On April 14, 1988, then-middleweight boxer Paul Thorn stepped into the ring against the “Hands of Stone” himself Roberto Durán, so something tells me that his upcoming show at Buffalo’s Sportsmen’s Tavern on June 19 will be just another audience.
That’s right; the former ninth-ranked middleweight in the world is now a singer/songwriter bred from the Gospel-infused roots of Tupelo, Mississippi, where his father served as a Church of God Pentecostal Minister.
His bare bones embodiment of the everyman experience oozes Americana at every turn, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an artist whose artistic instincts are more antithetical to what currently saturates mainstream radio.
He writes from the heart and has no corporate master to speak of, which is something that I wish younger artists would consider when deciding to enter the snake pit known as the music industry.
His latest record, “What the Hell is Goin On?,” consists of a dozen cover songs hand-picked by Thorn himself in an effort to shine a light on tunes unfamiliar to those who aren’t die-hard music aficionados.
Some of the artists covered include Buddy Miller, Allen Toussaint, and Thorn’s longtime friend Elvin Bishop, who also contributed to the project in a musical fashion. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear that Thorn wrote the material himself, because he sings with that much conviction.
I spoke with Paul recently about the album as well as how exactly a professional pugilist finds his way into the music world, so perhaps his gig at the tavern will prove to be one of the hidden gems of 2012.
Question: How did you transition from boxing to music?
Thorn: Well, I was a pretty good boxer, and was even the ninth-ranked middleweight in the world at one point. I guess my biggest moment came in 1988 when I fought Roberto Durán on national television, because, even though I lost, I gave him a solid fight. Durán won by a sixth-round TKO, because I had an injury that prevented me from continuing the fight. I won my next three fights after Durán, but I felt that I wasn’t going to be a world champion, and said goodbye to the sport. Plus, I didn’t want to risk getting seriously hurt if I knew was never going to reach that level, so I walked away.
Question: What was it like stepping into the ring against Durán?
Thorn: That’s a hard question to answer. I guess I was afraid just like every other fight. He wasn’t like any other fighter I had seen before, because his defense was unbelievable. He was incredibly difficult to hit and I just couldn’t land any clean punches on him. It was almost like trying to catch a greased pig in a sense, because his elusiveness was masterful.
Question: Who were some of your musical influences growing up?
Thorn: My parents really got me into it, because I attended churches that had both black and white people worshipping. That mix of culture and musical styling reached me at a young age, so that’s what I attribute my musical direction to.
Question: What’s your inspiration when it comes to songwriting?
Thorn: I’m just a storyteller. I live, observe, and consume various life events that influence me every step of the way. I just sit back and wait for things to happen, and then put them into a song.
Question: What made you decide to release an album of covers?
Thorn: This is my tenth album, so I wanted to do something a little different. Each song is an example of the type of artist that I look up to, and my band and I just had fun making it. There were some other songs that I wanted to include, but I just couldn’t pull them off the way I wanted to.
Question: Where did you get the title “What the Hell is Going On?”
Thorn: Well, it comes from the Elvin Bishop covered on the album, but it really describes the time we’re living in. There are plenty of things regarding the moral and spiritual decline of the world that I just don’t understand, so the title definitely fits.
Question: Your style has a very fresh, soulful appeal to it. How did that come about?
Thorn: Growing up in church, I guess. My blues and gospel roots helped to mold my vocal style.
Question: How much of the new record do you plan to play live?
Thorn: I’d say about half. I have a lot of core fans that come to hear their favorite songs, so there are certain tracks I have to play every time out. You can’t play all new stuff, because not everyone responds to it in the same way.
Question: How have audiences responded thus far?
Thorn: Really well. I’m an entirely independent artist, so I’m thankful that the core fans have helped my music reach as many people as it has. I don’t have a big corporate machine propelling my music up the charts, and I wouldn’t want that either.
Question: Do you think that helps you as an artist?
Thorn: It gives me the freedom to be who I really am. I don’t fit into the mainstream and I don’t like being told what to sing. I have no corporate obligation to water down my material, which is something that continues to plague the industry at the moment. Too many artists lose their identity once they sign to a major label, and I don’t want any part of that.