Music Interviews
5:12 pm
Wed May 9, 2012

Paul Thorn: Music From The Margins

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 7:19 pm

Before Paul Thorn made his living as a singer, he was a professional boxer. He also spent 12 years working at a furniture factory in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss.

"I was the one that put springs in seats — like when you sit on your recliner and you say, 'Oh, this feels so good and soft,' it's a good likelihood that I may have put them springs in what you're sitting on," Thorn tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I had to stand there in the same spot all day long, just pulling them springs and making everybody able to become even more sedentary."

Thorn still lives in Tupelo. He's released six albums of songs filled with characters from pimps to preachers, and from a small-town temptress working at a Dairy Queen to a guy running a combination revival tent and fireworks stand. Thorn is about to begin touring for his newest album, What the Hell Is Goin' On? This one is all cover songs, many of them plucked from obscurity.

"I'm an independent, underground artist, and most of the songs on this record are songs by writers that I'm actually friends with," Thorn says. "Each artist had these little chestnut songs, and I just picked some of them that really moved me for one reason or the other.

"They are deep cuts," he adds. "When you think of a cover album, you think of, you know, Rod Stewart singing 'Unforgettable' or something like that — which is great. These are truly deep cuts. But they're great songs."

Thorn's own songs are often about people living on the margins of society, a focus that carried over to the songs he chose for What the Hell Is Goin' On? In "She's Got a Crush on Me," originally by the songwriter and keyboard player Donnie Fritts, the titular "she" is an unlikely muse: a chain-smoking factory worker who's a little overweight.

"At first you think, 'This guy's criticizing this woman.' But as you listen on down into it, you realize that this woman is beautiful, and he's so flattered that she has a crush on him," Thorn says. "A lot of times when you think of love songs, they paint this beautiful picture that maybe isn't a realistic picture. I like this song because it's about just a couple of normal people.

"Those are the kind of people I sing about," Thorn adds, "because those are the people I know. I don't run around with movie stars and celebrity types. All my real friends, they're trailer-park people — people of meager means. That's what I grew up with and what I'm most comfortable around."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Before Paul Thorn made his living as a singer, he was a professional boxer, and he spent 12 years working at a furniture factory in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi.

PAUL THORN: I was the one that put springs in seats - like when you sit on your recliner and you sit down and you go, oh, this feels so good and soft, it's a good likelihood that I may have put them springs in what you're sitting on. I had to stand there in the same spot all day long, just pulling them springs and making everybody able to become even more sedentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, good luck sitting still, listening to what Paul Thorn is making now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT THE HELL IS GOIN' ON?")

THORN: (Singing) Well, a woman I love is named Ramona. She kind of looked like Tempest Storm. She can dance like little Egypt. She works down at the snake farm. Snake farm just sound nasty. Snake farm pretty much it. Snake farm...

BLOCK: Paul Thorn still lives in Tupelo. He's released a half dozen albums of his own songs filled with characters from pimps to preachers, from a small-town temptress working at the Dairy Queen to a guy running a revival tent and fireworks stand together. Paul Thorn is about to start touring for his new album tilted "What the Hell Is Goin' On?" This one is all cover songs, many plucked from obscurity.

THORN: Well, you know, I'm an independent, underground artist, and most of these songs on this record are songs by writers that I'm actually friends with. Each artist had these little chestnut songs, and I just picked out some of them that really moved me for one reason or the other. They are deep cuts. You know, when you think of a cover album, you think of, you know, Rod Stewart singing "Unforgettable" or something like that, which is great. But these are truly deep cuts, but they're great songs.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the song "Walk in My Shadow," which I had to look this up. This was by the early '70s British rock group Free, right?

THORN: Yeah. Yeah. Back in the day, you know, Paul Rodgers was the lead singer. You know, he was also in Bad Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK IN MY SHADOW")

THORN: (Singing) You make me hungry. You make me weak. You're like a hot biscuit that I want to eat. Walk in my shadow. I can't take it anymore. When I get to in the shadows, I'm going to lay you on the floor.

BLOCK: Yeah. Not too much ambiguity there, huh, Paul Thorn?

THORN: No. It's like cook me some grits, woman.

BLOCK: What about that biscuit line?

THORN: You know, I actually I will not say some of the things that he said in the original lyric. I'm more tongue and cheek with what I do. And so that's when I said you make me hungry, you make me weak, you're like a hot biscuit, I want to eat. Now, that's what a guy from Mississippi would say.

BLOCK: Have you used that line before?

THORN: I used it on my wife all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THORN: I sneak up behind her while she's washing the dishes and...

BLOCK: And how does that go over?

THORN: Well, it depends on if she's ovulating or not, you know, because that's when they really seem to like that kind of thing the most, you know? But it's just a braggadocio, machismo song. And I think there's a place for that, especially with all the mainstream music today being - when men singing, you know, they're whining and crying about, oh, please, come back, and I'm nothing without you. And when they say I'm nothing without you, I always think, well, no wonder she left because you're nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THORN: You know, if you have something to bring to the table, she wouldn't have left.

BLOCK: You have - I think a bunch of your own songs are about people we might think of as being on the margins a bit. And when I heard the song on this CD, it's a cover song called "She's Got a Crush on Me" by someone named Donnie Fritts...

THORN: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...that just struck me as that is a Paul Thorn song. He's singing about his people there.

THORN: Yeah. Donnie Fritts, he was a longtime keyboard player in Kris Kristofferson's band, and he's a great songwriter too. He's had songs recorded by The Rolling Stones and Ray Charles. And to me, it's a beautiful love song. And, you know, a lot of times when you think of love songs, they paint this beautiful picture that maybe isn't a realistic picture. But I like this song because it's about just a couple of normal people that, you know, living in a trailer park.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE'S GOT A CRUSH ON ME")

THORN: You know, the opening line was kind of a stinger. And at first, you think, well, this guy is criticizing his woman. But as you listen on down into it, you see that this woman is beautiful, and he's so flattered that she has a crush on him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE'S GOT A CRUSH ON ME")

THORN: There's such a high standard put on women these days where they have to be, you know, 36-24-36. But if you're not that, you're still a beautiful woman.

BLOCK: The woman in this song, she chain-smokes. She lives in a trailer. She works, I think, at a T-shirt factory, right?

THORN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And that's pretty descriptive of, you know, people that are on the fringes, and those are the kind of people I sing about.

BLOCK: Why is that?

THORN: Because those are the people I know. I don't run around with movie stars and celebrity types. All my real friends are just - they're trailer-park people and people that live, you know, of meager means. That's what I grew up in, and that's what I'm really the most comfortable around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: I'm talking with Paul Thorn. His latest album is "What the Hell is Goin' On?" You did the painting on the cover of this album. I guess, we have a folk-art version of hell here.

THORN: Yeah.

BLOCK: We see a devil toasting marshmallows, and somebody is holding a Toby Keith iPod in hell.

THORN: Yeah. Well, in hell, you know, you may have to listen to his music for eternity.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THORN: And you don't want that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, I do.

THORN: Well, you know? OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THORN: I enjoyed doing artwork. It shows a lot of people down in hell. But if you look at the top, it shows me and Jesus sitting in a kitty poo, and we're surrounded by these beautiful girls who are actually angels. They're bringing us Spam sandwiches and Kool-Aid.

BLOCK: And he's getting his brushed.

THORN: Yeah. We're both getting pampered. I'm getting a backrub. And the other two that are just standing there, I guess, they're just waiting for instructions.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Or biscuits.

THORN: Well, you know, I figure if you're going to draw heaven, draw it like you really think it would be enjoyable, you know?

BLOCK: Well, Paul Thorn, best of luck on the tour.

THORN: Thank you very much. Best of luck to you. We all need it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: We do. We do.

THORN: Ain't that right? Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Paul Thorn, his new album is called "What the Hell is Goin' On?"

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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