The son of a preacher man, Mississippi-raised Paul 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.
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."
Thorn 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 sound that first stirred his soul.
He was just 14 when sometime gospel artist Elvis Presley died - "The world stood still in Tupelo," he recalls. 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."
“Paul Thorn is a natural-born Southern storyteller with humble stage banter and musical delivery that’s gritty and gruff.”
-National Public Radio
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, 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 14 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."
Mission Temple Fireworks Revival
featuring Paul Thorn & Band, Blind Boys of Alabama and The McCrary Sisters
Saturday, Nov. 17 at 8 pm