Paul Thorn knows how to take a punch.
Not really. Whether he’s been taking the uppercuts, jabs and gut punches of the music industry or the literal punches landed by an opponent in the boxing ring, Thorn has taken his share of beatings but still stands tall.
The singer-songwriter – whose latest release, “Never Too Late to Call” (2021), is his first album of new material since 2014 – has seen a lot in his 57 years.
In music, he was once a hot property, signed to a major label and opening shows for Sting, Mark Knopfler and Bonnie Raitt, among others. Caught up in the whirlwind of record label consolidation, Thorn re-established himself as a fiercely independent artist who owns his own label, which is ironically and somewhat defiantly called Perpetual Obscurity Records.
And yes, before that he was a boxer – a middleweight contender whose career ended with 14 wins and four losses. Not bad at all. And one of those defeats was suffered by the great Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, who had held titles in several weight classes.
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Thorn went six rounds with Duran before the fight was stopped by technical knockout. Duran had bloodied him. “But I cut it too,” Thorn says. “We both had to go to the hospital – in the same ambulance – after the fight.”
In the present day, Thorn has been felled by another notorious enemy: the coronavirus.
“I stayed in bed for two weeks,” he says. “It’s a real thing. I have respect for this virus. It can kill you.
It also had the potential to kill his career. Even before the pandemic, Thorn had recorded “Never Too Late to Call,” but without being able to tour to support the album, he was forced to sit on it for over a year before releasing it.
“There’s no sense in posting something if there’s no way to let the world know it exists,” he says.
Compared to much of his work, which mixes various strains of Americans – blues, country, gospel, rock and soul – the new one is a stripped-down and mostly acoustic affair, though not lacking in lyrical emotion.
The lead track, “Breaking Up for Good Again,” is an honest assessment of the ups and downs of marriage.
“When you’re marrying someone, there will be times when you’ll argue, and maybe you’ll need to take a break from each other,” Thorn says. “But you still love each other. When you calm down, you come back.
Thorn is joined on the track by his wife, Heather. As he was writing the song in their house, he could hear her singing in harmony in another room. “I thought that was really good and invited her to sing on the track,” Thorn said.
Heather had never sung professionally, or anywhere else, really, except in church. But later, she made her stage debut and joined him to sing the song for the first time in front of an audience – at the Grand Ole Opry.
“She was quite nervous, but she did a good job,” says Thorn.
The album’s title track is named after something Thorn’s sister, Deborah, used to tell him when he called her late at night looking for an encouraging word. Sadly, she passed away from cancer in 2018.
“Sapphire Dream,” meanwhile, is a song Thorn wrote and sang with his daughter, Kit. Altogether, these three numbers give the album the feel of some sort of family affair.
But there’s also other stuff going on, including the cautionary tale “You Mess Around & Get a Buzz”; “Holy Hottie Toddy,” a curse of “love everybody”; and “Sapalo”, a rough transcript of an interview with James Brown conducted shortly after the Godfather of Soul’s release from prison. “We look good, we feel good, we live good, we’re good,” Thorn sings.
“He was on TV and I started writing down everything he said,” Thorn recalled. “He said he had just been released from prison; he was about to leave for Sao Paulo, Brazil. I see it as a story of redemption and getting a second chance at life.
Redemption and second chances are other things Thorn knows about. Her father was a Pentecostal preacher and her uncle a pimp. It was his uncle who introduced him to boxing as well as other things.
“I admired him, for some reason,” he says. “As a kid, I wanted to do what he was doing.”
But some of his father’s influence also remained.
“Early in my life, I ran with it,” he says. “But as I got older, maybe I didn’t believe everything I was told. You go through life, you change and you grow, but the foundation was a good foundation for me.
Thorn also absorbed surprisingly deep insight from an unexpected source: Roberto Duran.
Duran left a 1980 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard by walking away and saying (allegedly) “No mas” (“No more”).
“That’s a sore point with me, that ‘No mas,'” Thorn says. “People don’t want to remember you on your best day; they want to remember you on your worst day. The average person, when you say ‘Duran’, they say, ‘Oh, that’s the “No mas” guy.’
“Now, you know, he quit in the middle of a fight because personally I think he had horrible stomach cramps. He always ate too much before a fight. But he’s a guy who’s wiped out almost everyone he’s stepped into the ring with. And he was one of the greatest of all time. Still, armchair fans view him as a guy who quit one night. That’s not the whole story.
What Paul Thorn • When 7:30 p.m. May 11 • Or Wildey Theatre, 252 North Main Street, Edwardsville • How much $30 to $35 • More information 618-307-1750