A Few Minutes With Paul Thorn

Pollstar called Paul Thorn to see what’s going on. The accomplished singer/songwriter, who’s been building a career since the mid-‘90s, has been in the studio working on a new album.

The Americana/blues musician’s most recent LP is 2012’s What the Hell Is Goin’ On?, a collection of covers including Buddy Miller’s “Shelter Me Lord,” Allen Toussaint’s “Wrong Number” and Lindsey Buckingham’s “Don’t Let Me Down Again.”

There are a few things we knew about Thorn ahead of time – one being that he used to box and was once in the ring with Roberto Duran. We didn’t know he had such a friendly relationship with John Prine and that he oozes charisma, even over the phone.

What’s the timeframe on the album?

We’re shooting for the middle of August.  You know when you’re putting your makeup on you put the base and foundation on. We’re putting the mascara on now to give it the final tangle of beauty.

Are you recording with the same group of musicians you normally play with?

Yes. I’ve had the same band for about 20 years. We’ve had a couple of guests here or there but it’s not just a bunch of fishing guys.

How’s touring going?

In a year’s time I do 150-170 shows. I’ve been doing this full time since 1997. We’re a complete, in-house organization. We cut our own records. We own everything. We’re our own independent label.  Every year my fanbase has gotten bigger.

I’ve the mindset that if you win a singing show on TV and you win a million fans on one night, chances are those fans aren’t going to be there three months from now. But if you tour and make a connection with people, and you gain two or three fans a night, those fans will be with you for life.

I’ve built my career on that. It’s important to me that they have a good time at the show. When it’s over I always go out and shake people’s hands and thank them for coming. I believe that’s how you develop a lasting fanbase. One of my heroes and mentors is John Prine, whom I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of shows with. That’s one thing he’s really good about.

Other than that tried and true philosophy, are you doing anything else to draw fans?

Oh yeah. I’m real active on Facebook. And I make these little videos every few days, just talking to my fans. Talking about whatever. You can go to Facebook and see what I’m talking about. It might be me with a film about a pan of biscuits that I burned.  As silly as it may seem, fans are interested in that. They want to know what’s going on with the artist.

It’s not one thing that makes someone successful. It’s a whole bunch of little things happening at once, you know? One of the cool things that just happened was I got asked to sing on the Jackson Browne tribute album, which just came out. It was a real honor because of some of the artists on the record – Don Henley and Bruce Springsteen and people a lot better known than me … it was a big thrill for me.

How did you get chosen?

The gentleman who owns the label, he’s an oil tycoon of all things and he’s a fan of mine. He was picking artists for the record and just called me and said he wanted me to do a tune.  I actually just heard [my cover], “Doctor My Eyes,” on satellite radio. 

There’s a story about how Glenn Frey, living above Browne, had to listen to him play the opening chords to that song every day for a month.

I think my wife can relate to that. By the time the record comes out she might be burned out on a song, you know?

Some of your songs are a lot better known than others. Are there any songs that you resist playing every night?

Not really. When you write a song and somebody out there likes it, and you sing it and you see their eyes light up? That’s always a good feeling. It never gets old.

Within my fanbase there are certain songs they literally want to hear every show. The chestnuts as you call them or, in a smaller world, my “hits.”   I don’t have any problems singing my songs.  The show is not for me; it’s for them. It’s my job and my obligation – and my joy – to give them what they want.

That’s one of the things I’m proud of. If you haven’t seen my band live, that’s the hook. We’ve been together a long time and they’re some of the greatest musicians in the world. For people who know who we are, we’re kind of known for our live show. That’s where we deliver. We spend a lot of time structuring the show.  A lot of artists think they’re doing the audience a favor but actually it’s the other way around. The audience is doing you a favor. They worked all week. They’ve saved up a few extra dollars and they’re spending those dollars on you. Man what an honor that is. That’s why I try to give them what they want.

One of our coworkers was an agent who worked with you and he said you’d pack venues that other people could not.

Well, I like to think of it like opening up a hamburger business. You can have a grand opening, you can advertise, you can get everybody to come that first time. But if it’s not a good-tasting hamburger, guess what? They won’t come back.

I think that’s one of the things I have going for me – it’s really important to me that fans have a good time. I think that’s what makes them come back so I work at it really hard.

Just like me talking to you is a great thing because people may not know about me yet but they may hear about me because of this. I’m very grateful to you for doing this because you made a choice, and I was the choice this time. And man, that’s a big deal to me. You’re an important piece to the puzzle.

Well, it’s a very big puzzle. But as far as this piece goes, it’s an honor to give you some attention.

Yeah! And I want to congratulate my agent, Paul Lohr, for winning the Pollstar award for Third Coast Agent of the Year. I guess the biggest act on the roster over there is the Avett Brothers who are having an incredible run. I’m real happy for them and they’re great at what they do. That’s where Paul has had his big bread-and-butter success. But Paul is in the trenches for me every day and bringing new opportunities. Doors continue to open for me.

How long have you been working with Paul?

Oh gosh. Four or five years?  I’m not good at that stuff. But ever since he took over as agent, he’s done a great job and he’s done everything he can for us. I like working with him.

What differences does an artist see when they switch agents?

Well, I’ll tell ya what. There was a time there I got picked up by one of the biggest agencies in the world. On paper, that sounds like a great thing but at any agency, to have any real success, you have to be a priority. And even though it was cool at first, I wasn’t a priority. They’re going for the money, man. And I understand that. There wasn’t as much incentive to get in the trenches and help me out. They had bigger fish to fry, you know what I mean? What I like being at Paul Lohr’s New Frontier is I am a priority. I’m not saying I’m one of the biggest, but I am a priority. And every day the agents are on the phone and making things happen.

Photo: Jennifer Bronenkant / ConcertLivewire.com
Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee, Wisc.

When you return to markets, are you getting into bigger rooms?

Yes, I am, actually. Every year, whatever venue we go to, it tends to be more people than before. That’s pretty consistent, all across the country.

Sure, I’m always waiting for lightning to strike. One of the bands around here that I really like, the Alabama Shakes, they broke out because, in my opinion, they had a fantastic song. “Hold On” – that’s what you call a hit song. They went from playing nowhere to being on “Saturday Night Live.” We all dream of winning the lottery and I’m happy for the Alabama Shakes and I’m always waiting for that to happen. But, in the meantime, I can still build it like I’m doing. Anything else is just icing on the cake. 

You mentioned John Prine. Can you elaborate?

Oh man, I’ve heard of so many great encounters with John. One of the things I like about John is after the shows he always invites me back to his suite at the hotel and we have a little nightcap or maybe we’ll – I’m not making this up – a bowl of ice cream, of all things. I’m sitting there eating ice cream with John Prine! He’s sitting there telling me stories about, just everything. It’s like sitting at the feet of a higher power or something. You admire these people and then they become one of your peers and they respect you and you respect them. It’s like, “Wow! Is this really happening?”

I’ve met a lot of people I’ve looked up to that were complete jerks. Sometimes you don’t want to meet your heroes. But John Prine … in fact, I’ve tried to model my career after John.

He’s not a household name but he can go anywhere in the country, put his name on a marquee, and a couple thousand people will show up. But he still has this anonymous side where he can go into Walmart and not get recognized. He has the perfect career. He has a little bit of his privacy left and his fans are with him for life because he connected with them since day one.

Is there anyone at a meet and greet that wants you to talk to them just so they can say that Paul Thorn talked to them? And, two, what’s your experience at Walmart?

Well, the first question is every night I have people who want to say something to me and they seem thrilled when I give them a moment and look them in the eyes. But it’s a two-way street because I’m thrilled too. Like I said, they really sacrificed some of their time to see me.

As far as Walmart goes, what I’ve experienced is that, when you go through the door, there’s usually an elderly person standing there that says hello, which is nice, but once you go in the store you’re completely on your own because nobody’s in any department. If you go and buy some socks, or whatever, nobody is in the department! Nobody! You’re on your own. So that’s one thing I miss about mom and pop stores is that –

Oh no, sir. I’m sorry. You may have misunderstood. You said John Prine still has anonymity when he goes to a Walmart and …

Oh! Oh! I understand now. Well, it depends on where I’m at. I live in Tupelo, Miss., where Elvis Presley was born and is probably the most famous person who ever lived. But in my hometown, yeah, I get recognized a lot. I’m not an international celebrity but I am the local celebrity. People are always coming up to me at Walmart, or anywhere in my area. Yeah, I get recognized.

But here is a flipside. There are some crazy people in the world and that can be dangerous. I’ve had people find out where I live, come over to my house when I wasn’t at home and sit on my front porch and take pictures. That’s a little intrusive, you know what I mean? My wife could be there by herself. But most people are pretty cool.

Have you had experiences where you’re glad you have the “sweet science” in your background?

Oh yeah. Being a boxer, I know how to defend myself pretty good, and I’ve had to do it a couple times. I don’t do it to show off but I’ve punched a couple people in real life situations.

I had a guy come up on stage and I asked him to get down and he did, but then he came back and yanked the microphone out of my hand. When he did that, I just hit him with a left hook and knocked him off the stage.

The last thing to go on a fighter is their punch, and I’ve still got my punch. I don’t have a chin anymore, and my legs have gone but my punch is good.

Not saying you like to punch out your audience, but it must be nice to think that if anything goes south, you know you’ll get out of there alive.

And if I can’t handle it, I’ve got a couple friends and … we’ll get ‘em down!  You can’t let people treat you any ol’ way. You gotta defend yourself sometimes.

Anything else you’d like to tell readers?

Come out to the show! I’d love to meet you!

Upcoming dates for Paul Thorn:

May 10 – Helotes, Texas, Floore’s Country Store
May 11 – The Woodlands, Texas, The Big Barn      
May 13 – Yukon, Okla., Grady’s 66 Pub
May 15 – Tulsa, Okla., Downtown Tulsa (Tulsa Mayfest)   
May 16 – Plano, Texas, Love & War In Texas         
May 17 – Cherokee, Texas, Los Valles Ranch (Cherokee Creek Music Festival)    
May 18 – Conroe, Texas, Dosey Doe Coffee House
May 21 – Beaumont, Texas, Courville’s
May 30 – Memphis, Tenn., Marquette Park (Memphis Italian Festival)
May 31 – Hattiesburg, Miss., Brewsky’s      
June 13 – Alexandria, Va., The Birchmere (appearing with Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes)         
June 14 – New Braunfels, Texas, Whitewater Amphitheatre (appearing with Randy Rogers Band)
June 20 – Fort Smith, Ark., Harry Kelly Park (Riverfront Blues Festival)  
June 29 – Charleston, W.Va., Cultural Center Theater (Mountain Stage Radio Show)
July 5 – Floyd, Va., Chateau Morrisette (Black Dog Wine & Music Festival)        
July 18 – Olathe, Kan., Frontier Park (Olathe Free Summer Concert Series)
July 26 – Nicasio, Calif., Rancho Nicasio    
July 27 – Nicasio, Calif., Rancho Nicasio    
Aug. 1 – Walla Walla, Wash., Main Street Studios
Aug. 15 – Columbus, Ohio, Bicentennial Park (Rhythm On The River)
Aug. 16 – Madison, Ind., Downtown Madison (Madison Ribberfest)
Aug. 21 – Milwaukee, Wis., Turner Hall Ballroom  
Aug. 22 – Chicago, Ill., City Winery Chicago         
Aug. 23 – Ann Arbor, Mich., The Ark         
Sept. 3 – New York, N.Y., City Winery New Y t “Narrows Festival of the Arts”
Sept. 7 – Fall River, Mass., Narrows Center For The Arts   
Sept. 11 – Millville, N.J., The Levoy Theatre           
Sept. 12 – Ardmore, Pa., The Ardmore Music Hallork Back Parking Lot
Sept. 15 – Shirley, Mass., Bull Run Restaurant        
Sept. 26 – Bogalusa, La., Cassidy Park (Bogalusa Blues & Heritage Festival)
Oct. 10 – Helena, Ark., King Biscuit Blues Festival Grounds (King Biscuit Blues Festival)
Oct. 23 – Cincinnati, Ohio, 20th Century Theatre

For more information please visit PaulThorn.com.