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Paul Thorn Returns To Gospel Roots Via ‘Don't Let The Devil Ride'

Lee Harrelson

Don't Let The Devil Ride is the latest from singer-songwriter Paul Thorn and sees the musician returning to his Southern gospel roots. The son of a preacher, Thorn had long wanted to make a gospel effort but only recently found the time and resources to do so. Working with Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, the Preservation Hall Jazz Horns and Bonnie Bishop on these songs, he traveled to a variety of classic recording studios throughout the South including FAME in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Sam C. Phillips Recording studio and at the famed Preservation Hall.

Thorn, who is the subject of a new documentary involving the music and musicians who made the LP alongside him, performs at Salina's Stiefel Theatre on Thursday, August 23.

Interview Highlights

Jedd Beaudoin: You made a gospel album. For somebody like me, this is fascinating on many levels. The religious tradition I was raised in, the music wasn't particularly good. It wasn't particularly exciting. In the way that you were raised, what was gospel music like?

Paul Thorn: I describe it as the exact opposite of the music that you heard. The music I heard growing up was fantastic. When I was a child they had two different kinds of churches. They had churches where the black people attended and churches where the white people attended. My dad was a preacher and we would have service with the whites and the blacks. We had a wonderful time.

At the black church, they would sing more of a rhythm and blues style of gospel, at the white churches they would do like country and western style. It was all really good. When I did the gospel record I wanted to take a stab at re-creating some of the great black gospel that I really enjoyed back in the day.

I talked to another musician recently who had grown up in the black church and he said one of the great things about playing in the church band was that somebody might stand up in the middle of the service and start singing and the wouldn't tell you, "This is in C#." You gotta figure that out, do it on the fly. Was that part of your experience as well?

Absolutely. We would all just try to find the groove and get in it. It wasn't about perfection. It was about having the spirit, about the spirit, having your spirit and the spirit of God involved. It didn't have to be perfect. It was just a joyful sound.

What made this the right time to make a gospel record?

I put about 14 records out and I said one day I was going to do one like this and then when I got in the same management company as the Blind Boys of Alabama and we became friends — we never performed together but we were doing the same festivals and stuff. I just approached them about singing on my gospel record and they agreed.

I literally had the best of the best helping me on this record. We recorded half of it at Sam Philips' place in Memphis; we recorded the other half at Muscle Shoals at FAME. Two very iconic studios that had the right vintage equipment that we wanted to get that vintage sound. I feel like we succeeded.

When you go into a place like FAME do you have a real sense of the history once you're in the room and singing?

Absolutely. Rick Hall was there when we recorded. I've known Rick for years. I had a publishing deal with Rick back in the day, so it was nice to have him in the studio. What also nice was that PBS filmed the making of the album and it's been airing all over the country on PBS stations. Right after we filmed that whole thing Rick passed away. It was really nice to have a memento of him being there. A lot of good things happened.

So much American music originated in the South. Coming from the South yourself do you have a real sense of that?

I know that the good stuff sprang from the South. I'm from Tupelo, this is where Elvis was born and Elvis literally attended some of the churches I attended growing up. That's where he got his mojo from, from going to church. Same with Aretha Franklin. Her daddy was a preacher. A lot of these great artists became what they became having the foundation of gospel music. In the South, the gospel music? You can't beat it. It's just the best. I say that with utmost humility.

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.