When you go to a Paul Thorn show and you want a cheap souvenir, stand in the front row. What started as a trick that he learned from his mother — giving away cheesy stuff to make folks comfortable — has evolved into a trademark of his show. These tokens of affection can include anything from a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine and cans of Colt 45 to Waffle House hats and pickled pigs feet.
However, it’s his father’s influence that is most imprinted on Thorn’s lively stage presence. As the son of an impassioned Church of God minister, it’s not unusual for Thorn to testify on the powers of love in the middle of a sweaty set. He even invokes the call-and-response tactic on one of his concert staples, “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand.”
Asked whether his lineage has anything to do with his stage presence, he quickly answers: “Ain’t no doubt about it. Part of being a minister is being an entertainer.” In fact, his own engaging stage banter is delivered in a manner more suited to a pulpit than a microphone, and his words are just as fervent when they aren’t set to a melody.
Growing up in Tupelo, Miss., Thorn remembers being a little kid when Elvis Presley died. (Even though he says plenty of people in Tupelo have memories of a young Elvis, Thorn believes the icon “was a prophet who was never heard in his hometown.”) As a teenager, Thorn took boxing lessons from an uncle and eventually turned professional. In a brief moment of fame, he got his ass kicked by Roberto Duran on national television.
He recounted the experience in his signature song, “Hammer & Nail.” Thorn was working a day job at a chair factory when Sting’s manager, Miles Copeland, discovered him while onstage in a pizza parlor in Tupelo. “Hammer & Nail” became a title to his 1997 debut album on A&M Records, but the label closed shortly afterwards.
However, Nashville producer Chuck Cannon gave a copy of the album to Toby Keith, who lifted “Double Wide Paradise” and released it as a single in 1998. In the summer of 2002, Thorn accepted Keith’s invitation to tour with him as an opening act. Every night, along with Rascal Flatts, they’d all sing “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand.”
Today, Thorn remembers that road trip as a “strange adventure,” noting that he’d probably decline future offers to tour with country superstars. At age 39, he prefers to open for someone like John Hiatt, giving him a chance to build a more loyal audience. Indeed, his mailing list tops 20,000 names.
“Those were the biggest crowds I ever played in front of,” he says. “I made it work and sold a lot of CDs, but the only way I could succeed was to be funny.”
Thus, “Burn Down the Trailer Park” and “800 Pound Jesus” took the place of impressive ballads like “I Bet He Knows,” “Where Was I?” or “Mood Ring.” Later covered by other country artists, those two novelty songs died on the country singles chart — the former (cut by Billy Ray Cyrus) due to claims of misogyny and the latter (from Sawyer Brown) for being sacrilegious.
With his fourth album, Are You With Me?, Thorn sidesteps any potential pitfalls with a solid album of R&B-flavored (and slightly quirky) love songs. In “She Won’t Cheat on Us,” he sings about a friendly accord he made with the man who happened to be dating the same woman — at the same time. (“We never busted her,” he says.) Several perfect country hooks punctuate the album too, such as, “If you can’t love me forever, love me right now” and “I didn’t sleep with your woman/We stayed awake all night.”
“Love Will Find You,” which closes the album, is an ode to those who think they’ve been passed over in the romance department. Although he’s been married for six years, he readily admits to sin and temptation on the road, but with the lyrics of “I Don’t Wanna Know,” he distances himself from any unwanted advances.
“Everybody is fascinated by someone on stage,” Thorn says. “If the show is going well, these women in their minds, start seeing me as desirable. I stopped wearing a wedding ring because I got tired of women hitting on me.”
Meanwhile, Sawyer Brown is counting on “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand” to rejuvenate the band’s career.
“Paul is Norman Rockwell in black and white,” says Mark Miller, Sawyer Brown’s lead singer. “Paul Thorn writes a lot about my life without even knowing me that well. He has a way of tearing real life into bits, putting it back together and making normal people far more interesting than the stuff you see on television.”
Thorn says he’s optimistic about the single’s success because of the band’s recent appearance on The Tonight Show and because of young steel guitarist Robert Randolph’s cameo on the track and in the music video.
He’s hoping it’s a hit, he says, “so I can build a little nest egg.” But otherwise, it’s business as usual in 2005 — touring, testifying and tossing out trinkets to the audience.
“I want to do more than just sing songs,” he says. “I want people to have fun.”