Paul Thorn has just released his 13th album, Don’t Let the Devil Ride. It’s an unabashed album of gospel music, with Paul and his band, and a group of top notch collaborators including the Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, Bonnie Bishop and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Horns in scintillating form. It’s heady stuff, rockin’ gospel music with a wonderful, upbeat spirit. “This is the culmination of my whole life in music, coming back to my gospel roots,” Paul says, “I want to help lighten your load and make you smile.”
He goes on: “One of things that I take a lot of pride in is that I love everybody, and what I learned in church paid dividends. When I’m up there entertaining it’s also a glimpse of what my life has been and how gospel music has molded me into who I am.”
Who he is, is a class Americana act – great singer, guitar player and song writer with a quick sense of humour, who has shared a stage with Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Jeff Beck and Huey Lewis, to name a few. But he’s also a thoroughly nice guy who’s happy to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans at his shows and who feels he owes a debt of gratitude to his mom and dad.
Down at the Crossroads was able to catch up with Paul in Savannah, Georgia, before his gig that night with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
DATC: Hi Paul. Thanks for talking to us today. We were very excited to listen to the new album – it’s been on constant play in my car over the past few days. So, congratulations on that – it really is outstanding. And it’s basically a gospel album – tell us why you wanted to make a record like this.
Paul: Well I grew up the son of a Pentecostal minister and I grew up singing to this type of music. My family are white people, but we always went to the black churches a lot and we worshipped with them, and I just love the black style of gospel music. That’s what I was drawn to and I always had it in my mind that some day I wanted to do a gospel record, and I just thought that this was the right time to pay tribute to my roots – and that’s what I did.
DATC: That’s interesting – going back to your boyhood, what was it like for white people going to a black church in Mississippi back then?
Paul: Truth be told, there were two types of churches growing up. The black people had their own church and the white people had theirs, and we each had a different style of worship. But my family would go visit the black churches and we’d worship with them, and that’s where the music got me, man. White churches did more of a country and western style – which I do like too! – but the black music really got into me, I just loved it.
DATC: There’s always been a bluesy, gospel feel to your music, Paul, hasn’t there?
Paul: That’s exactly right. I live in Tupelo Mississippi which is the birthplace of Elvis Presley, and people always ask me what my influences were and they expect me to say somebody famous. But it’s really not – my biggest influences were people nobody’s heard of, people who sang in church. You know there was a spirit to what they did; it didn’t bother me that they weren’t famous, I was being touched in my heart by the sounds I was hearing.
DATC: So, how did you go about choosing this collection of songs? They’re all old gospel songs, spirituals and others from the African American tradition. How did you pick these songs?
Paul: Well, one thing I did not want to do; I didn’t want to sing gospel songs that had been done a lot. There are a lot of great gospel songs like Amazing Grace or I’ll Fly Away – but too many people have done them, so we just dug around – listed to old records, searched the Internet, we tried to find songs that were good gospel songs, but more obscure. Some of the songs were so obscure we weren’t even able to find out who wrote them. They’re songs that have been forgotten. So that’s how we chose them, we wanted songs that weren’t as familiar.
DATC: You know, one of the songs I was listening to today, The Half Has Never Been Told – your version is terrific – but I remember as a boy singing the original 19th century Philip Bliss hymn. I haven’t heard that song for 40 odd years, so it took me back!
Paul: Yeah, I wanted these songs to be fresh for a new generation of listeners who’ve never heard these songs.
DATC: And I love the version of You Gotta Move which you’ve changed from Mississippi Fred McDowell’s slow blues into a fantastic upbeat celebration. What’s that song about and why did you give it this sort of treatment?
Paul: Well that’s a good question. I think that song can be what you want it to mean. You got to move could mean get up and dance and rejoice and feel good. It could mean stop being lazy and get up and do some work! It could mean anything. It could mean you’re fixing to die. When you say, when the Lord get ready, it could mean the grim reaper’s coming to take you out. It could mean anything – that’s what I like about it; I want the listener to make it mean what it means to them. It’s got multiple meanings and it’s a good song for that reason.
DATC: I’ve always thought of that song as a resurrection song. You know, the policeman, the woman on the street – everybody’s in the same boat, but in the last day when God moves them bones, everybody’s the same.
Paul: Yeah, exactly right, That’s a strong message. We’ll all the same – whoever you look up to the most in life, your hero, whoever that may be, you have to understand, that person is very flawed. We’re all flawed. Nobody is all good and nobody is all bad. That’s the thing I think this record also says – we’re all in it together.
DATC: That’s interesting. Because the last song, the title track Don’t Let the Devil Ride taps into that old struggle between good and evil, often played out on an individual level. Which you see in a lot of the old blues songs and in the lives of some of the old blues artists. But that’s a struggle I guess we all face.
Paul: You know the hardest thing in life is doing the right thing. It’s easy doing the wrong thing. Doing the wrong thing is fun! When I think of Don’t Let the Devil Ride I think of temptation. In my world, I guess the strongest temptation for me, and for any man, is women. Know what I mean? My grandfather used to say, when the birds of temptation fly around your head, don’t let them build a nest.
DATC: Wise advice! Well, let me ask you this, Paul – your early history in the church, as I understand it, resulted in you getting thrown out. But here you are all these years later with a lovely dedication to your father and mother on the album sleeve, and saying what you learned in church paid dividends. Tell us how that works.
Paul: Well, you know, my mom and dad, when they got married they were very young, and they started singing gospel music and pastoring churches. They spent their entire lives serving God and serving others. And one of the things I learned from my Dad that has really served me well in life – there’s a lot of people you meet in life that are only nice to certain people, they pick and choose who they’re nice to benefit themselves, but my dad wasn’t like that, he was always a champion for the underdog. And…that’s what I wanna be.
DATC: That’s a great example to have in your life, for sure. Now you recorded the album at Sam Phillips Studio and FAME studio Muscle Shoals and Preservation Hall– 3 very historic locations. Tell us about that experience.
Paul: Well we just wanted to record this authentic music in authentic studios and there’s nothing more authentic than Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis and Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals. That’s as authentic as it gets. We recorded half the album at Sam Phillips and half at Fame, and PBS filmed the making of the album, they followed us to both studios. So it’s coming out as a documentary on PBS in May. It’s gonna be a great promotional tool for the record. But we wanted to record the record somewhere that had the spirit to match the music.
DATC: Yeah. It sounds great, And the production and the sound quality on the album is excellent. And you have some wonderful collaborators on the album – the Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, Bonnie Bishop and the horns. What was it like working with those guys?
Paul: Oh man, it was awesome. The Blind Boys – I love those guys, they’re pros and they know more about gospel music than I’ll ever know, because they’ve been doing it longer than I have. And I like it, because they’re old enough to call me boy! I like that!
DATC: So, they are going to join you, and the McCrary Sisters as well, on some of the dates on your tour?
Paul: Yeah, I’m doing a show with the Blind Boys tonight. We’re going to take this gospel thing as far as we can take it. It’s off to a good start. I just found out yesterday that it debuted on the Americana chart at number 12 and next week it’s gonna be in the Top 100 Billboard chart in the United States. So we’re off to a really good start.
DATC: That’s great, Paul. How does this material go down with your audience, some of whom may have no interest in gospel music faith?
Paul: Well so far it’s gone over great. ‘Cause all of my fans that know me know that I grew up singing gospel music. And believe it or not, for years my fans have been asking me to cut a gospel record. You know, whether you’re a believer or not, the music is great. And when I go on stage, I’m not a preacher – I’m an entertainer. But I am sincere when I sing this music. And the fans love it! I haven’t heard one person say, why’d you do a gospel record? Actually they’ve all said, man, this is what we’ve been waiting on. So everybody wins!
DATC: The album is great, you’ve done a fantastic job. I wish you well for tonight and for all the rest of the tour. Paul, thanks very much.