Paul Thorn – Son Of A Preacher Man

 “Paul Thorn may be the best kept secret in the music business. He and writing partner Billy Maddox turn out songs like a Mississippi Leiber & Stoller — absolutely Southern, absolutely original, full of heart and humor and surprises and streetwise details of trailer parks and turnip greens and love and lust that have the unmistakable ring of truth. And he sings them with the soul and pure joy of a true artist.” — Kris Kristofferson

The gifted Paul Thorn is a fascinating person with a somewhat remarkable background. I’m sure that there aren’t many people who have experienced what Paul Thorn has already chanced upon in his lifetime. A Tupelo Mississippi native, Thorn is the son of a Pentecostal preacher. A full participant from early childhood in both his father’s congregation as well as neighbouring Black places of worship has led to not only being ingrained with gospel music but, coupled with life involvements, has helped shape his view on life and family. Simply, Thorn has been quoted as believing that music has healing properties. And further, Thorn, a devoted family man, notes that his songs are a reminder to do the simple things like being kind because compassion stands as the most important quality that a human can possess.

Music in general has always been part of his DNA and derived not only from church but also from home where both parents would provide religious musical encouragement and accompaniment. (To present day, Thorn still treasures opportunities to “jam” with his mother and father). But before embarking on a career as a Rootsy singer songwriter, his resume lists professional boxer, seasoned skydiver, and accomplished painter. Of note in his past occupations was Thorn’s pugilistic career, from 1985-1988. During that time Thorn had 14 fights as a middleweight, (10-3-1), including a bout with four time world champion Roberto Duran. (Thorn lost by TKO when the referee stopped the fight between the sixth and seventh round). But all was not lost as, by Thorn’s own admission, he’s become a better songwriter, singer, and musician than talents shown as a boxer.

I discovered Paul Thorn indirectly through an interview with personal favourite, Texas Blues Queen, Angela Strehli in the Roots magazine No Depression. In the interview, promoting her 2005 release “Blue Highway”, Strehli noted her admiration for Thorn’s vocals, and mentioned that she sought Thorn out specifically to do a duet with her on the album. In turn, I not only bought the album – with that duet, a cover of Ernie K-Doe’s “Hello My Lover”, a highlight – but also researched Thorn as well. That led to my buying and being completely taken with Thorn’s highly regarded 2002 release “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand”.

In listening to “Mission Temple” my first impression of Thorn was that he was a southern version of Bruce Springsteen. Like Springsteen, Thorn writes about everyman looking for a connection amidst daily challenges that must be dealt with regardless of consequences. Also, like Springsteen, Thorn is a serious student of human nature, and values passion in what might sometimes be a mundane day to day existence. The extra dimension that Thorn brings to the table is quirky humour, a product of the absurdity he sees displayed in life’s everyday dramas.

Growing up and continuing to live in Tupelo adds an interesting element to Thorn’s fusing of Blues, Country, and Rock tinged material because it places him in close proximity of two of the American south’s musical Meccas: 130 miles south of Memphis and 90 miles south of Muscle Shoals Alabama. Add to the fact that manager and songwriting partner Billy Maddox has long held strong ties to Muscle Shoals, and there’s no doubt that it continues to have a profound effect on his songwriting.

Thorn himself has been writing songs since his teens, and although he wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music at home, he still found a way to hear it, and would go on to write alternately swampy Blues and Rock edged tunes and gentle ballads. But that was later, as it was at a family Christmas celebration when Paul was 17 that a cousin of Thorn’s heard some of his original material, (Thorn’s description: “corny love songs”), and introduced him to songwriter Billy Maddox. Maddox, a seasoned – primarily Country – writer would become Thorn’s songwriting mentor, manager, producer, and business partner. They have continued to work and write together for 35 years.

And it was later still when the door opened for Thorn with his first record, (on A&M), “Hammer & Nail” in 1997. In the years leading up to this time, among his other ventures as previously noted, Thorn and Maddox had a writing contract with Rick Hall and his FAME Studios where Thorn cut demos of their songs. In addition, Thorn would play solo gigs including a semi regular spot, Vanelli’s Pizza, in Tupelo. It was at a songwriter’s showcase at Vanelli’s that Miles Copeland, (manager of The Police), first caught wind of Thorn and got him signed to A&M Records.

Unfortunately, despite some top shelf songs like straight ahead rockers “A Heart With Four Wheel Drive” and “A Heart Like Mine”, and heart tugging ballads “I Bet He Knows” and “Temporarily Forever Mine”, the album failed to chart. And, as a result, reacting as most major labels do, A&M dropped Paul Thorn from their roster.

It was at this point that Thorn and Maddox came to the realization that there was no security in being signed to a major label. Their response was to start their own self-contained company including recording, production, and media: Perpetual Obscurity. As part of that decision a 50/50 partnership, (consummated by a handshake), was struck by Maddox and Thorn on all P.O. ventures.

The next step was to put together a band with the objective of that same band serving both as a touring and recording collective. After auditions in Nashville the line-up for the following 8 releases and subsequent tours, (with various guests as required), was set:

Bill Hinds – guitars

Michael Graham – keys

Ralph Frederickson – bass

Jeffrey Perkins – drums

The band was rounded out by Thorn on guitar while Maddox assumed the lead on producing their recordings. It should be noted that, aside from the 2 of the releases of selected covers, for all intents and purposes, the Thorn / Maddox duo have written all the material to date.

All of Thorn’s recorded work falls into a stirring Roots Rock bag with some gutbucket Blues, and old-time Rock & Roll complete with a sharp pop sense, added to a penchant for storytelling throughout. Notable albums include:

  • “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand”: Thorn’s most critically acclaimed effort where all of Thorn’s influences come into play
  • “Are You With Me?”: as close to out and out Blue-Eyed Soul as Thorn gets
  • “Pimps & Preachers”: Thorn’s bestselling album to date, and whose title track reflects on the sacred and profane in heeding advice from his uncle – a former pimp who taught a young Thorn to box – and his preacher father
  • “What The Hell’s Going On Here?”: a well-chosen set of covers that could pass as Thorn / Maddox originals and finished in the top 15 most played on the Americana Music Associations 2012 year end chart

Recounting Thorn’s recorded work would not be complete without the mention of his last release to date: “Don’t Let The Devil Ride”. As Thorn says, the album serves “as the culmination of my whole life in music; coming back to my roots”. Wanting to call on all of his Gospel experiences Thorn worked with Maddox to find songs that displayed both the Black and white take on the music. (The backdrop is Thorn’s view on Gospel styles; namely that “white people sang gospel like it was country music, and the black people sang it like it was rhythm & blues,”). On a set of diverse covers ranging from O.V. Wright’s title song to The O’Jays’ “Love Train”, and including titles such as “Soon I Will Be Gone”, “One More River” and “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed”, the album serves as the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition to do a Gospel album.

To cover all the bases Thorn enlisted a “wish list” of guests. That stellar list of guests includes The Blind Boys Of Alabama, The McCrary Sisters, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the wonderful singer songwriter Bonnie Bishop, and Toronto / Nashville’s Colin Linden who also produced the date. And to complete the experience of an authentic “old time” feeling, Linden, Thorn, and Maddox chose to record at Sam Phillips Recording Studio (Memphis), FAME Studios (Muscle Shoals), and Preservation Hall (New Orleans).

Suffice to say that “Don’t Let The Devil Ride” met everyone’s expectations, is a welcome addition to Paul Thorn’s catalogue, and brings into question what Paul Thorn will do next. To be sure, whatever he chooses to do will be heartfelt, inspirational, and true to Paul Thorn’s recurring self-described theme: “My music is kind of going to church with a 6 pack”


  1. A Heart With Four Wheel Drive
  2. I Bet He Knows
  3. Heart Like Mine
  4. Ain’t Love Strange
  5. If I Can Get Over Her
  6. High
  7. I Don’t Wanna Know
  8. Everybody Looks Good At The Starting Line
  9. Rise Up
  10.  Downtown Babylon
  11.  Mission Temple Fireworks Stand
  12.  You’re Not The Only One
  13.  Pimps & Preachers
  14.  I Don’t Like Half The Folks I Love
  15.  What The Hell Is Goin’ On?
  16.  Wrong Number
  17.  Everything’s Gonna Be Alright
  18.  This Is A Real Goodbye
  19.  Don’t Let The Devil Ride
  20.  Love Train
  • RICO FERRARA, April 2021

4 thoughts on “Paul Thorn – Son Of A Preacher Man

  1. Thanks for showcasing an amazing American artist. A unique talent with an amazing story, and a very solid set of releases. Hoping that he doesn’t remain perpetually obscuree, because he’s too good not to be heard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If his catalogue is any where near “Don’t Let the Devil Ride”, the only release I’m familiar with at this point, he’s an amazing talent that deserves a lot more recognition. Let’s spread the word!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rico, Thanks for introducing this very different and outstanding songwriter. His range of song style and technique is extensive. Great music.

    Liked by 1 person

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