The Gospel according to soul singer Paul Thorn

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PLAN TO GO?

What: Paul Thorn, with Alice Drinks the Kool-Aid

When: Fri., Jan. 18, at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Mystic Theatre, 21 N. Petaluma Blvd.

Admission: $25

Tickets: Call (707) 775-6048 or visit MysticTheatre.com.

There is a creation story surrounding Paul Thorn, that’s colorful but not entirely true. It goes something like this: Paul Thorn grew up in the Deep South (true) as the son of a strict fire-and-brimstone preacher (true) who forbid his son from playing rock ‘n roll records (sort of true). So the young Thorn would hide in his bedroom closet and listen to the devil’s music on a small record player (actually, he hid his albums in the closet, but was not prone to spinning platters in the dark, cramped space).

“I owned two ‘satanic’ albums,” Thorn says in a slow Southern murmur, during a phone call from Tupelo, Mississippi, his hometown. “One was “Elton John: Greatest Hits” and the other was Huey Lewis and the News’ first album.

“You know,” Thorn adds, “two of the main demonic message carriers.”

Thorn’s new album, “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” (Perpetual Obscurity), bristles with his trademark blend of gospel, soul and swampy blues. He digs deeply into such country blues standards as “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed.” and delivers a rollicking rendition of the old black spiritual “Soon I Will Be Done,” custom-made for a rock ’n roll revival meeting.

It’s the perfect mix of the sacred and the profane.

“In the faith that I grew up in, there were two alternatives. You either got saved and went to heaven or you didn’t get saved and you went to hell,” Thorn explains. “Like a lot of religions, they used fear and intimidation, which unfortunately are two things that don’t usually bring success in the long-term.

“The best way to recruit people,” he adds, “is to love ’em.”

His father was a Pentecostal preacher, which did, in a roundabout way, contributd to Thorn becoming an acclaimed blued-eyed soul man steeped in gospel and blues. As a kid, Thorn sang in the church choir.

“There were two types of churches in Tupelo,” he says. The black churches and the white churches. Our family would attend both churches. That’s where I learned to play music. The black churches had a rhythm-and-blues kind of gospel and the white churches had old-school country spirituals. Those two things made me everything I’ve become - whatever that is.”

Ask the 54-year-old Thorn to trace his professional career and he offers, “That’s a very long story.”

After high school, he worked in a furniture factory and served in the National Guard. He also fought as a professional boxer, the ninth-ranked middleweight in the country. Thorn once fought WBC middleweight champ Roberto Duran. The fight ended after Thorn received a cut above one of his eyes. The two boxers rode to the hospital in the same ambulance.

“I know that sounds crazy, but it’s the truth,” he says. “Duran had more than I’d ever dealt with before. He was a defensive wizard. He took me to school, man. But I gave a good account of myself. The harsh reality was that at my best, I could never beat him. But I gave it my all. I left nothing on the table.”

Thorn’s big break as a musician came when Miles Copeland III - the founder of I.R.S Records, manager of the Police and brother of that band’s drummer, Stewart Copeland - heard a demo cassette tape that Thorn had mailed to him.

PLAN TO GO?

What: Paul Thorn, with Alice Drinks the Kool-Aid

When: Fri., Jan. 18, at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Mystic Theatre, 21 N. Petaluma Blvd.

Admission: $25

Tickets: Call (707) 775-6048 or visit MysticTheatre.com.

“Like a lot of wannabe singers, I was just sending out tapes to anybody who would listen,” Thorn says. “Miles Copeland got ahold of one and he liked the songs. At the time, I was playing in a pizza restaurant two nights a week. He literally flew to Tupelo to listen to me playing at a pizza restaurant. A month later, he gave me a bunch of money and I was able to quit the day job at the furniture factory.”

Copeland opened some major doors for Thorn, who soon began touring and building up his fan base.

“It was just like building a church,” he says. “You go from city to city and win people over. When you come back around, they bring their friends. You keep doing that over and over. You make relationships, you build friendships and you connect with people. The church experience really taught me how to draw in people and how to entertain them. Just like my dad did from the pulpit.”

Thorn never did record for I.R.S., but in 1997 he released his debut album, “Hammer & Nail,” on the A&M label. The album had nine songs with Biblical themes co-written with legendary Texas songwriter Billy Maddox. It also had one Thorn original (“Resurrection Day).

Thorn credits his gospel roots with informing his career as a songwriter.

“You know, rock ’n roll came from gospel,” he says, reflecting on the salvation he’s found in his music. “There’s no doubt about it, Elvis grew up singing in the same churches I attended in Tupelo. I mean, Led Zeppelin’s music is just a bunch of Mississippi blues songs with distortion. All that came from where I live.”

Thorn’s music is inspirational, as you might expect from a preacher’s son, and they have a clear literary bent.

“A lot of my songs are story songs,” he says. “There might be something bad going on in the song, but I always try to figure out something in the lyrics that offers the character a way out. I don’t want to wallow in a ‘we-can’t-get-out-of-this-hole-we’re-in’ scenario. I’m here to say that you can get out of that hole you’re in, because that’s what the message of encouragement is. I’m a secular singer, but I try to put that same hope in my songs that you find in gospel.”

Thorn says believes there is a time and a place for sad songs, and he’s lived his share of sadness.

“But I’m living something different now,” he says. “I want to be some kind of a light, even if it’s just a small light. I want to be sincere in what I do and to touch people’s hearts.”

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