An interesting thing happened on Paul Thorn’s road to recording a follow-up to his most successful release, 2010’s Pimps and Preachers. After writing many discs of semi-autobiographical tunes that have drawn comparisons to John Hiatt and John Prine, the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter – hailed as the “Mark Twain of Americana” – decided to take a detour and do an album of covers. “I wanted to take a break from myself” Thorn reveals’ “do something different, and just have fun.”
The collection, entitled What The Hell Is Goin’ On? (due May 8, on Perpetual Obscurity/Thirty Tigers) finds Thorn putting his own gritty rock stamp on some of his favorite songs. There are some names familiar to Americana fans (Buddy Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard), some lesser-known (Foy Vance, Wild Bill Emerson) and some surprises. The Buckingham/Nicks tune “Don’t Let Me Down Again” originated on that duo’s debut, not during the Fleetwood Mac era, while the Free song that Thorn chose to cover is an obscure one, “Walk In My Shadow.”
Thorn selected tunes that meant something important to him. “I would hear them in the tour van or I’d be at a festival and see someone perform them live, ” Thorn says, “and I’d say “That’s a great song, I wish I had written it!” One thing the songwriters have in common according to Thorn is that they are true artists. “They don’t just write songs in an effort to become popular or follow trends, ” he explains. “At the risk of sounding corny, they write with their hearts. None of these songs are cookie-cutter tunes like you hear on the radio today. They all have real depth, which is very appealing to me.”
This set of songs covers subjects that are familiar territory to Thorn, from the spiritual pull of Miller’s “Shelter Me Lord” to the spirited fun in Big Al Anderson’s “Jukin.” Thorn, so skilled with his own character studies, plays storyteller with such lurid tales as Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” and Emerson’s “Bull Mountain Bridge.”Emerson (who has written for George Jones and Tammy Wynette) is someone, according to Thorn, who “can tell a story in a song like nobody else.”
What The Hell Is Goin’ On? also delivers songs of love and salvation. Vance’s “Shed A Little Light” and Eli “Paperboy” Reed’s “Take My Love With You” are emotionally powerful tunes that really resonated in Thorn. The latter particularly expresses Thorn’s feelings about being on the road and missing his family back home:/ “Being a touring musician is a blessing and a curse…and Eli put into words what I feel like sometimes.”
What The Hell’s centerpiece is the powerful title track, a blistering look at life in modern times that was penned by blues-rock icon Elvin Bishop. Its message really hits home with Thorn. “We are living in a new world where people are very connected, but also at the same time are disconnected,” Thorn states. “I believe technology in moderation is good but too many folks are walking around wearing ear phones and some have forgotten the lost art of basic social skills.”
The song also is significant because he has developed a friendship with Bishop over the years. “I sometimes visit him at his house when I’m out in California and he always gives me a jar of his homemade jelly that he makes with fresh kiwis from his garden. “Thorn recalls. “He sang this song for me on his front porch one day and it blew me away, “It was also a treat for Thorn to have Bishop perform a guitar solo on the tune – which Thorn describes as “wonderfully raw and dirty.” Other special guests on the album are Delbert McClinton (another Thorn idol) and the marvelous singing McCrary Sisters.
Check out more about Paul Thorn @ paulthorn.com