Paul Thorn’s bio reads like a Faulkner novel on mescaline. Born in Wisconsin, raised in Tupelo, Miss., by his Pentecostal preacher father, Thorn learned guitar at 12 but took up boxing under the tutelage of a black sheep uncle (who had been a pimp at one time) and got good enough to earn a bout with Roberto Duran. Along the way, Thorn has worked in a furniture factory, become an expert skydiver and got discovered by an associate of Miles Copeland’s, which led to invitations to Copeland’s songwriting workshop and Thorn’s first Rock concert, which was opening for Sting in front of 13,000 people.
It’s easy to see where Thorn gets the characters for his songs; he’s the most colorful one of them all. From obscure indies to major label deals, from acoustic quietude to electric tumult, Thorn’s songs have always featured brilliantly fleshed out musical portraits, a surreal human carnival painted from Thorn’s imagination and memory.
On his ninth album, Pimps and Preachers, Thorn gets extremely autobiographical, particularly on the title track, a literal examination of his unorthodox upbringing. The crudely sophisticated cover art, painted by Thorn, further accentuates the duality of his life, a folksy evocation of an existence on the corner of Redemption Lane and Turn Out Boulevard where sin and salvation live with equal passion and determination.
Thorn’s brilliance bears a striking resemblance to John Prine’s. They both possess an almost supernatural ability to elicit side-splitting laughs and heartbreaking tears from one song — and sometimes one line — to the next. That gift is on full display on Pimps and Preachers, from the incisive and wickedly funny “Tequila is Good for the Heart” and “I Don’t Like Half the People I Love” and the sweet melancholy of “I Hope I’m Doin’ This Right” to the middle-aged hopeful heartache of “Ray Ann’s Shoes” and the post-Katrina pain of “Better Days Ahead.”
Musically, Thorn is at the top of his game, with AltCountry Blues, Folk balladry and Roots Rock bluster all take well-deserved turns in the mix, from the Bruce-Springsteen-tinged “Nona Lisa” to the Bob Seger-fueled “Weeds in My Roses” to the wistful and soulful prayer of “That’s Life.”
If Pimps and Preachers isn’t Paul Thorn’s masterpiece, it’s difficult to imagine what areas he’ll ratchet up on the next one in order to get there.