Before Tupelo, Miss., singer/songwriter Paul Thorn embarked on a music career, he was best known as a ninth-ranked U.S. middleweight boxer who survived a nationally televised match against the legendary Roberto Duran.
What Thorn remembers most nowadays about that fight is “Just how hard it was to even hit the guy,” he says. “I had about 50 matches in all, and any time I went into the ring I was scared. Any fighter that says he’s not is lying.
“Duran was known for his punching power, and yeah, he had punching power. But what made him so special to me, being in the ring with him… he’d be so close that I could feel his breath on my face. But every time I’d throw a punch he had this ability to… well, like a cat somehow manages to land on its feet, Duran managed not to get hit. And even when I did hit him, he would move his head in the direction of the punch and take all the impact out of it.
“It was almost supernatural. It was like Michael Jordan. You can coach a bunch of kids how to play basketball, but only once in a blue moon does somebody have that gift that makes them special. And Roberto Duran had that gift.”
When Thorn retired from the ring and took a regular job in a furniture factory, he spent his spare time revisiting a craft that had been just in the background his whole life: music.
“I started singing in the Pentecostal church before I was two,” he recalls, “and I started playing the guitar around 12. My father was a preacher, and we went to a lot of churches, both black and white. That’s where I got my music mojo from.”
And also much of his songwriting material, as witness his 2010 album Pimps and Preachers. A sample lyric: “One showed me how to love / One taught me how to fight / I guess you could say I’m an overachiever / And I owe a debt of gratitude / To pimps and preachers.”
The song is literally true. “My father’s brother was a pimp,” Thorn says. “He made his living off women for 10 solid years, and I saw that world up close. The time I spent around him and my dad was a real mentorship for me, because I got to see the dark side of life and the bright side of life. I learned that nobody is all bad, and nobody is all good.”
How did his parents (at whose house Thorn had just finished breakfast when we talked; he reported the menu as eggs, tenderloin, biscuits and molasses) react to the Pimps and Preachers fanfare?
“I’ve never done an album that’s not controversial in some way,” he says. “For some reason, you can’t please everybody. But when I played the song for my parents, I told them it was a tribute and a way to say ‘Thank you’ for the mentorship they gave me. And in the end they appreciated it. That was my biggest hope, and that’s what happened.”
After garnering critical acclaim with album after album of strong, original songwriting material, including such memorable titles as “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love,” Thorn was taken aback recently when one particular number took on a life of its own: “It’s a Great Day (To Whoop Somebody’s Ass).”
He insists it’s not a flashback to his boxing career: “It was just a song I wrote as a joke,” he says. “I played it on some syndicated radio shows for fun, and it ended up catching fire as sort of a working man’s anthem. They kept playing it after I left, and I’m glad they did because now they send me a check every quarter. Helps me feed my kid, and I’ll take that any time.
“I mean, it’s a song people can identify with. When they get up in the morning and eat their bowl of Froot Loops and know they’ve got to go work in a factory for eight hours, and maybe their boss is not a very nice person… when you go through a day, you’re going to run into somebody whose ass you want to whoop. So the song is kind of a pop-out valve, a relief for that type of feeling.”
Thorn’s newest effort, What the Hell Is Going On?, is in one way a radical departure: “This is my 10th album, and for all the previous ones I wrote every single song. This is the first time in my career I’ve done an album of covers. They’re obscure songs that most people haven’t heard. They’re songs by people I know personally, and that have really touched me in one way or another.
“I’m excited about it, because it’ll give me a chance to say, ‘Hey, y’all, check out these other guys you’ve never heard of.’ The quality of the songwriting is top-notch. I didn’t cut them because they’re by my friends; I picked them because each one is an incredible song.”
As for his own songwriting output, Thorn says that “sporadic” might be the best descriptor. “It’s sort of like marital sex,” he observes. “If you do it a specific time every week it becomes boring. It’s like it’s Wednesday night and Friends just went off and you say, ‘Honey, I’ll be there in a minute.’
“So I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to write a song!’ I go out in the world and see what’s happening, and every once in a while something in life presents itself that makes a good idea for a song.”
An example of that approach that’s turned out to be a crowd favorite is the song “I Have a Good Day Every Now and Then.”
“That one came to be when I was talking to a friend on the phone one time,” Thorn says. “His wife had left him, and it was a long time before he got to where he could even function. One day I asked him, ‘Are you doing OK?’ and he said, ‘I must be getting better, because I have a good day every now and then.’ That sentence stuck in my head and I wrote it down.
“His name was Steve Ward. And sadly, even though he had that optimistic moment, his sorrow became so great that he took his own life. So that song will always have a special meaning for me, because he meant a lot to me.
“What person can’t say that? Every day’s not a great day, but you live for the good ones every now and then. The fact they’re so infrequent is what makes them special.”
Paul Thorn will appear at WorkPlay on Friday, May 11, at 8 p.m. Steve Forbert will be the opening act. For information, go to www.workplay.com.