by Jeff Niesel
Before issuing his 1997 debut, singer-songwriter Paul Thorn was a boxer and then worked in a furniture store making chairs. That colorful past informs the working class ethos you find on his first five studio albums. Distinctive because of his deep gravelly voice and gift for writing songs that read like short stories, Thorn takes a bit of a detour with his latest album, What the Hell is Goin’ On?, a collection of cover tunes on which he pays tribute to some of the artists who’ve inspired him over the years (Elvin Bishop, Buddy Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard). He plays at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Beachland Ballroom and tickets are $18. Brent Kirby & the Lost Fortunes open.
I love the artwork for the new album. What’s the story behind it?
I do all my own artwork. We press our own CDs and have our own distribution. I’m the artist and the art department. The top part of that drawing shows me and Jesus sitting in a kiddie pool surrounded by beautiful girls. In my mind, that’s what heaven is really going to be like. The way [preachers] describe it; it sounds boring to me. If there’s not some loose women walking around, why even go. The people burning in hell in the drawing are the people who did not buy any Paul Thorn products while they were on the earth. I’m trying to help people before it’s too late by showing them what’s going to happen.
Talk a bit about your decision to record an album of cover songs?
This is my tenth album and on my previous albums, I wrote all the songs myself. People are asking me what I listen to and what kind of music I like. I figured I would take a break from myself and have some fun. The guys in my band are some of the best musicians in the world, and I figured we could go out there and put our own spin on these songs and have a good time.
You first heard “What the Hell is Goin’ On?” while sitting on Elvin Bishop’s porch. Did you know at that moment that you wanted to record your own version?
I didn’t know at that moment. I just knew I liked that song a lot. It speaks of the times we are living in. They used to laugh at you if your pants were hanging down low but now they think you’re cool. When I was in school, if your underwear was showing, they’d laugh at you. Now, you get praised for it. There are so many things wrong in this world right now. I think the song speaks to the times. It’s a very timely song.
And you can see how it might apply to what’s going to happen in the future, too.
I’m of the opinion that civilizations die out. I believe that. It’s sad to say. I’m not making fun of anybody because God knows I love everybody. But when you go into Walmart, there are so many people that have gotten so big that they literally can’t walk. People look different now. I’m serious. I’m not making fun of anybody. I’m concerned. People are eating junk and getting bigger and having health issues. I don’t know what it’s going to be like for the next generation. This may be the end. I don’t know.
“Bull Mountain Bridge” sounds like it was a lot of fun to record. Was it any more fun to record than the other tracks on the album?
I don’t know the answer to that. That is a fun song. The guy who wrote the song is Wild Bill Emerson. I wrote all my songs with Billy Maddox and his idol is Wild Bill. My style of songwriting, which is storytelling, originated with Wild Bill so I cut the song to play homage to where whatever I have came from.
I don’t think I realized how raspy your voice is until this album. “Junkin’” almost sounds like Joe Cocker singing.
They pushed the gravel button when we were recording, and it makes it sound like that. Actually, it is what it is. I don’t know why it sounds like it does. I hope it’s a pleasant sound.
I think that even if people aren’t familiar with some of the tracks, they’ll still like your renditions. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment?
These songs are full of hooks. They’re just good songs. I had my pick. I could cut any song I wanted to cut. These are good songs. We waded through a lot of them, and I think they’re all great in different ways.
I think you’re touring with a band this time around, but you’ve also played solo. Do you prefer one over the other?
I like both of them. They’re different animals. There’s a time and place for both of them.
I don’t think you’ll ever be able to escape your colorful past. Do you get tired of talking about it?
If somebody wants to hear it and it’s important to them, I’ll tell it. Do I wake up every day and want to tell it every day? No. But as an artist you have to show the world a good part of yourself. I’ll let people know a little something if they want to know it.
You’re incredibly comfortable playing in front of an audience. Was that always the case?
Well, my father being a Pentecostal minister, I’ve been singing in front of people since I was three years old. I have no problem getting in front of people talking or singing.
How many times do you think you’ve played the Beachland?
Oh man, I’d just be guessing. Maybe a half dozen. I’m just guessing. I could be proven wrong.
What do you like about the venue?
I just like it. The main thing I like is that they have two rooms and when I started there, I played in the little small room and was able to move into the bigger room. I love that. In today’s world, a lot of businesses aren’t growing; they’re shrinking. In spite of the economy, the crowds are bigger than they were before. That’s been the case at the Beachland. I’m excited about that. We have some friends over there at [the Tremont restaurant] Sokolowski’s, too. We always go there and eat. That’s always good. They have a boutique vintage clothing store inside the Beachland Ballroom, and I like to go there to see if I can find me a cool shirt or something. I collect lunch boxes. I have a Hee Haw lunchbox but not the thermos. The last time I went to the store, I found the thermos and bought the thermos. Now because of the Beachland Ballroom, I have a thermos with Buck and Roy’s faces on it to go with my lunchbox.
You’ve been playing for 15 years now. Did you initially think that your music career would have such longevity?
No. I didn’t. Nobody knows what the future holds. Everybody has a talent in some areas. Mine is this. I’m thankful that my talent has turned into something that I can provide a living for my family. I inherited a lot of things from my dad and God speaks to him every day. Coincidentally, when I was born, God started speaking to me everyday. When he spoke to me this morning, he said to be sure to tell you if your readers to read this and if they don’t come to the show, they will burn in hell. That’s coming from God, so you can’t argue with that. I’m just the messenger.