Paul Thorn’s new LP of completely obscure gospel also features The Blind Boys of Alabama

It’s being recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals

click to enlarge Paul Thorn Band and the Blind Boys of Alabama in a Memphis, Tennessee studio in February 2017. - facebook.com/thornpage
facebook.com/thornpage
Paul Thorn Band and the Blind Boys of Alabama in a Memphis, Tennessee studio in February 2017.

Paul Thorn says he’s always wanted to do a gospel record because it’s the kind of music he grew up singing, but he promises that his new, still untitled, eighth studio LP won’t be the contemporary gospel that’s prevalent today.

“That’s not the school I came from. I came up singing black gospel and old school country gospel.” Thorn, 52, told Creative Loafing Tampa in a recent interview. “This record is going to be all black gospel. Most of it is from before 1950.”

Read: The gospel according to Paul — roots cult icon talks religion, family and a new album of spirituals

“ A lot of the songs that we found are very obscure songs that haven't been heard,” he added. “A lot of times when you get a gospel album it will have a lot of standards on it like “Amazing Grace,” “I Saw The Light” or whatever. Those are good songs, but they've kind of been done to death.”

The Tupelo songwriter says he spent a couple days tracking about six songs in Memphis before heading to FAME Studios on Muscle Shoals, Alabama to cut the rest of it. He cited the early gospel work that Aretha Franklin did in her career and even said that Elvis did gospel better than anyone. Still, don’t expect to recognize any of the cuts that appear on the new record.

“The average person probably hasn't even heard these songs,” Thorn said, adding that he isn’t qualified to take on the Franklin and Presley canon. “They did it in a way that I don't think I can do.”

There is no release date on the record, but Tampa Bay fans can keep their fingers crossed for a preview when Thorn and his band come to Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre on February 18. Doors for the show are at 8 p.m., and more information is available via local.cltampa.com.

Read Thorn’s full Q&A with Creative Loafing Tampa below.

Hey Paul, it’s Ray from Tampa. Is this a good time to talk?

Sure.

You sure? Sounds like you’re waking up.

Nah, I’ve been up. I’m having a coffee.

Coffee at the house?

Nah, we just started recording our new album. We’re in Memphis and we’re cutting it at Sam Cooke’s place. We’re staying right across the road in a condo, so I’m sitting in the condo — we don’t have to meet until 11 o’clock.

Who’s on the record? The whole band? Bill?

Bill Hines is still on the record, yeah. He’s here, everybody on the band is still on it.

It’s a gospel album, right?

Mmmhmm.

Why’d you go the straight gospel route for this one? Too Blessed borrowed some ideas from the church, but you’re going all in here.

Well, I’ve put 12 records out and never done a gospel record. I’ve always wanted to do one because that’s really the kind of music I grew up singing. But it’s not going to be like the gospel to have today which is called contemporary gospel. That’s not the school I came from. I came up singing black gospel and old school country gospel. That's what I grew up singing but this record is going to be all black gospel. Most of it is from before 1950.

Do you have a name for it yet?

Not yet.

How long do you think it’s going to take?

Well we're going to do six tracks here and Memphis and then we're going to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals to cut the rest of it.

Ah, so going for the Muscle Shoals sound again.

Mmmhmm.

What kind of artists are we thinking of when you start putting this material together?

Well one of the more famous ones would be Aretha Franklin because her daddy was a preacher. She grew up singing in church is like me. Reverend Julius Cheeks . Reverend Dr. James Cleveland. A lot of the songs that we found are very obscure songs that haven't been heard. A lot of times when you get a gospel album it will have a lot of standards on it like “Amazing Grace,” “I Saw The Light” or whatever. Those are good songs, but they've kind of been done to death. We're just doing some pretty obscure songs. Most of them, like I said are from before 1950.

So no Aretha Franklin songs on this one.

No. No. I’d honestly be kind of scared to try and do something she did (laughs) her being one of the greatest singers ever. I don't think I could do what she did. I'm just going to do what I do.

You mention fear but one of my questions revolves around the idea that you don't have a lot of fear going on stage. A lot of the things in your songs are very blue collar. You come from a blue collar town and play for blue collar people. I know that you’ve said that you need to learn to keep your mouth shut…

That’s true.

...I know you have some very strong opinions about things. Have you found yourself adjusting your set, changing anything or tiptoeing around politics right now?

Well as it pertains to politics I just don't talk about it at all because I feel like I'm not qualified, you know? I'm not in politics so I haven't seen behind the curtain enough to be able to talk about what's really happening, so I just leave that to the experts.

Are there any experts left?

I don't know if there are. I'm sure there are, but there's also a lot of opportunists that are trying to make life better for themselves.

When you talk to you fans, do you ever feel like they look to you for any kind of guidance? Your songs and characters are so rich, they are real people. I was thinking back to Hammer & Nail, all those people you wrote about, do you ever think about them or wonder how they're doing?

Sure. Everybody I write about, if I'm writing about them I always try to put a positive spin. Put them in a place where they if they are down in a ditch, then I try to point the way out of the ditch. I'm not qualified to give anybody advice on how to live life when I'm on stage. I just want people to have a good time and escape the problems in their lives for a couple hours and just leave feeling a little bit better, you know?

Well you always do. I remember the first time seeing you and being like ‘holy shit that guy has stories.’ You have the whole thing down. When you are writing new music, do you wonder what life is like for this characters or do you kind of move on to the next record?

I do think about them, and when I'm really lucky I get to see them again. You know, a lot of the people I've written about are people I've seen out on the road. Maybe I didn't really know them that well, but I learn about their situation. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad. I love and think about all of them. I do hope that I get to see them again. We live separate lives, but we had a moment together. When I get a chance to see somebody that I wrote about or spoke about in a song it makes me feel good that they came back. They gave me something so I try to get them something back.

Maybe I’m not taking your songs literally enough. These are all real people.

Yeah. I could easily say that 90 percent of them are real. People stuff like “Joanie the Jehovah's Witness Stripper” — that's a real person, and I know that person. That's not her real name, she wanted to stay anonymous in the song but she's somebody I know. You know, she's not a topless dancer anymore. She done squared up and is living a square life, but she's a real person. The song I wrote about her was not to poke fun at her it was to pay tribute to her.

Has anybody ever told you that you writing a song about them change the course of their life?

Well yeah I've had that a few times, and they said it was a positive change so, that makes the song worth it.

Is it overwhelming when somebody says that to you?

Nah, it just makes me feel good that something good happened to him.

So going back to feeling good and feeling happy. A couple years ago talked about having a leave home and having to look at your 10 year old daughter crying with tears on her face. Now that she’s 12...

She’s 13. Time flies.

Now that she's 13 has you leaving becoming easier for her or is it still pretty emotional?

It's always emotional. She'll always ask, you know, how many days am I going to be gone. If I say a couple weeks, you know sometimes she breaks, but if I say I like five days then she just says “well that's not too bad.” Plus she's not my only daughter.

I have a 23 year old from a previous relationship who is fixing to get married. She is doing alright but my oldest has never lived with me because me and her mom weren’t together you know. She's mostly lived with her mother, so it's probably harder for my little one then it is my big one because my big one has never lived with me. We get along good, and I love her. She's a sweet girl, but she's never lived with me.

When somebody lives with you it's a different situation. The leaving gets harder because I see you all the time, you know? I get up and take her to school, take her to gymnastics practice — all that kind of stuff. It's hard, you know? Anybody that has to leave someone they love. It's hard whether you're a truck driver, or a traveling salesman or a musician. If you love what you got at home it's going to hurt you when you have to leave it.

You oldest is getting married. Do you think about grandkids? Every I hear you tell stories I hear you say they’re stories you are going to tell your grandkids. What’s the outlook on that?

I mean she's my oldest. She's fixing to get married and will probably have some kids. You know, I don't know. I'm not going to put pressure on her like a lot of parents do when they say “y'all going to have some kids??” I'm not going to do that. If a grandkid shows up I'll be happy about it, but that's up to her and her husband — whatever they want to do. For now I don't have any grandchildren. I'm plenty old enough. Maybe time will bless me with it.

So it’s a gospel album and you’ve mentioned gospel even before this album, but when is the last time you actually want to church”

This past Sunday.

So you do go regularly?

Let me clarify. My wife is a member of the Palestine Baptist Church, and when I'm home I go, but I'm not a member of the church. I'm not a member of any church because you know what I believe changes daily. Church is good. I'm not criticizing church. I'm just saying that I don't feel like I can be a member of any one church because, like I said, what I believe is constantly changing and what they believe never changes. So I love going to church and being around the people. You know, seeing the people that normally don't speak their in the week get a moment to have fellowship with each other and see how you're doing. That’s what I like about church — the camaraderie of the church family, especially for people suffering. Some people live a more lonely life and they go to church and make friends — that's a good thing.

Was there ever a time in your life when you were very lonely? You've had such a storied career at this point. But do you remember a time when you weren't quite sure what you were going to do? It seems like you've always had a support network. Somebody to push you into boxing. Somebody encouraging you to record demos and submit those. Have you ever had lonely times, or is it something you've been blessed not to have to deal with?

You know I have had lonely times, but overall I've been blessed with people that have come in and out of my life and sort of pushed me like you said. To this day, I have people around me who push me. I have people around me that tell me what I'm doing wrong, and they do it in the spirit of love. They pat me on the back when I do something good. When you don't have people around you to whisper in your ear and tell you the truth...look what happened to Elvis. I'm from the town he was born in. As he became more and more famous everyone around him became “yes” men, and they approved everything he did because they were afraid they would lose their job if they stood up to him. And look what happened to him. He went on a downward spiral with drugs and died a lot sooner than he should have. So yes, I've had lonely moments, but I have just been blessed with people that don't just tell me what I want to hear. They sometimes tell me what I need to know.

Are you going to do any Elvis gospel songs on the album? Any “Crying In The Chapel”?

No because, like I said, the songs on this record are very obscure. The average person probably hasn't even heard these songs. Plus, I would not try to duplicate something that Elvis did — especially his gospel music. I will say that of all the gospel music, if I just wanted to listen to one gospel record or a set of gospel records, it would have to be all of Elvis's gospel records because I think he nailed it in a way that no one else ever has. His gospel albums were the best gospel albums to me, and that's my opinion, but I get the most out of them. I don't want to do something he did because I don't think it would stand up. He did it in a way that I don't think I can do.

So back to that team concept, the people you have around you who push you. I was wondering how competitive you still are today. You said you don't find a lot of parallels between your athletic career and your songwriting, and you're very brave on stage, so what drives you these days? There’s still got to be a fire in there.

Yeah. What's driving me, and what's encouraging me, and anybody in this business, the music business, what they are all looking for one thing above all else — and that's a group of fans that will come and see them play. My challenge to myself is to accumulate as many of those people as I can because if I'm going to leave home and have my daughter's crying, and have my wife have to be a single mother while I’m gone, then I want make it worth my while. All artists are competing for a fans — if I could just put it in a real simple way. And I’m lucky because my fan base continues to get bigger. Places I played last year. I come back the next year, and there's a hundred more people, so I'm out there competing for fans — all of us are. We need our fans. Without them, if we don't have fans, then we’re going to go back to our day jobs. I love my fans. They're good to me, and they support my family. The fans are all I’ve got in terms of my business and my career, and that's why I love them so much because they support me. Without them coming to the shows, getting a babysitter, buying tickets and coming out...without them I have nothing. I appreciate my fans. if I'm competing for anything, then it's to get more fans because they are a blessing.

Do you still paint?

Yeah I'm doing lots of artwork. That's my hobby, something I do for me. You know, when I'm traveling, it might be a 13 hour drive to get to the next town over, so I’ll just sit back in the back and sometimes I just draw pictures — it’s something I've done since I was a kid. I enjoy it, and everybody needs a little hobby they can do. Some people like to knit a pair of socks or sew. At this point, I like to draw pictures.

I know if the first half of this show coming to Clearwater is you guys doing Hammer & Nail in full. Did you really have to fight to get your rights back to that music to put that out?

Yeah because that record was technically owned by A&M records — a pretty big label, so they owned. We had to go through a bunch of legal stuff, jump through hoops to get it back, but now we own it. It's my first time that I ever recorded and I'm very proud of it. You know, it's still like anything I listen to it now and wish I would have done this different and that different, but for my first effort not knowing anything I'm very proud of it.

So all worth it to get a back?

Yeah, and there's a lot of songs other than my fans really like so we're fixing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that record coming up. There's a beer company called Lagunitas who’ve gotten involved with it.

Nice.

Have you heard of that?

Yeah.

Yeah, so they’ve come in and sponsored us. They're helping us with a bunch of things coming up, and one of them is to help market the 20th anniversary and release of Hammer & Nail.

Just a few more questions. You talk about day jobs. The last you had was at the chair factory, right?

Yeah that’s the last day job I had. It was a chair factory. I worked there for 12 years. It was called People Loungers. It’s technically just outside Tupelo, and that’s what I say to keep things simple. It's in a little tiny town on the outskirts. It closed down, but now that Obama, I mean Trump made America Great (laughs), it’s back open. It opened back up finally, people got jobs around that area so that's good for them.

Obviously we made a joke about that, but I have a question because I feel like you are in touch with many different parts of America. Do you believe any of the notion that the media ignored Middle America through the course of the election? What do you feel and see as you travel through that that's a segment of the country? Do they feel a little bit underappreciated?

What I mainly see is people hurting financially. That's the thing that I see. I see that a lot of people get jobs but — and I'm not going to name any names because that’s not what I do — but the people that own the company give him a little bit of work, but they don't give them enough so that they can qualify for insurance and everything. So there's a lot of people hurting. They have jobs, but things really are not better because they don't have insurance.

And then you have certain groups of people that don't want to work but they want to get paid still. And who wouldn't like to not work and still get paid? But that's not a way to build anything. There are too many people that can work that are not working — I will say that. I don't get into politics and all that, but I will say that I personally know that there are also lazy people, some people don't want to work, and it's sad because there are a lot of people that would like to work but they can’t. Maybe they have issues mentally or physically, or maybe it's whatever but they can't work — and those people need a handout, but there's too many people and too many handouts being given to some people that are capable of working.

But you love to work. I feel like work is the fabric of your entire career — not just work, but gritty stuff.

Yeah I've done all kinds of work. I understand working aint always fun. That's why they pay to do it, because it's not fun.

I want to ask you about you dog Brady. I was listening to an interview, and I know Brady had to get some teeth pulled. Is he still around?

To tell you the truth we had to put him down because he just got to the point where he couldn't stand up. He was just like an old person, you know? When you get old and you just can't do nothing anymore, humans and dogs, and he got to where he couldn't stand up. Then on top of that he wouldn't eat for like three days. He didn't eat a drop — you could put a delicious piece of chicken in front of him, and he’d just look at it. So I knew he was dying. We just took him and did what we had to do. That was hard to do. We put him down, and that's the cycle of life.

Did you write a song about it?

No.

Is your family okay? Did you get another dog?

Well after 14 years the dog is a member of your family. He's greatly missed. We’ll probably get a new dog at some point. There was actually a dog that came up to the house. A stray with ribs sticking out of his side, and we decided we'd keep it because he needed help. He was starving and whatever. We kept it five days, and within those five days it snapped at my daughter once, bit my wife and it tried to attack me as well. As much as I love animals, I'm not Cesar Millan. I don't know how to train dogs to not be vicious, so as much as I hated it, I had to take him to the pound. I couldn't deal with it. I'm not qualified to deal with vicious dogs, especially around my children and everything. So that's the only time I've ever turned a dog away, I did, I turned it away because it was dangerous.

That doesn't bother you or anything does it?

Nah, I had to do what I had to do. At the end of my day it’s my house. I’m not the king of anything, but I am the king of my yard. It was kind of sad because the dog had a good nature. A lot of time he would sit in your lap and wag his tail, but then just out of the blue he’d get aggressive. It had some kind of trauma in his past, I don't know what it was. Like I said I, don't have a Cesar Millan on speed dial, so I couldn’t help the dog.

Maybe Cesar will get in touch with you now. I mean Toby Keith reached out to you and you opened for him on a tour. You must’ve picked up a lot of fans on that one.

That was an experience. I won't say gained many fans from it. I made some good money, but I don't think I gained any fans because his fans are different. No disrespect, I love all of them, but they are not really interested in a singer-songwriter coming out and doing the acoustic guitar, 30 minutes set. They have a different mentality (switches to an even more exagerrated southern accent) — they want to see somebody they saw on the tee-vee!

I think you shouldn’t do the accent. It sounds too close to your normal voice.

(Laughs) I just try to exaggerate a little more when I talk about Neanderthals.

It is a different audience I don't know how to explain it.

It is. I think in their head it might be “let's get drunk and sit on the tailgate.” “I like the rip your jeans, by the way come over and sit on my side of the console, and we'll make love on the tailgate.”

Do you know who’s gonna master the record when it’s done?

Not yet, but I will tell you this: The Blind Boys of Alabama are singing on this record did you know about that?

I did not did you tell anybody about that yet?

Here, there and yonder, yeah, but the Blind Boys are coming in tomorrow. They are going to spend two days singing on the record.

Do you know what's your tracking with them?

Not really, we’re gonna see what works.

Thanks for your time Paul.

Thank you. It’s an honor to talk to you. Have a great day.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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