Paul Thorn Wonders What The Hell Is Going On?

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Paul Thorn is in Nettleton, Miss., standing in his front yard watching his 8-year old daughter bounce on the trampoline while he takes yet another interview call. Asked if another time would be better, he demurs.

"No, no, no, this is great," drawls Thorn. "I understand and my family understands that the press is something that helps us make a living. So I always want to talk to writers."

Thorn, who also paints in the Southern folk-art style, has just come back from visiting a couple of yard sales.

"You like yard sales?" he asks. "I think I'm going to go back to one after I talk to you. They had a pristine, unopened can of Muhammad Ali shoe polish. It had a bunch of his heroes listed on the back. I think I'm going to go back and buy it. It's only $10."

Thorn, who worked the road 180 days last year and has had the same band for fifteen years, is set to release his tenth album, What The Hell Is Going On? (Perpetual Obscurity Records) May 8. It will be his first time to delve into songs of other writers. I've spun it numerous times in the past month and have little doubt it will be in many year-end Top 10 lists.

Rocks Off: What do your kids think you do for a living?

Paul Thorn: They understand that I get up onstage and sing for people. My 8-year old understands that my work is what brings in the money that lets me buy her chicken nuggets. And my 18-year-old understands that some of that money is going to pay for her college next year. What my kids don't understand is why I won't watch American Idol.

RO: Why not?

PT: You know, I don't really try to explain it to them. They like to watch it and that's okay. But it's a tragedy because a lot of the kids on there have talent, but they'll never be a real artist because there's always going to be somebody saying "stand here, sing this like this, wear your hair like this, dress like this, radio wants this, you can't do that." As an artist, that's the road to mediocrity.

RO: There's never been a hard-traveling road musician who hasn't seen that life/lifestyle takes a toll. How do you and your family stay sane with it?

PT [laughs]: I wished for it, now I've got it. But I worked in a chair factory for 12 years, and we barely got by before my music career got going. We had some luck, we've worked hard, and we've had some success. Enough success that I can give my kids what my wife and I think they need.

Of course, I want my kids to know that I hate to leave here every time I go out, and that while I'm out I miss them. There's rarely a night on the road that I don't think, "I wish I was there to tuck them in, kiss them good night." But on the other hand, times are tough. At least I've got a job. And it's a pretty decent job.

RO: This is a covers project, but these aren't exactly highly visible or well-known songs. What was the selection process?

PT: We listen to so much music on the road, our iPods, CDs and radio. These songs were really stuff that all of us liked and kept going back to, songs I knew I wanted to sing. It was that simple.

RO: How many of these tracks will you be doing live in your shows?

PT: All of them. Obviously we can't go out and play the whole album every night, but we'll definitely be sprinkling four or five in every night.

RO: The title track ["What The Hell Is Going On"] seems to address these difficult times we're living through as a country right now.

PT: Not just the country, the whole world really. That song was written by Elvin Bishop, and he's a guy who's had some very tough times. His daughter was murdered by a crazy boyfriend, you know, so that song comes from a deep place for him. But it's also a universal lyric.

RO: How did you pick up on that song?

PT: I do Delbert McClinton's Blues Cruise every January. I met Elvin that way. What's really cool is that he played on that track. If you listen close, you can hear my guitar player Bill Hinds and Elvin, and they're almost guitar fighting each other, just pushing each other to the limit.

And then Elvin does an amazing solo. His solo is so close to falling apart but he holds on. And if you hold on, you hear this pocket he creates. That solo is one of the highlights for me.

RO: The record has a great vibe and a lot of soul, and just has a great feel to it, start to finish. What do you attribute that to?

PT: We never bring in studio musicians, we never bring in an outside producer, we just get in the studio and play 'em 'til we like what we've got. I'm gonna brag on my bandmates: I'm surrounded by great musicians.

I just knew they would make the songs and this project their own. Like I said, I've been playing with these guys for 15 years and this is a real band. I'm easily the weakest musician in the chain.

RO: "Bull Mountain Bridge" is the track I can't get out of my head at night. I'd never heard that song. What version did you base your cover on?

PT: That is one of the most interesting stories about this album. That was by Wild Bill Emerson. He's not that well known, but he wrote quite a few songs for George Jones and Tammy Wynette. My manager and songwriting partner of the past 25 years is Billy Maddox.

Billy knew Wild Bill and actually learned how to structure story songs like this from Bill. And I learned how to write story-songs from Billy. So there were several levels of coincidence at work in picking this song. Billy actually played me Wild Bill's demo of it and I was hooked. It's a powerful song. Hopefully this will bring some attention to Bill Emerson.

RO: You've got Delbert McClinton doing the duet with you on "Bull Mountain." Was he actually at the session or was this something you completed and then sent him the track to add his parts?

PT: Actually, we knew we were going to do a covers album, and I got hold of Delbert and asked him if he would sing on it, and he said yes. So on this year's cruise, we took our recording equipment and set it up in one room of the ship and we just went in there and recorded it. It was late at night, we were doing some drinking, had a little buzz, and just did it.

It was great fun. Delbert has been a lifelong hero for me. It's like meeting Jesus Christ, you know? I'm like the Forrest Gump of the music business. I've gotten to meet and work with all these amazing people and I still can't figure out why they accept me.

RO: That a cappella chorus at the end of "Bull Mountain" is just spine tingling. Is that just you, Delbert and the band?

PT:: No, actually that's me, the band, Delbert, and Kevin Welch and three lady singers out of Nashville, the McCrary Sisters. Like I say, we had a little buzz and we were all just having fun. The funny thing is, if you listen closely, halfway through you hear someone say "Tough stuff." That was Delbert.

RO: Did you produce this one?

PT: I'm listed as a co-producer, but the guy who really produces our albums is Billy Maddox. He's a knob-twister. I'm like Colonel Sanders; my picture's on the box of chicken, but I don't really have that much to do with the special recipe.

RO: You covered Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Snake Farm" on the new album. Where does he fit for you as far as writer and performer?

PT: I love Ray. He's one of a kind. I love a bunch of Texas guys, but I've probably consciously tried to learn Ray's songwriting style and tricks more than I've studied Guy Clark or some of those guys. I like Ray's rhythms, his attitude. He's really a musical hero of mine.

RO: You've worked Texas hard for years and seem to have built a pretty rabid following, similar to Chris Knight, whom Gov. Perry made an honorary Texas citizen a few years back. What's your take on Texas?

PT: Texas is truly its own country when it comes to music. If Texas people like your music, they really grab onto you. And they hold on. Our Texas crowds have grown every year we've been doing this, and that's one of the reasons we love coming to Texas. Honorary Texas citizen, boy, that would be something.

Solo show Tuesday, April 17, at Dosey Doe Coffee Shop, 25911 I-45 N., The Woodlands, 281-367-3774.

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