Remember the kid who gets his guitar smashed by John Belushi's character in Animal House? That was never Paul Thorn. Sure, Thorn's a singer/songwriter responsible for "I Have a Good Day," a folksy rhythm-and-blues ballad that can bring a tear to a man's eye. And his new album, A Long Way From Tupelo, mixes bluesy rockers with soulful pleas like "A Woman to Love."
But there's another side to the sensitive singer.
Best known these days for his gospel-tinged vocals and penning songs that have been covered by everyone from Toby Keith to Jerry Jeff Walker, Thorn's first brush with fame came as a boxer. In 1988, the lifelong Tupelo, Miss., resident went six rounds with Roberto "Stone Hands" Duran on national television. The next day, the New York Post headline read: "Duran survives bloodbath."
There are great clips on YouTube (search Duran vs. Thorn) of a wiry, 22-year-old Thorn, who was 13-3 at the time, holding his own with the legend before getting TKO'd in the sixth. The battle landed both men in the Atlantic City Medical Center "for patchwork immediately after the fight."
That was the pinnacle of Thorn's boxing career. Luckily, he'd been singing in his dad's church since age 3 and was able to make the transition from prizefighter to troubadour. Thorn continued, though, to get in the ring and spar with other trained fighters even after reaching a point earlier this decade where he was playing to hundreds of fans a night at venues across the country.
"I [boxed] until about a year ago," he says with a thick Southern drawl. "I'm 43 now. I got hit in the ear with a pretty good punch and couldn't see clearly for three days."
Thorn emits a self-deprecating laugh and adds: "I realized then I shouldn't get hit anymore."
The former fighter first notched a win in the music biz with his 1997 indie debut Hammer & Nail. The disc didn't move many units but did include a song about heartache set in a mobile home titled "Double Wide Paradise." Toby Keith included a version of it on his Dream Walkin' album, which came out the same year and reached No. 8 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. Thorn then opened a string of dates for the country star — but the two men didn't exactly become pals.
"None of my [songwriting royalty checks] have been huge," Thorn says. "Ironically, I've made the most money from the artist I like the least."
Thorn shies away from offering specifics about why he dislikes Keith, concluding, "Not my kind of people; I like to be around nice people."
Thorn's 1999 album, Ain't Love Strange, established him as an alt-country/underground luminary. It's a modern classic featuring "Where Was I?" and "I Have a Good Day," a pair of poignant songs that have enjoyed heavy airplay on WMNF over the years. The album also features the humorous revenge fantasy "Burn Down the Trailer Park," which was covered by Billy Ray Cyrus. His version just missed the country Top 40, making it one of the singer's biggest post-"Achy Breaky Heart" singles. Thorn's voice turns dead serious when asked if he approved of Cyrus' rendition of his song.
"He's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet," Thorn says.
So you liked how he did your song?
"Oh yeah," he says. "I'm fine with it."
Thorn issued Ain't Love Strange on his own Perpetual Obscurity label and then it got picked up for wider distribution by the Ark 21 imprint. His 2002 follow-up, Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, came out on the venerable Americana label Back Porch, and the major label EMI signed on for 2004's Are You With Me? Thorn's latest release, A Long Way From Tupelo, came out Feb. 19 on his Perpetual label and can be purchased at paulthorn.com.
"I didn't want to join a record label and not make any money again," Thorn says. "With it on my own label, I'll actually make a little money."
Thorn knows he's not going to get rich with his iconoclastic brand of rock, country and soul. Everything's fine, though, as long as there's enough dough coming in to support the wife and kids. "I like to stay home [when I'm not touring]," Thorn says. "I get up, fix coffee and have breakfast with my little 4-year-old, watch cartoons with her."
Thorn's a blue-collar guy. After leaving home at 18, he lived in a trailer he bought for $6,000. Breaking free from his strict Pentecostal upbringing (Pops was a preacher), he was taken under the wing of his "uncle, friend and trainer" Merle Thorn and taught the art of fighting.
Does he ever feel the urge to get back in the ring?
"Boxing for me these days is restrained to just punching a bag under the carport," Thorn says with a chuckle. "Because it don't hit back."