Paul Thorn Revisits His Gospel Roots

Mar 17, 2018
Originally published on April 3, 2018 11:49 am

Paul Thorn is a natural-born Southern storyteller with humble stage banter and musical delivery that's gritty and gruff. Since his 1997 debut album, Hammer and Nail, Thorn has given fans plenty of bluesy, roots-rock music with songs like "Pimps and Preachers" and "What the Hell Is Goin' On." Thorn's latest album, Don't Let The Devil Ride, out March 23, is a return to his childhood in the churches of Tupelo, Miss.

Thorn grew up singing and playing tambourine in his father's Pentecostal church. Traveling with his father to perform, Thorn especially enjoyed visiting black churches because the music of those services sounded like rhythm and blues. "That was the type that really got into my head," Thorn says.

Thorn performed with his tambourine every night before his father preached. One night, he got a surprise.

"They took up an offering for me," Thorn says. "After I had sang my songs, I had a whole tambourine full of dollar bills, so that was my first paying gig."

Thorn draws on these humble beginnings to create Don't Let The Devil Ride. The 14-track album pays homage to many lesser-known Southern gospel songs and features guest performers like The Blind Boys of Alabama, the horn section of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Bonnie Bishop and The McCrary Sisters. By creating a project that includes covers of The O'Jays' "Love Train" and spirituals like "Soon I Will Be Done" (popularized by Mahalia Jackson), Thorn hopes this album will have an uplifting role during turbulent times.

"You know a tree by the fruit it bears," he says. "I want this album to have some good fruit that people can put in their hearts and apply to their lives."

Thorn spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about Don't Let The Devil Ride, his early songwriting days and recording in legendary spaces. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Paul Thorn has been building his audience for decades. He named his label Perpetual Obscurity Records. But he is a southern storyteller with a stage banter that's humble and honest and a musical delivery that's gruff and gritty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET THE DEVIL RIDE")

PAUL THORN: (Singing) Don't let the devil ride.

SIMON: Paul Thorn made his recording debut in 1997 and ever since has given his fans plenty of bluesy roots rock music. Now, a return to the songs of his childhood - especially the performances that he heard in the black churches of Tupelo, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET THE DEVIL RIDE")

THORN: (Singing) If you let the devil ride, he's going to want to die. Don't let him ride.

SIMON: His new CD is called, "Don't Let The Devil Ride." Paul Thorn joins us from the studios of member station KUT in Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.

THORN: Yeah, yeah. Thank you all for having me.

SIMON: You grew up singing and playing music in your father's Pentecostal church, right?

THORN: Yes, sir, I did.

SIMON: Well, what was that like?

THORN: It's a place where, you know, they believe you get saved, sanctified. And when you get the Holy Ghost, you start speaking in tongues.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL THORN'S SONG "THE GET BACK")

THORN: And the music in these churches is amazing. There's actually - when I was a kid, there were two types of churches. There were the churches where the white people attended. And there was the churches where the black people attended. The black churches, it was a whole different thing. They had a sound like rhythm and blues music. And that was the type that really got into my head and that I really liked the most.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GET BACK")

THORN: (Singing) Come on, let's go into the house of the Lord.

SIMON: You played the tambourine when you were three - at your father's church, I gather?

THORN: Yeah. Even though he was a pastor, we would travel and do revivals, like evangelism type work. Every night before my dad would preach, he would put me up on top of the altar, stand me up where everybody could see me. And I would take this tambourine, and I would sing. One night at the last night of the revival, I got a surprise. And they took up an offering for me after I had sang my songs. I had a whole tambourine full of dollar bills, so that was my first paying gig. And that same night that I had that tambourine full of money, there was a girl - I think she was about 12. She was older than me. But after the service, I asked her to come out to the Coke machine behind the church. I bought her a Coca-Cola with my winnings. And we sat on the steps holding hands with the money I made from singing. Praise the Lord (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, what a beautiful story. Well, let's hear another cut. This is "Soon I Will Be Done."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOON I WILL BE DONE")

THORN: (Singing) There'll be no more weeping and wailing, no more weeping and wailing. There'll be no more weeping and wailing. I'm going home to live with God, my Lord. I soon will be done with the troubles, Lord, the troubles. Yeah, I soon will be done. I'm going home to be with God, my Lord.

SIMON: Wow, that's a gospel song.

THORN: Yes, it is. Yeah, and I love that song, you know, because, you know, everybody has trouble in life. And there are sadly people in the world that don't have hardly any joy or happiness in life. And, you know, it gives them hope that in the afterlife they'll soon be happy and that their troubles will be over. What a wonderful thing to believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOON I WILL BE DONE")

THORN: (Singing) I'm going home to live with God, my Lord.

SIMON: You recorded some of these songs in - well, let's see I see the Sam Phillips recording studio, right?

THORN: We recorded half the album at Sam Phillips recording studio. Everybody knows that's the man that discovered Elvis. And then we cut the other half at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, which is famous, you know, for being the place where Rick Hall did all his magic. Coincidentally, the first person I ever wrote songs for back in the '80s was - I got signed to Rick Hall as a staff writer. And so it was really kind of neat to come back after all this time - circle back around - and do my gospel record there. And, you know, Rick recently passed away. But what's really great about it is PBS filmed a documentary of the making of the album that's coming out in May. And Rick is actually in the video with us. So those are some precious memories that will live on even after I'm gone.

SIMON: Well, let's hear a cut that was recorded at Rick Hall's studio in Muscle Shoals - "Love Train."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE TRAIN")

THORN: (Singing) People all over the world join hands. Brothers and sisters, start a love train, love train.

SIMON: Kind of a slowed down version of "Love Train" by The O'Jays.

THORN: I always loved this song. But if we could all live our lives by the words of this song, it would fix everything in the whole world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE TRAIN")

THORN: (Singing) Well, all of your brothers over in Africa, Africa, why don't you tell them - tell all of the people in Egypt and Israel too - Israel, Israel.

THORN: Everything's so divided. And there are so many people hate people just because of where they're from or what they look like. It's a song about tolerance that's greatly needed.

SIMON: This music might have a role in these times.

THORN: It could. You know, nobody can change the world, but you can change little things in your own world, you know, by being a light, you know. And, you know, you know a tree by the fruit it bears, you know. I'm just - I want this album to have some good fruit people can put in their hearts and apply it to their lives.

SIMON: That's musician and trailer park philosopher, Paul Thorn. On tour now, his new gospel CD is called, "Don't Let The Devil Ride." Thanks so much for being with us.

THORN: Hey, I appreciate the time we spent together. I hope I see you sometime down the road.

SIMON: I hope so, sir. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE TRAIN")

THORN: (Singing) People all over the world join hands. Start a love train, love train. People all over the world join hands. Start a love train, love train. People all over the world join hands. All over the world, let's join hands. Start a love train, love train. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.