Lins Honeyman talked to Mississippi-raised bluesman PAUL THORN
There comes a point in the careers of many seasoned artists where they decide to release a covers album - one that pays tribute to the kind of music or a specific artist dear to their hearts. Whilst such projects can either be a revelatory success or a self-serving exercise in indulgence, the latest album from Mississippi-raised troubadour Paul Thorn celebrates the music of his past in an affectionate, relevant and infectiously joyful way and has become one of the most talked about roots releases of the year so far.
Impressively employing the services of big name acts such as the McCrary Sisters, the Blind Boys of Alabama and New Orleans' renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 'Don't Let The Devil Ride' sees Thorn revisit his church roots with a collection of old gospel numbers that act as a perfect vehicle for his trademark earthy vocals and down home musical style. Add to the mix the fact that 'Don't Let The Devil Ride' was recorded at Memphis, Tennessee's legendary Sam Phillips Studio and the equally influential Muscle Shoals, it's little wonder that Thorn's labour of love already sounds like a timeless piece of work.
Also a talented painter, a former boxer and a seasoned skydiver, Thorn's musical path has seen him release in the region of a dozen albums - including 2014's well-received 'Too Blessed To Be Stressed' and 2010's 'Pimps And Preachers' - since deciding to carve out a niche for himself as a singer/songwriter in his late teens as a way of supplementing his meagre factory worker wages. Discovered whilst playing at an open mic night at a local pizza shop, Thorn was snapped up by the BMI label in 1997 and has since then opened at concerts for the likes of Sting, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Beck and countless other big names.
However, despite rubbing shoulders with such luminaries and being a successful artist in his own right, it's clear that the roots of Thorn's music extend deep into his childhood. Born the son of a Pentecostal preacher in Wisconsin in 1964 before moving to Tupelo, Mississippi as an infant, Thorn spent a good deal of his childhood in church with frequent visits to nearby African American places of worship being the order of the day. In contrast to the country and western styles that could be heard coming from his dad's white congregation, it would be the tantalising rhythms and gospel hollers of the black church that would captivate the young Paul and set him on the musical path that would lead him to where he finds himself today.
I catch up with Paul on a long distance call to his Mississippi home whilst he was taking a well-earned break from promoting 'Don't Let The Devil Ride'. I begin by asking him if he was pleased with the reaction to his new album. "I am, actually," he affirms in his trademark Southern drawl. "When you put a new record out, it's sort of a naked feeling. You don't know what people are going to say - whether yea or nay - but so far people seem to really like it which makes me feel good."
I suggest there's a somewhat vintage feel to 'Don't Let The Devil Ride' and he is quick to offer up his thoughts on why this is. "One of the reasons it sounds the way it does is because we recorded it at two iconic studios," advises Paul. "One was the Sam Phillips recording studio - we recorded half of the album there and everybody knows the history of Sam Phillips and Elvis and all that. We recorded the other half at Fame in Muscle Shoals and that place has an historic vintage sound and that's the sound we were going for on the new record."
Paul grew up in the bosom of the Church of God of Prophecy - a Pentecostal denomination that counted his father Wayne amongst its bishops - and experienced the musical leanings of both his white home church and the African American churches he and his family would visit. However, at the age of 18, the teenage Paul would be caught sneaking out of his bedroom window to romance a young female neighbour (as his website bio politely puts it) and he was subsequently offered the choice of repenting publicly in front of his father's flock or forfeiting his church membership. Perhaps understandably, Paul chose the latter and effectively severed his ties with the church by taking off with his girlfriend, securing a job at a furniture factory and then joining the National Guard. I ask Paul how come - after all this time and all that's gone before - he chose to revisit his church roots. "One of the things that I take a lot of pride in is the fact that I love everybody and what I learned in church has paid dividends in my life," he advises. "When I'm up on stage, it's a glimpse of what my life has been like and how gospel music has moulded me into what I am. I grew up singing gospel music and I always had in the back of my head that someday I would like to do a full on gospel record. Now felt like the time to do it so I just did it.
"When I was a kid in Mississippi," he continues, "they had churches where the white people attended and they had churches where the black people attended. My family would go visit the black churches all the time because we loved everybody. We would go have church with them and I was just entranced by the music of the black church because it was more of a rhythm and blues style of gospel whereas, at the white churches, it was more of a country and western sound. I like both of those styles but I was really drawn to the music of the black church."
Whilst well-covered gospel blues numbers like the album's title track, the perennial "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin' Bed" and the Mississippi John Hurt/Reverend Gary Davis classic "You Got To Move" are featured, I point out that much of his new release is made up from lesser-known songs from the gospel canon - something that appears to be a deliberate move on Paul's part. "There are many great songs like 'Amazing Grace' and 'I'll Fly Away' that have been recorded so much by so many different people but, on this album, I didn't want to bring out the usual suspects so I dug a little deeper and found some obscure songs that I liked," he confirms. "Those songs are probably ones that most people will have never heard before and some of them are so old we couldn't even find who wrote them.
"Some of the songs I remember singing when I was growing up - we used to sing 'You Got To Move' quite a bit - but, to be honest and as basic as this sounds, we went on YouTube and just dug around a bit when we were deciding what songs should go on the album. We also went to a couple of gospel music historians and listened to the records they had. It was quite a search but we got the songs we wanted."
One such song is an old gospel number called "He's A Battle Axe" which sees Thorn backed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to expand on God's reliability by going through the alphabet in time-honoured fashion. "We found a very rough recording of 'He's A Battle Axe'", explains Paul about how he came by the song. "It was two old women sitting at a piano, singing that song. It was very crudely recorded and we couldn't even find the names of those women or, once again, who even wrote the song. It's the kind of song they would play in church for the children to sing. It goes through the alphabet from ABC all the way to zee and, when the kids were singing this song in church, they could learn about Jesus but they could also learn their letters. We took it and made it into a song the 'dults can sing too!"
Nowadays artists like Paul Thorn are key to ensuring that the gospel and blues music of yesteryear remains in the public's consciousness in a world where online streaming and mass production can mean that less in-vogue works get trampled underfoot despite their part in shaping the current musical landscape. "It's very important for me to help keep this kind of music alive," states Paul. "All popular music - rock 'n' roll and such like - came from gospel music. I want everybody to understand where all this great music came from. Aretha Franklin - her daddy was a preacher. Elvis Presley, who lived in my home town, grew up going to church. The rock 'n' roll that we listen to today mostly came from gospel music."
Paul goes on to explain the ethos behind the gospel tunes that feature on his latest album. "I don't want my gospel music to dangle people over Hell. Instead, I want it to lift them up to Heaven and I want folks to feel good when they listen to my music. There's no judgment - everybody's welcome to listen to this record and just be blessed. I want people to feel something good when they listen to the album. Take the first track 'Come On Let's Go' - it could mean anything. It could mean 'let's go to church', it could mean 'let's get up and go outside and have a walk'. It's motivating and it inspires people to get up and do something."
With an impressive roster of guest artists backing him on the album, I ask Paul what it was like working with in-demand acts like the McCrarys, the Blind Boys and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. "The McCrary Sisters are great as are the Blind Boys of Alabama who sang on about half of the record. There's a young lady called Bonnie Bishop who is one of the greatest singers out there - she's from Alabama and she sang on the record too. And then, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans put their stamp on the whole thing. All those guys just came in and did their thing. Take the Preservation Hall guys, for example - they just rocked up and played whatever came off the top of their heads and it was out of this world. The Blind Boys are so professional - they've been doing their thing since before I was even born. It was like a dream come true getting to record with all those folks."
Judging by the enthusiasm in his voice, it seems that the end product is something that Paul is understandably very happy with. "I'm proud of the whole thing," he enthuses. "It's something I've always wanted to do. My dad is a preacher and he recently retired from the ministry. I gave him a copy and it made him feel good and my mom liked it too. As basic as it sounds, it was worth doing it just to see the smiles on their faces."
In closing, I ask Paul if he will continue to journey down the gospel route given the initial success of 'Don't Let The Devil Ride'. "My next record will not be a gospel record," he asserts. "It'll be a singer/songwriter project because that's what I do and it's who I am. As I've said, 'Don't Let The Devil Ride' is something I'm very proud of but I've got some things I want to say in my own songs and my next project will be that. In the meantime, I'm on a mission to get the songs on 'Don't Let The Devil Ride' out to the world."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.