Among those who value originality, inspiration, eccentricity, and character - as well as talent that hovers somewhere on the outskirts of genius, the story of Paul Thorn is already familiar. Now, Thorn reveals another layer of his fascinating history on the album Pimps & Preachers, addressing that subject on the title cut and in the intriguing "family portrait" he painted for the cover, which highlights his daddy the preacher and his uncle the pimp.
The cover depicts a teeming street scene at the unlikely intersection of Redemption Lane and Turn Out Boulevard. Two figures dominate: a pimp and a preacher, both dressed to the nines beneath broad-brimmed hats, surrounded by hookers, holy rollers and hangers-on, and all on their paths to salvation or perdition. Nearly lost in this tumult is a small boy banging a tambourine branded with the name of Jesus, but backed up against a streetwalker holding a fistful of greenbacks.
“That little boy represents me,” says Thorn. “I'm in the church group, but my eyes are looking back to the street where all the sin is going on. It shows me being intrigued by the broad world. That's why I made this my album cover. It describes who I am.”
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi and raised among the same spirits (and some of the actual people) who nurtured a young Elvis generations before, Thorn has rambled down back roads and jumped out of airplanes, worked for years in a furniture factory, battled four-time world champion boxer Roberto Durán on national television, signed with and been dropped by a major label, opened for Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler, and John Prine among many other headliners, and made some of the most emotionally restless yet fully accessible music of our time.
Still, Thorn's story has never been complete. If you follow it back through his songs, at some point near the beginning the mysteries gather like a mist, obscuring the picture and leaving unanswered the question of how he acquired his ability to find brilliance buried in shadows, darkness in daylight, poetry in the mundane, and truth in the brutal beauties of life.
Pimps & Preachers addresses this lingering riddle. On Thorn's ninth album, released on his own Perpetual Obscurity label (through Thirty Tigers/RED), the answer begins in the title and the cover image, painted by Thorn with the same power, paradoxes, rough edges and passions that animate his writing and performance. Specifically, it takes us to a central theme of Thorn's youth: the pull of polar opposites - one representing the severe ecstasies of fundamental faith and the other, the pleasures stigmatized and yet glamorized by the church.
Similar ambiguities fuel the work of other artists to whom Thorn can be compared, from Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams all the way back to Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. What stands Thorn apart from this august company is how personally this dichotomy guided his formative years. In his seminal albums, particularly his landmark Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, his upbringing as the son of a Church of God pentecostal minister became a matter of record. What hasn't been clear, though, is the parallel impact of his father's brother, who showed up suddenly from California when Thorn was 12 years old.
“He was a pimp back in the day,” Thorn says. “I had never met him before, so when he came back to Mississippi he had all this street wisdom and I started hanging around him as well as my father. My father was my mentor, but I learned a lot from my uncle too. Everything I've accomplished has been influenced by the time I spent around these two men.”
Thorn remains close to his father and his uncle today, closer than ever since his uncle has long abandoned his former livelihood. Yet the qualities that so strongly affected Thorn endure in the lyric to the title track, which honors them both; one for teaching him to love, and the other for teaching him to fight. For all the moral questions raised by the choices each man made, Thorn came to accept what they represented as essential and complementary. His embrace of opposites leads to a unity of spirit in Thorn's music, which is brought fully to life by his gift as a narrative writer.
This message rings throughout much of Pimps & Preachers, perhaps most intimately on “I Hope I'm Doing This Right.” The confession implicit in its title is tempered by Thorn's conviction that life is a full-color proposition.
“The song says 'Hank Williams was in the darkness when he sang I Saw the Light. I believe there's good in everyone, I hope I'm doing this right',” Thorn reflects. “I was talking to somebody the other day about this and they said, 'As big an alcoholic and a screw-up as Hank Williams was, how did he ever write a song that beautiful?' And I said, 'He was able to write it because he was an alcoholic and a screw-up. Otherwise, he wouldn't have even recognized where the darkness and light were.”
Elsewhere on Pimps & Preachers, Thorn conveys this theme through brief but epic vignettes - parables, almost - in the tradition of his father's Biblical exegeses. “Love Scar” grew from a conversation Thorn had with a woman backstage at London's Royal Albert Hall shortly before he would open for Sting. He noticed that her shoulder bore a tattoo of an eye shedding a tear. When he asked what it meant, her answer was sadder and deeper than he had expected.
“She told me about how she met a handsome guy and they had some drinks together,” Thorn recalls. “She had a one-night stand with him and got so distracted by his charm that she went out and got this tattoo because of his opening line when he had started to hit on her: 'If I could be a tear rolling down your cheek and die on your lips, my life would be complete.' Unfortunately, that tattoo is with her forever, even though he was gone the next day.”
Each track recounts its own story while clarifying and reinforcing Thorn's broader vision. The comic yet unsettlingly candid account of romantic opportunity lost too soon on “Nona Lisa,” the immeasurable intensity of love captured in the artfully offhand lyrics of “That's Life” (taken entirely from words spoken to Thorn by his mother), the assurances extended to all who suffer through uncertain times in “Better Days Ahead” - every moment on Pimps & Preachers speaks universally but with a fluency that stems from the earthy blues, haunted old-school country, and stripped-down urgency of the gospel music that surrounded Thorn throughout his Mississippi upbringing.
But Thorn's knack for using snapshots from everyday routine as the elements of this exquisite writing owes entirely to his distinctive abilities and commitment to linking these elements into a profession of mercy and forgiveness - ultimately, the real message of Pimps & Preachers.
“Look, there's nothing wrong with songs about holding hands or sitting by the phone and waiting for a girl to call,” he says. “But I wrote songs like that when I was 15. I'm trying now to sing about things that mean something to me, for people who want something real, who not only want forgiveness but are willing to give it.”
“Besides,” he concludes, bringing Pimps & Preachers back home. “If I came back to my dad or my uncle with songs like that now, they'd both kick my ass! So I'm still just trying to follow their lead.”