I won't lie. When I first came across singer-songwriter Paul Thorn in concert at Bob's in August 2009, I was there to see opener Seth James. When I stuck around, however, I was both disarmed and entranced by Thorn: a songwriter with a genuine gift for engaging an audience and telling stories, with both his words and his music. Since then, I've followed his music and was thrilled to see him return to Tulsa not once, but twice this month.
Last week, I got to catch up with Thorn backstage at the Brady Theater, where he was opening for iconic folk songwriter John Prine. Thorn has had the privilege of opening for Prine in the past, so when asked about the opportunity, Thorn quickly conceded, "Any time I get a chance to open for John, I drop everything to do it. He's got such a quality audience that even in cities where I'm not very well known, because I've opened for John I can come back and people will come (see me)."
"If I could have a career like anyone or a similar kind of success as anyone, I think it would be like John," Thorn said. "That's because John Prine is successful and has written all these great songs, but he's not necessarily recognized. He's got a great audience and following, but at the same time, he can go to someplace like Wal-Mart and no one know who he is."
"The thing is, you don't have to be young and pretty and sing awful songs for his audience. John's fans come to see him because of his songs. We all have our season to be young and pretty, but eventually, we all get old and ugly -- some of us just stay young and pretty longer than others."
It's just that kind of candor and self-deprecating humor than makes Thorn so engaging, both in his songs and on stage. Quintessentially southern, Thorn's thick drawl and southern heritage come dripping through whether singing or speaking and he always comes off as thoroughly genuine, even when cracking a joke.
Musically, Thorn's tunes are a mix of classic singer/songwriter material, but his roots growing up in Tupelo, Miss., are obvious in the blouse and gospel overtones that carry through. Thorn's father was (and still is) a Pentecostal minister and as Thorn said, "Growing up, and even still in Tupelo, the white people go one church and the black people go to another church. That's just the way it is. Sometimes we'd go visit the black churches and they have a more soulful type gospel. The white churches have a more country-western style gospel, so I was influenced by both."
That gospel influence comes out loud and clear on the Thorn's latest disc, Pimps and Preachers, especially on songs like "Tequila is Good for the Heart," even if the lyrics take an unexpected turn. That's part of the gift of his songwriting, however. Whether singing of heartbreak on the aforementioned song or a track like "Love Scar" or being reflective on "That's Life," Thorn always adds a human element to his stories.
There's also a distinctive message of hope that rings out consistently from Thorn's work, as witnessed on the new disc with tracks like "You're Not The Only One," "Better Days Ahead," "You Might Be Wrong" and "I Hope I'm Doing This Right." While that positive spin undoubtedly comes from Thorn's background as a preacher's son, his background is equally colorful as title track "Pimps and Preachers" reveals, rather humorously.
An easy topic to be drawn to, although Thorn's father was a preacher, his uncle really was a pimp.
"Pimps and preachers actually have a lot in common," he said, chuckling slightly. "Both have the same wardrobe, they are both eloquent speakers, and they both have to entertain people."
Having influences from both sides definitely shaped Thorn and his understanding of the world, as the song's lyrics share in some detail.
"Everyone has both good and bad in them," Thorn said of his perspective. "I just take the good and try to throw out the bad, for the most part."
No matter what the subject matter, Thorn's songs draw you in as he manages to infuse elements humor, insight and elemental truth into every tune. Even the songs that are more humor based ring funnier because of the genuineness that rings true in each song.
It's that authenticity that makes Thorn's listeners identify so readily with the songs and become such loyal fans. Thorn also shared that in the past year, he quit resisting and finally added a Facebook page, allowing him to connect with his fans on a more consistent and regular basis, something that he committed to in order to continue building his audience.
After 13 years as a professional musician, Paul Thorn may not be a household name yet, but he's been fortunate enough to release nine albums and see his popularity and following grow incrementally each year. When reflecting on that, he went back to referencing Prine.
"I'd like to have a career like John's -- one with that gradual growth. He's got integrity and doesn't follow trends, he just does what he wants to do and I think people can relate to the spirit of his music," he said.
"Thankfully, my following is growing and I've got some very loyal fans. I see people travel to come see me wherever I'm at.
"One of these days John's going to quit, though, and somebody's got to take his spot. I'm not saying I'm any better than anyone else, I'm just campaigning..."
With nine albums under his belt and an authenticity that continues to draw more to him with each show, Paul Thorn is well on his way to building the kind of longevity and audience that he craves. It's not that he's obsessed with Prine or success, however -- that just proved to be a focal point as we discussed the tour and his opening spot. In the end, Thorn isn't about vanity, he's more concerned with wanting to be a good provider for his family and a life as a singer/songwriter has been able to accommodate that to date.
If you keep an eye and ear on him, however, my bet is you'll see Paul Thorn continue to build the kind of career he talks about as he continues to connect with fans and spread a message of humor and hope with his songs.
If you haven't seen hum yet, he'll be headlining a full evening with his band this coming Wednesday night, Nov. 17 at Bob's. Tickets are only $18 to see one of the most promising singer/songwriters on the road right now -- and possible the heir to John Prine's throne.
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