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Paul Thorn Got Music At Southern Churches, White And Black


Here's something you don't read in the bio of every blues rocker who comes down the pike - Paul Thorn was once a nationally ranked middleweight boxer who fought world champion Roberto Duran, (Spanish spoken), Hands of Stone.

Thorn's latest album is about making us feel good.


PAUL THORN: (Singing) Too blessed to be stressed. Too blessed to be stressed. Too blessed to be stressed.

Out behind the new Taco Bell at the Blue Oasis Motel everybody's checking in to stay here the whole weekend. The Johnson Family Reunion has become an institution. They all wear the same red T-shirts on the front it said these five words - Too blessed to be stressed.

GOODWYN: That's the title cut off Paul Thorn's latest CD - his 10th - "Too Blessed To Be Stressed," child. Only, you left off the child.

As you can probably hear, Mr. Thorn grew up in the church, his father's church in Tupelo, Mississippi. From there, it was 12 years working in a furniture factory and then that boxing career, all of which eventually led to full-time music, which has led Paul Thorn to us today. He joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Welcome, Paul.

THORN: Oh, I'm so glad to be here. How you doing?

GOODWYN: I'm doing fine. Paul, if I didn't know anything about you but I just heard your music and your voice, I'd say, that boy's from Texas.

THORN: Well, that's a close guess but I'm actually from the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

GOODWYN: Well, let's take "Get You A Healin'," for example. You start with this nasty little guitar riff.


GOODWYN: And then when you come in on the vocals, I could swear you're channeling Mr. Lyle Lovett, as he's called in Austin.


THORN: (Singing) You've got to get you healin' from the bottom of your heart. Get you a healin' it's the only place to start. Forgive all the people who have ever brought you harm. Get yourself a healin' with lovin' from now on.

GOODWYN: But of course, that's not Lyle Lovett from Austin; that's Paul Thorn from Tupelo, Mississippi. Paul, what is it about Tupelo that has given rise to so many talented writers and musicians?

THORN: One of the things that benefited me was the same thing that kind of benefited Elvis. You know, my father being a Pentecostal minister, growing up there was two kinds of churches we attended. There were churches where the white people attended and churches where the black people attended. And at the black churches they sang a rhythm and blues style gospel and at the other white churches, they played a country-western style gospel. And just like Elvis, I grew up going to both churches. And that's - I think all that great music across the board really sprang from Southern churches. That just what I think.


THORN: (Singing) Too blessed to be stressed. Everybody say yeah. Yeah. Too blessed to be stressed.

GOODWYN: You're a former boxer who was so talented that you fought one of the greatest boxers of all time. What was it like fight Roberto Duran? Did he actually have hands of stone?

THORN: Yeah. You know, I fought him. It was on national television. It was in 1988. And the fight was scheduled for 10 rounds. And I fought him as hard as I could for six rounds. But when I sat on my stool between the six and the seventh, I had this horrific cut over my eye and my lip was split. And so they stopped the fight. But you know, even though I was beaten by a better man, it's a memory that I'll never forget. And as time goes by, something I can maybe tell my grandkids about someday.

GOODWYN: When you go into a fight like that, when you're sitting in the room before you go out there, what do you secretly tell yourself?

THORN: Why am I doing this? Who taught me any of this? This is crazy.

No, the main thing that fighters feel when they go - prior to going into the ring, the most dominant emotion is fear. Unless you've been in the ring, you don't understand the level of fear of walking down that aisle, you know. Because when you're in the dressing room, you have your entourage around you and they're all patting you on the back and they're saying, you can do it, you can do it. And they walk to the ring with you, but something strange happens when you get to the ring. When you get in the ring, they get out. And then you're there all by yourself. And it's just mano to mano. And it's just - it's a fearful thing.

GOODWYN: How much of your boxing career informs your music, would you say?

THORN: You know, I don't see any comparison for me personally because like I said, when I go into the ring and went into the ring, I felt fear. But when I go on the stage and perform, I don't feel fear because you know, growing up in the churches and getting up and singing in church I didn't realize was actually preparing me to be an entertainer. And so where I really feel most comfortable and I think where I have my real calling, is on stage, not in the ring.

GOODWYN: I really was attracted to the song "Old Stray Dogs And Jesus." And it's a song about a man who's lost his last friend who was a member of the Mexican drug cartel. And all he's got left now are old stray dogs and Jesus. Can we hear a little bit of that?

THORN: Yeah, play it.


THORN: (Singing) I used to know a drug dealer. His name was Billy Jack. The Mexican cartel cut his head off and he ain't coming back. God knows I so miss my buddy. He had some killer pot. This old stray dog and Jesus are all the friends I've got.

GOODWYN: That is a sad song.

THORN: Well, it is and it isn't. Because you know, I live in Mississippi. One of the things that's really running crazy in Mississippi is drug addiction. You know, crystal meth, ice, all that hard stuff. And this is a song about a guy who hits rock bottom in that world. But the good news is, in the last part of the song he checks himself into rehab. And in my opinion, that's the only way anybody can get any long-term healing.

GOODWYN: Why did you decide to make this album about a message of hope?

THORN: There's so many records about people who are heartbroken and sad. And there's a place for that and there's a time you want to wallow in that. But I wanted to make a record that when people listen to it, it'll make them feel better. Kind of like Kool and the Gang did back in the '80s. When you heard their songs, you know, (singing) celebrate good times, come on - it just got you out of your seat and made you feel good. And I want this record to be the Americana Kool and the Gang. That's what I want it to be.

GOODWYN: You're on the road a lot playing your music. Tell me why. What do you get out of it?

THORN: You know, when I got out of high school I wasn't college material. The options were limited for me. And luckily, God blessed me with a talent and once I went out on the road and started doing my thing, singing on stage, I realized that people enjoyed what I do. And there's a certain group of people that connect with the things I say.

GOODWYN: There is another song that I connected with on the album, "No Place I'd Rather Be."


THORN: (Singing) Morning coffee in the living room. I can smell familiar perfume. There's a picture of our wedding day by this TV. There's no place I'd rather be.

GOODWYN: It's a song about growing up in the South and living your life kind of surrounded by nature and a home that's not too big, up a driveway that's just gravel and you're in love with your wife and your children.

THORN: Well, I have a family. I have a wife and two daughters. And they're the greatest love of my life. And what I do - although I enjoy it, you know, touring around and playing - it comes with a price. And that price is I have to be away from them. Every single time I leave the house and pull out of the driveway, I've got tears rolling down my face and my little 10-year-old, she's got tears rolling down her face. It's because we love each other and we cherish our time together. And when we're not together there's a sadness that comes with it. But, you know, when I come back home and they meet me then I know why I'm alive.


THORN: (Singing) It's hard to live your life behind the wheel. Soldiers and truck drivers know how I feel.

GOODWYN: Paul Thorn's latest CD is called "Too Blessed To Be Stressed."

Paul, thanks so much for speaking with us.

THORN: Thank you for giving me this opportunity.


THORN: (Singing) No place I'd rather be.

GOODWYN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. B.J. Leiderman wrote our theme. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm Wade Goodwyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.