My daddy had a Cadillac
My uncle drove a Ford
One was Satan’s Angel
And one worked for the Lord
They had some hard earned wisdom
They both became my teachers
I was a young disciple of
Pimps and preachers
“Pimps and Preachers” – Paul Thorn
Paul Thorn, from Tupelo, Mississippi, grew up in the shadow of Elvis. But the biggest influences on his life were his Pentecostal preacher daddy, who taught him how to respect and serve people, and his pimp uncle who schooled him on women and how to throw a punch. Both gave him the stories and confidence to build a music career his own way, with his own record label.
Thorn grew up singing in the church and later fought his way to a respected national ranking as a middleweight boxer. He worked in a chair factory during the day, boxed on weekends, and wrote songs and played in a pizzeria at night. He was discovered by Miles Copeland (Sting’s manager) and his first concert was opening for Sting in front of 14,000 people in Nashville. Attending concerts was banned by his religion, but singing at the altar since he was three years old prepared him for singing on the stage.
Thorn writes about what he knows: sin, salvation and survival. His songs speak of strippers, dealers, preachers, backsliders and cheaters. They are dark stories with bright melodies and catchy choruses about weeds in his roses, being the hammer instead of the nail, and it’s a great day to whoop somebody’s ass. He is a Southern storyteller whose life has given him plenty of tales to tell.
“You are a victim of your own environment,” says Thorn. “When a dung beetle is a baby, its mama and dad say, ‘Look, you are going to have to eat shit your whole life and it will be ok,’ and he starts to eat shit and he is happy with it. He sees everyone else is eating shit, so why not.
“I started out as a dung beetle.”
Thorn is tall and lean and looks like he could still go a few rounds in the ring. His blue eyes are full of mischief and see everything. They light up as he tells of getting his hand slapped by his wife for wanting sex too early in the morning, being the alpha lion on stage, or the jokes he gets from the writing on bathroom walls. His voice is a cocky, scratchy, unpolished baritone filled with optimism, playfulness, shades of backwoods Mississippi and sometimes the other Elvis, Elvis Costello. It is also filled with kindness when he talks with his fans and gives them his full attention.
A poor student in school because he is dyslexic, Thorn turned to music and art and they gave him confidence in himself. He lived in the country and Saturdays were for riding bikes and fishing with friends. The rest was dedicated to church.
“My dad is a preacher so we had a lot of church during the week,” he says. “I went to the black churches and learned rhythm-and-blues gospel and picked up country-and-western gospel at the white churches. That is where my music developed.”
Religion still has a large presence in his music, even if the judgment of Christians drove him away from church. When he was 18, Thorn “discovered his sexuality” with a girl who lived two doors down from his house, the church parsonage, and that led to scandal in the congregation.
“After the David Letterman show was over, I would climb out of my window and climb into hers. My next door neighbor, who was a nosybody, knew I was talking to her, saw the footprints going out of window and did his own private investigation,” says Thorn. The neighbor told his parents and Thorn’s Sunday school teachers, the church counselor and his dad confronted him about having premarital sex.
They gave him two choices: confess in front of the church and they would accept him back or continue his ways and be disfellowshipped. “I chose disfellowshipped. I left the church, ran out the door, jumped in the car with my girlfriend and drove away. That night we slept in a beanfield and the next day, I borrowed $6,000 from the bank and bought a trailer. I never went back.”
Thorn is still a seeker and believes in God, but he quit going to church and doesn’t believe in heaven or hell. “I believe there has to be something, but beyond that, I have no clue,” he says. “There are holes in all religions and I don’t believe anyone possesses the absolute truth. If heaven was real, that would be something. If hell was real, that would be something too. Some people are so sure of what is going to happen in the afterlife. I wish I could be that sure.”
Still an artist, Thorn drew his own version of heaven on the album cover for “What the Hell is Goin’ On?” He sits in a hot tub with Jesus tossing a red ball while women wait on them. One woman holds a tray topped with a can of Spam.
“They said in church that we are going to sit at Jesus’ feet and worship him for eternity. That is more fun for him than it is for me,” says Thorn. “If I live a good Christian life and get to heaven, I want to have a good time. As I see it, heaven will be unlimited junk food and unlimited women all willing to accommodate my needs and they work together as a team to make me happy. My wife will orchestrate how we all get together and she will be cool with it. I won’t be doing the same for her because in heaven, there is a double standard, just like on Earth. The women have to be loyal to me, but I don’t have to be loyal to them. I am just joking, but every now and then someone will say, ‘I agree with that Paul,’ so I keep throwing it out there.”
Listen to Paul Thorn’s Description of Heaven
Thorn watched his dad make time for his congregation. Rich or poor, he treated everyone the same. “My dad would spot people, talk to them and lift them up,” Thorn says. “I try to carry on that tradition of making people feel good.”
“A woman bought tickets for a show in California, but her husband died the day before and she came to the show anyway,” says Thorn’s drummer, Jeffrey Perkins, who has played with the band for 18 years. “They had been fans since day one, and Paul found out about his death. We were rocking out and she came to the stage bawling. Paul stopped in the middle of the song, hugged her and in the most sensitive way, he told her story, then started the song again. The crowd started crying and he walked in front of my drumset and lost it. The collective empathy of 7-800 people was one of the deepest things I have ever seen. Something like that happens almost monthly and this has almost become a ministry of positivity.”
Stand there and do nothing
But if you want to go far
Don’t try to please everybody
And be proud of who you are
Get out there in the game
Don’t sit up in the bleachers
That is the philosophy of pimps and preachers
The preacher taught Thorn how to lift people up and the pimp taught him how to face his fears and be fueled with the desire to be great. His uncle, who had been missing for years, returned to the family when Thorn was 12. “We thought he was dead, then all of a sudden he appeared wearing the flashy clothes like you see on TV. He really was a pimp and people brought him money. I saw him scream at women and I saw them sit at his feet. He took me under his wing and everything he did, I wanted to do. He taught me things that a 12-year-old shouldn’t know, he also taught me how to box and I got good at it.”
Thorn didn’t fight because he loved boxing, he fought because he wanted his uncle’s approval. He describes it as a whore-pimp relationship and he was the whore trying to win favor of the pimp. “I wanted him to be proud of me,” says Thorn. “The philosophy of a pimp is ugly — they are always trying to get you to give them everything, and the smooth-talking pimp will take it. It’s all a lie. My uncle kept telling me I could fight and I could go all of the way, and I just about did. He was my trainer and wasn’t easy on me. I was once hit so hard I saw three people and told him I couldn’t go back out. He said, ‘You are seeing three people, that means you have six hands, now get out there and hit him.’ I went out there and won the fight. Winning felt great.”
Thorn went all of the way to #29 in the world and in 1988 he fought former world champion Roberto Durán. “Walking down the aisle is a long, lonely walk,” he says. “It is a terrifying feeling to stare at the guy who has trained for eight weeks to rip your head off your shoulders. It’s just a matter of who can do it first. I lost the fight and Durán split my lip, but just getting there was a big accomplishment,” he says.
Thorn still wears a Roberto Durán shirt. “If anyone conquers me, I honor him.”
After he lost the fight, Thorn realized that being good and being great are two different things. He wasn’t good enough to be a world champion, so he stopped boxing. “I don’t say I quit because quitting is when you don’t take it as far as you can. I took it as far as I could take it.”
Music was where he could be great. He started Perpetual Obscurity Records with his manager and songwriting partner, Billy Mattox, and became one of the first artists to record, produce and release his music on his own label and have complete control over his music and his career. “I have been doing this full-time since 1997, and every year it has been better than the previous year,” he says. “I am proud that we have pioneered the model of a completely independent artist and the have been able to thrive, not just survive. It has been a steady climb and I am enjoying it.”
Thorn says that he belongs on stage. It is where he feels comfortable and relaxed, but that feeling isn’t free. “My life right now is more traveling than being home,” he says. “It’s what I love and the only thing I am good at doing, but pulling out of the driveway with tears rolling down my face while my little girl is standing there crying is a heavy price. Like any artist, I want to build a fanbase to get a bigger following so I don’t have to work so hard and can pick what I do. It is getting there.”
Confidence comes from repetition, and after every show he critiques the show with Mattox. “Billy will tell me the things that were good and the things I shouldn’t have said. I have told a few dirty jokes on stage and he will tell me, ‘You might want to eliminate that one.’ If you can’t let someone you respect give you an honest critique, you aren’t going to make it.”
“I see Paul’s show every night and he is constantly trying something new and to make it better,” says Mattox. “It is about entertaining and that is Paul’s personality. His fans are special people and they will drive across the country to see him. He loves them and makes everyone feel comfortable.”
“If you make fans feel important and part of the show, that is the best you can do,” says Thorn. “They are doing you a favor because if they aren’t there, you don’t have a career. My fans and family are everything to me.”
Thorn plays 125-170 dates a year and doesn’t have as much time for songwriting as the work keeps growing. It has been two years since he released the last album, Too Blessed to be Stressed, and he hopes to release the next album in 2017. “I have a bunch of new songs, but they may not be good enough so I am not pulling them out yet. I sit down with my guitar and write every day. Sometimes something accidentally comes to life.”
“Paul is a knucklehead with down-home Southern charm, but he writes tear-jerking songs,” says drummer Perkins. “One minute we sound like the Rolling Stones and the next we sound like Billy Joe Shaver. We cover a lot of grooves and feelings and there is so much that keeps us tuned in. Most of us in the band have played for him for almost 20 years and we don’t want to play for anyone else.”
“How he talks and acts on stage is who he is all of the time,” says Perkins. There is no bullshit, which is amazing given the background he has. He has a keen observation and a crazy sense of humor. He is a Southern Springsteen, and there is no one else like him.”
Thorn’s fans agree. He pulls them into his performance, until he jumps off the stage and delivers it to them. He walks through hugging, dancing, grabbing hands singing, “Take my love with you, everywhere you go.”
A product of the family who raised him in small-town Mississippi, Thorn quotes the Bible, talks about sex, charms with humor and writes songs that illustrate, from the trailer park to the pulpit, everyone has problems. No one is all good or all bad, but just trying to get through life, taking it as far as they can.
One drug me through the darkness
One led me to the light
One showed me how to love
One taught me how to fight
I guess you can say I am an overachiever
And I owe a debt of gratitude to pimps and preachers