Redemption songs

Paul Thorn steps out with celebrated new album Pimps and Preachers

Paul Thorn’s just-released <i>Pimps and Preachers</i> is already in the top 10 on the Americana radio airplay chart.

Paul Thorn’s just-released Pimps and Preachers is already in the top 10 on the Americana radio airplay chart.

photo courtesy of Stephanie Rhea Photography

Preview: Paul Thorn performs Tuesday, July 20, 7:30 p.m., at the Sierra Nevada Big Room. Tickets $20.
Sierra Nevada Big Room
1075 E. 20th St. 345-2739

Sierra Nevada Big Room

1075 E. 20th St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 345-2739

If you read Paul Thorn’s bio with your mental menu of stereotypes in fully operative mode, you might be perplexed. Here’s a former professional boxer who got his ass whooped by Roberto Durán. Thorn’s daddy was a Pentecostal preacher, and his uncle was a pimp. You’d expect a guy with his background to be about as sensitive as a leather boot left too long in the sun.

But, though his talents make him something of an anomaly, there’s a tradition that fits him the way cotton fits a cotton sack. His songs limn the conflict between Saturday night and Sunday morning, between the flesh and the spirit. They embody division that separates piano-pounding Jerry Lee Lewis from his Bible-thumping Southern Baptist cousin, Jimmy Swaggart.

Thorn’s new album, Pimps and Preachers, sets up shop at that crossroads. And it’s no accident, perhaps, that he’s from Tupelo, Miss., the town that gave us Elvis Presley, that gospel-singin’ homeboy whose sexuality once shocked a nation. Thorn can boogie with the best of ’em; he’s a honky-tonker for people whose brain cells are still functioning.

But how does he keep it real, singing the same songs each night? In a phone interview from Houston, he answered in a distinct Mississippi drawl: “It’s kinda like the difference between a pastor and an evangelist,” he said. “An evangelist can give the same sermon over and over, but a pastor can’t. The enthusiasm of a new audience every night is what keeps it fresh for me. That’s why I have to tour.”

And what’s the difference between being a boxer and being an entertainer?

“Boxing is a very scary thing to do,” he answered. “Every fight I ever fought, I felt fear before I entered the ring. The waiting before the fight saps your strength. But what I feel before going onstage is a pleasant anticipation. I don’t think I ever fully believed in myself as a boxer, but I believe in myself as a performer.”

Despite his self-confidence, he’s had shows that didn’t go well.

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“A bad crowd for me is like college kids,” he said. “Not that they’re bad people, but they’re in a season of their lives where they’re going out to be seen, and the music is just something in the background. I’ve struggled a few times in front of college kids cuz they’re goin’ to get laid and drink beer.”

When asked about his heroes in the music biz, he said: “One of my heroes is Dean Martin. I watch those old shows on DVD, and he was a great singer who could sing a song with heavy emotion, and then do a joke.”

Martin probably wouldn’t make most people’s list of hip references. “Well,” Thorn said. “He’s hip to me, and I’m gonna have to walk the way I walk. He didn’t take himself too seriously, and I try not to, either.”

Does he ever get dumb questions from interviewers?

“Sometimes people will ask, ‘What kind of music do you play?’” he said. “I told one woman that my stuff is a cross between Lawrence Welk and ZZ Top, and she didn’t even get the joke. When an interviewer starts by askin’ what kind of music I play, I know it’s going to be an interview from hell because they haven’t done their homework.”

Kris Kristofferson, no slouch himself in the Southern songwriter-with-an-interesting-backstory department, has said that Thorn is “the best kept secret in the music business.” But the secret has been getting out. On the day of this interview, Thorn said he just learned his new album had debuted at No. 77 on the Billboard 200 album chart. “That’s all genres,” he said. “We’re a small independent label, and we’re pretty excited about that.”

Is there one of his songs he hopes will be remembered a century from now?

“The last song on my new record is pretty special,” he said. “The entire song is quotations I heard my mother say my whole life. My mom was always in the shadows, just ‘Brother Thorn’s wife.’ When I sing that song, I sometimes lose it onstage. It’s a song about Earlene Thorn, not Brother Thorn’s wife.”

If you can’t make Thorn’s upcoming show at the Sierra Nevada Big Room (July 20), visit his website at where he blogs daily—a divided Southern soul seeking the words for what he’s learned on his journey thus far.