Son of a Preacher Man

That Mississippi roots-rocker Paul Thorn is a painter comes as no surprise. His music, and certainly his latest album, Pimps and Preachers, is filled with realistic portraits of Southern characters in all their mixed-up religious dogma and dark-end-of-the-street sin. So are his paintings.

Thorn has sold some pieces and had a few gallery showings. The prolific songwriter with nine albums and a die-hard, cultish core of fans has just released a book of his paintings called Pimps and Preachers: The Coffee Table Book.

"But lately the stuff I'm doing seems so personal that I don't want to part with 'em," says Thorn in a thick Southern drawl. "That's why we put out The Coffee Table Book."

Thorn's artistic style is a mix of Americana and comedy. As with his songs, the veneer of humor never quite glosses over the darkness lying underneath. And, like his eight previous albums, Pimps and Preachers is constructed from Thorn's life.

"My daddy is an Assembly of God preacher," Thorn explains, "but my uncle really was a pimp back in the day. And he was just this charismatic, larger-than-life kind of man, just one of those people that when he walked into a room he immediately became the center of attention. And truth be known, he didn't really like that, always having to be on.

"I got real close to him after he squared himself up. He explained a lot about life to me."

Thorn's work seems to constantly delve into the struggle between good and evil, between the teachings of the church versus the foibles each of us encounter in everyday life. Thorn's own story would make a great Tennessee Williams play — although he began playing guitar and writing very early, he was working in a furniture factory and boxing professionally when he finally made it in the music business.

"I was the No. 9-ranked middleweight in the world," says the man who fought world champion Roberto "Hands of Stone" Duran in 1988. One of Thorn's earliest popular songs was "It's a Great Day to Whip Somebody's Ass."

"I was fighting and working at the furniture factory, but two nights a week I'd meet up with my writing partner Billy Maddox [now Thorn's manager] and work on songs," says Thorn. "My life was pretty hectic."

The story of Thorn's big break is Southern Gothic fairy-tale material.

"I had this weekly solo gig at a pizza place," Thorn recalls. "Someone sent Miles Copeland [of I.R.S. Records] a copy of my demos, and all of a sudden Copeland and his entourage come down to see me play at this pizza joint here in Tupelo."

Shortly after, Thorn had a record deal. Ironically, growing up the son of a preacher, Thorn was not allowed to attend secular music concerts.

"This is the honest truth," says Thorn. "The first secular music concert I ever went to, I opened for Sting in front of 13,000 people."

"So word got around there was this guy who could walk out to a big crowd with just an acoustic guitar and keep 'em entertained," he continues. "So after the Sting dates ran out, I got a call to open for Jeff Beck, then for Peter Green, the guy who started Fleetwood Mac. Then Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, even some dates with Huey Lewis & the News. So I got exposed to all these people's demographic, and when I came back around six months later on my own, I was able to draw in a good part of those people to my own show. And that's really how we started building this thing up."

Much like Hayes Carll, Thorn's trademarks are a dry wit and engaging the audience between songs. He considers himself an entertainer, not just a musical performer.

"I really study the old-school entertainers," Thorn explains. "I guess my biggest role model is Dean Martin. Not that we do the same thing at all, but if you look back at his old TV shows, he could sing a serious song and then joke with the audience, engage the audience in a way that drew them in and that showed he actually was glad they were there."

During our interview, Thorn kept returning to his appreciation of his audience.

"I know I'd be nowhere without the folks who show up to hear me," he says. "That's why I hang around after every show just meeting people, signing CDs, whatever they want. I stay until the last one is gone because I think I owe it to them. And they in turn know that I truly appreciate them showing up to hear me."

"I don't have some teenage-girl mainstream audience," Thorn adds. "My demographic is some very thoughtful and loyal people 30 to 60 years old, they've got kids, mortgages and jobs. Hell, they've got to get a babysitter and make some arrangements just to get to my show, and I can't tell you how much that means. I think a lot of acts miss the point that people want to connect with you, not just hear you sing a set list."

Thorn notes his career is continuing to expand in spite of tough times in the music industry, that each of his nine CDs have seen growing sales numbers and that his audiences continue to grow in every market he plays. But with a wife and two children, Thorn, who played 175 dates in 2010, pays a heavy price in lost family time.

"As much as I love my work, the big wage I pay is that I'm away from them so much," explains Thorn. "So when I'm home, I'm a servant to my family."

But in typical Thorn style, he looks at the bright side.

"A lot of people don't even have a job today, so the fact that we can go out and grow our business — and every show we've played this year there's been a larger audience than last year — is a blessing to me and my family and the people I work with. I'm totally committed to building bridges with my audience and with club owners and promoters because they feed my family."

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William Michael Smith