A Southern-tinged troubadour from Tupelo, Miss., Paul Thorn writes songs about pimps and preachers, tattoos and love scars.
“Pimps & Preachers,” the title track for Thorn’s latest album, is inspired by reality. His father is a preacher and his uncle was a pimp. Both men were Thorn’s boyhood mentors.
“I had a good balance of somebody teaching me about the bright side of life and somebody exposing me to the dark side,” the touring Thorn said from Chico, Calif. “And when I say 'pimp,’ I’m talking about a man dressing in sharp clothes and making his living off women. It’s not something he’s proud of, but it is part of his past, something I witnessed in my growing-up years.”
In a world where the sacred and the profane exist in close proximity, Thorn doesn’t see a vast distance between preachers and pimps.
“They have a lot in common,” he said. “They’re both developing a congregation. They’re wearing the same flashy clothes. The main difference is the preacher charges 10 percent of your income and the pimp charges 100 percent of your income.”
Thorn, a 47-year-old singer-songwriter who speaks with the natural, easy flow for which his region’s storytellers are famous, is not swift to judge.
“The whole message of my song, 'Pimps & Preachers,’ is that nobody’s all good and nobody’s all bad. Even bad people got some good in them somewhere. And the good person’s got some bad in them somewhere.
“But it’s easy to sit around and talk about people, and glorify ourselves by thinking, 'Well, we’re not as bad as they are.’ But if you look inside yourself, you’ll find something that ain’t right, too.”
“Love Scar” is another of Thorn’s evocative Pimps & Preacher songs, another story based in fact.
“I’m not trying to be a name dropper,” he said, “but I was over in England opening for Sting at Royal Albert Hall. I was standing backstage talking to one of Sting’s backup singers. She had a tattoo on her arm, a blue eye with a tear coming out of it.”
Thorn asked her to tell him the story behind the tattoo.
“She said she met a really charming guy,” Thorn recalled. “And his opening line to her was, 'If I could be a tear rolling down your cheek and die on your lips, my life would be complete.’ “
But after the charming and, it turns out, lying rogue had his way with her, he was gone. And while the song “Love Scar” chronicles a specific experience, it expresses a universal human condition.
“Once you get to that age where you are attracted to the opposite sex,” Thorn said, “once you meet somebody and you want them and they don’t want you back, there’s your first heartbreak. It happens to all of us.”
Thorn’s own colorful history includes 12 years of working in Tupelo’s once-thriving furniture industry and eight years as a professional boxer. His matches included a nationally televised 1988 loss to the mighty Roberto Duran. Following three post-Duran fights, Thorn quit the ring.
“Just like in any sport, good is good but great is great,” he said. “When I got in there with Duran, I learned the difference between good and great.”
Thorn subsequently turned his full attention to music. Major label A&M Records released his CD debut, Hammer & Nail, in 1997. He’s since been strictly independent.
“I’m proud of my first album, but because it didn’t blow up in two seconds, A&M wasn’t interested in doing anything else,” Thorn recalled. “So that was a learning experience for me. But I’m so glad I went through that because now I’m out touring and I get more fans every year. Each record I put out sells more than the one before.
“The only suffering I go through is that I have to be away from my family a lot. That hurts. I got a wife and two daughters and I miss them. But, you know, I like to think God blessed me with a talent. Everybody is blessed with some kind of talent and this is mine, something I can do that’s maybe special. Anybody else can do something special, too, if they just tune it in and dig in.”
Though the music business is a tough wall to climb, Thorn said the personal touch is helping him succeed.
“For a long time I chased radio,” he said. “For a long time I chased TV shows. I chased all of those and got some of them. But the only thing that really stuck is connecting with fans.
“I’m not one of those artists who does the show and then goes back to the hotel. I generally stick around. I shake everybody’s hand. I thank them for coming. I let them know that they’re important to me.”