Paul Thorn speaks deep Southern, his slow drawl in tune with the laid-back rhythms of his Tupelo surroundings. But that's not slow in terms of backward. Thorn's observations on life are sharp and funny with the keen eye of one who's lived the rough and tumble life he writes about.
"When I left home at the age of 18, I bought a trailer. Paid $6,000 for it," Thorn said recently, phoning from his Tupelo home. It was in less-than-perfect shape, with a rotted hole around the windows where the air conditioner dripped on the plywood. The carpets smelled like cat piss. Rats had eaten through the tires, built a nest in them. "It was so raggedly that you could sit on the couch in the living room when the washing machine was spinning, it felt like you were in one of those vibrating beds in a motel," Thorn says. "I remember standing out front at that age and looking at that whole scenario and thinking, 'This is awesome.'"
The singer/guitarist chronicles his mobile home experiences on "Burn Down the Trailer Park" from his latest release, Paul Thorn Live. He suspects his old lady's running around on him when she comes home with Aqua Velva after-shave on her breath. Waking up alone at 3 a.m. and finding her gone, he's moved to "Shoot the pink flamingoes out in the dark/Can't live here since she broke my heart."
Thorn delivers his themes songs in a drawl that sounds like a blend of Randy Newman and John Hiatt. "I don't know Randy Newman, but I know John Hiatt quite well," Thorn says. "He and I have done a lot of shows together. He's definitely one of my influences."
A Pentecostal minister's son, Thorn started hell-raising early on. "When I left home at the age of 18, it was actually in a blaze of bullets," he says. Caught sneaking out of his window at midnight to begin his sexual awakening with a teenaged neighbor -- "One of our neighbors saw the footprints going out of the window, then my mom and dad did an investigation trail down to that girl's house and saw the same shoe prints going in her window" -- Thorn was confronted by his father and Sunday school teacher about fornication. They gave him the option of repenting in front of the church and making things right, changing his ways, or they were going to dis-fellowship him. "So I took option B, got dis-fellowshipped, moved out and got the trailer."
Thwarted in fornication, Thorn turned to fighting, and was the number 29 middle-weight in the world when he fought "Hands of Stone" Roberto Duran in 1988. Thorn says the problem wasn't that Duran hit hard, but that he was so hard to hit. Thorn's uncle, his trainer, told him not to press the action, to let Duran come to him, but he didn't listen. "I wanted to show I was eligible to be in a John Wayne movie, so I started running in throwing punches, and he picked me apart," Thorn remembers. The fight was stopped before the start of the seventh round due to cuts over Thorn's eyes. But he did cut Duran, so he has that to tell his grandchildren.
He got a song out of it as well. "This is my theme song, it gives me strength," he says of "Hammer and a Nail," undoubtedly one of the best pay-back songs of all times. "Ain't gonna let 'em beat me down," he proclaims to the world at large. "Someday I'll prevail/ I'd rather be a hammer than a nail."
In addition to singing and fighting, Thorn is an artist, illustrating earlier albums with a primitive folk art style similar to that of Reverend Howard Finster, whom he befriended. Finster's work inspired Thorn. "We were standing there looking at his work his work one day and he said, 'Paul, do something.'"
Thorn took his advice, in art and in his everyday life. "Every day I disappoint myself in one way or the other by not living up to my potential," he says. "But those days I do when I wake up and I do something creative, anything to help my family, paint a picture, mop the floor before my wife gets home so she don't have to, I feel better about myself on those days."
Paul Thorn plays the Neighborhood Theatre, Saturday, July 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.