Paul Thorn, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Paul Thorn’s new album Too Blessed To Be Stressed stakes out new territory for the popular roots-rock songwriter and performer. “In the past, I’ve told stories that were mostly inspired by my own life,” the former prizefighter and literal son of a preacher man offers. “This time, I’ve written 10 songs that express more universal truths, and I’ve done it with a purpose: to make people feel good.”
Which explains numbers like the acoustic-electric charmer “Rob You of Your Joy,” where Thorn’s warm peaches-and-molasses singing dispenses advice on avoiding the pitfalls of life. The title track borrows its tag from a familiar saying among the members of the African-American Baptist churches Thorn frequented in his childhood. “I’d ask, ‘How you doin’, sister?’ And what I’d often hear back was, ‘I’m too blessed to be stressed.’” In the hands of Thorn and his faithful band, who’ve been together 20 years, the tune applies its own funky balm, interlacing a percolating drum and keyboard rhythm with the slinky guitar lines beneath his playful banter.
Thorn’s trademark humor is abundant throughout the album, which will be released August 19, 2014 on Perpetual Obscurity/Thirty Tigers. “Backslide on Friday” is a warm-spirited poke at personal foibles. “I promised myself not to write about me, but I did on ‘Backslide,’” Thorn relates. The chipper pop tune is a confession about procrastination, sweetened by Bill Hinds’ slide guitar and Thorn’s gently arching melody. “But,” Thorn protests, “I know I’m not the only one who says he’s gonna diet and just eat Blue Bell vanilla ice cream on Sundays, and then ends up eating it every day!”
“Mediocrity Is King” takes a wider swipe, at our culture’s hyper-drive addiction to celebrity artifice and rampant consumerism. But like “Everything Is Gonna Be All Right,” a rocking celebration of the simple joys of life, it’s done with Thorn’s unflagging belief in the inherent goodness of the human heart.
“I don’t think I could have written anthemic songs like this if I hadn’t made my last album,” Thorn says of 2012’s What the Hell Is Goin’ On? Like 2010’s autobiographical Pimps & Preachers, it was among its year’s most played CDs on Americana radio and contributed to Thorn’s rapidly growing fan base. And Thorn followed that airplay success with his current AAA-radio hit version of “Doctor My Eyes” from April 2014’s Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne. The latter also features Grammy winners Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, the Indigo Girls, Lucinda Williams, Keb’ Mo’, Ben Harper and Don Henley.
What the Hell Is Goin’ On? was also Thorn’s first set of songs written by other artists, borrowed from the catalogs of Allen Toussaint, Buddy and Julie Miller, and Rick Danko, among others.
“I lived with those songs and studied them before I recorded that album, and
that changed me and made me grow as a songwriter,” Thorn relates.
“Lindsey Buckingham’s ‘Don’t Let Me Down Again’ especially got me thinking.
It was a rock anthem with a sing-along hook, and I fell in love with it and the
idea of big vocal hooks. So every song on Too Blessed To Be Stressed has a
big vocal hook in it. And it works! We’ve been playing these songs in concert,
and by the time the chorus comes along for the second time people are
singing along. I’ve never seen that happen with my unreleased songs before,
and I love it.”
It helps that those big vocal hooks on Too Blessed To Be Stressed are being
reinforced by the sound of Thorn’s flexible and dynamic band, as they have
been doing for years in concert. During their two decades in the club, theater
and festival trenches, the four-piece and their frontman have garnered a
reputation for shows that ricochet from humor to poignancy to knock-out
rock ’n’ roll. Guitarist Bill Hinds is the perfect, edgy foil for Thorn’s warm,
laconic salt o’ the earth delivery — a veritable living library of glowing tones,
sultry slide and sonic invention. Keyboardist Michael “Dr. Love” Graham
displays a gift for melody that reinforces Thorn’s hooks while creating his
own impact, and helps expand the group’s rhythmic force. Meanwhile
drummer Jeffrey Perkins and bassist Ralph Friedrichsen are a force,
propelling every tune with just the right amount of up-tempo power or deepin-
the-groove restraint.
“These guys really bring my songs to life,” says Thorn. “A lot of albums
sound like they’re made by a singer with bored studio musicians. My albums
sound they’re played by a real blood-and-guts band because that’s what we
are. And when we get up on stage, people hear and see that.”
Thorn’s earlier catalog is cherished by his many fans thanks to his downhome
perspective, vivid-yet-plainspoken language and colorful characters. It
helps that Thorn is a colorful and distinctly Southern personality himself. He
was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the land of cotton and catfish. And
“My father was a preacher, so I went with him to churches that white people
attended and churches that black people attended,” Thorn says. “The white
people sang gospel like it was country music, and the black people sang it
like it was rhythm and blues. But both black and white people attended my
father’s church, and that’s how I learned to sing mixing those styles.”
His performances were generally limited to the pews until sixth grade. “I’m
dyslexic, and got held back in sixth grade,” Thorn relates. “I didn’t have to
face the embarrassment, because my family moved and I ended up in a new
school. There was a talent show, and I sang ‘Three Times a Lady’ by Lionel
Ritchie with my acoustic guitar, and suddenly I went from being a social
outcast to the most desired boy on the playground. The feeling I got from
that adulation stuck with me and propelled me to where I am today.”
At age 17, Thorn met songwriter Billy Maddox, who became his friend and
mentor. It would take several detours — working in a furniture factory,
boxing, jumping out of airplanes — until Thorn committed to the singersongwriter’s
life. But through it all he and Maddox remained friends, and
Maddox became Thorn’s songwriting partner and co-producer.
Nonetheless, Thorn possessed the ability to charm audiences right from the
start. Not only with his music, but with the stories he tells from the stage.
“Showmanship is a dying art that I learned from watching Dean Martin on TV
when I was a kid,” Thorn explains. “He could tell little jokes and then deliver
a serious song, then make you laugh again. And he would look into the
camera like he was looking right at you through the TV. That’s what I want to
do — make people feel like I’m talking directly to them.”
That’s really Thorn’s mission for Too Blessed To Be Stressed, which can be
heard as a running conversation about life between Thorn and listeners — a
conversation leavened with gentles insights, small inspirations and plenty of
“I wrote these songs hoping they might put people in a positive mindset and
encourage them to count their own blessings, like I count mine,” Thorn
observes. “There’s no higher goal I could set for myself than to help other
people find some happiness and gratitude in their lives.”

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.

Brigid Kaelin

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