's what tough times will do to a people. Jason Isbell's home is northern Alabama, a region that has been hit especially hard in the recent economic downturn. "The mood here has darkened considerably," says Jason. "There is a real culture around Muscle Shoals, Florence and Sheffield of family, of people taking care of their own. When people lose their ability to do that, their sense of self dissolves. It has a devastating effect on personal relationships, and mine were not immune."

The characters that populate Here We Rest are wrung out. In "Alabama Pines", the protagonist has found himself on the outside of the life he once knew. He is living in a small room and in a state of emotional disrepair – estranged from the woman that he loved, as well as friends ("I don't even need a name anymore/When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away"). He is beginning to recognize that his own remoteness and obstinacy has played a large part in his current state of affairs, and longs for "someone to take him home through those Alabama pines." He's not quite clear how to get back there himself.
Place plays a prominent role in the songs on Here We Rest. Jason was home considerably more this year, having toured less in 2010. After being on the road for 200 or more days for more years than he cares to count, he stayed home mostly to write and record this album. "I could probably live anywhere, but I love it here," says Jason. "Being home is very different than being on the road. You learn a certain discipline that has its entire context within the touring lifestyle. This was the first time that I've been an adult in my own house, in my own community. Plus on the road, you have your whiskey waiting for you when you get to the gig. Here you have to go get it."

Spending all that time around his hometown, he could reacquaint himself with the locale and immerse himself with the rhythms of life in northern Alabama. "Being able to sit on my stool at D.P.'s, a bar in the building I live in, talk to my friends, and hear the problems that they have helped inform some of these songs." Sometimes, people in that bar grow tired of hearing others bitch when they themselves were on the edge, and it would sometimes lead to fights. "Save It For Sunday" grew out of one of those experiences. A bar patron, unsure of the solidity of his relationship, tells his fellow bar patron that "we got cares of our own," and suggesting that the he save his sorrows for his "choir and everyone" at his church.

Our military draws disproportionately from areas that are economically depressed, and northern Alabama has more than its share of those that have served, not only out of a deep sense of patriotism, but also because of shrinking employment options. In "Tour Of Duty," Jason writes of a soldier that is coming home from war for the last time, and will try, more than likely in vain, to assimilate back into civilian life. His soldier is voracious for normalcy. He admits to not knowing or caring how his loved one has changed and dreams of eating chicken wings and starting a family. But there's a subtle sense that this craving for normalcy will cause him to suppress the damage done to him during wartime: "I promise not to bore you with my stories/I promise not to scare you with my tears/I never would exaggerate the glory/I'll seem so satisfied here." Seeming satisfied is not being satisfied, but it's the best he can imagine.

The time off from the road also had an effect on the musical sensibilities that shaped this album. Jason was able to collaborate with more artists (he played on the latest albums by Justin Townes Earle, Middle Brother, Abby Owens and Coy Bowles), which broadened his ideas about how he could present his own music. "I always felt like certain things, like my guitar playing, had to be perfect, and when I was in the studio environment, I could make sure that it was. But looking back, it might have robbed the music of a certain amount of spontaneity.

There's more out and out rock and roll guitar on this album." In addition, Jason embraces a more acoustic, more traditional country music sound to a degree that he had been reluctant to in the past. "When you come from Alabama, that country soul music is in the water. I've always loved it and been proud of it, but there's always been this sense of proving that you were capable of more than just that. If I was going to create an album that gave listeners a sense of the place, I felt it was important to let the songs go there if they wanted to."

The time at home has also had an effect on the lyrical point of view of the album. Because of the subject material of the album, Jason wrote from a more empathetic point of view than ever before. "I tried more than ever to get out from behind my own eyes and see things through others' eyes," he says. In "We've Met," Jason puts himself in the place of a person that was left behind in their hometown and, with a tinge of bitterness, remembers the one who went away better than they are remembered (Jason says, "I'm quite sure that I've been the person that didn't remember before, and I hate it").

As with the last album, the 400 Unit shines. Keyboard player Derry deBorja, guitarist Browan Lollar, bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble play with either the ferocity or subtlety that the songs call for. Having played over four hundred shows together as a band have given Jason and the guys an innate sense of one another; they are gelling into a truly great band. The original state motto was written by Alexander Beaufort Meek, a former Alabama attorney general, in his 1842 essay outlining the history of the state. The last lines of that history say: "We have shown the condition and character of our population; the Red Sea of trials and suffering through which they had to pass; the fragile bark that floated in triumph through the perils of the tide….From such rude and troublous beginnings, the present population of Alabama, acquired the right to say, 'Here we rest!'" The times are indeed rude and troublous again in Alabama, and Jason Isbell's inspired album offers both documentation and the same fervent hope that his people will find their rest.

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Paul Thorn, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit with Brigid Kaelin

Friday, June 7 · Doors 6:30 PM / Show 7:30 PM at Iroquois Amphitheater