Still, I think it’s important to tell his story not only because he deserves whatever positive exposure I can give him, but because his stands as an important example of how an up-and-coming artist can forge a successful career without the aid or interference of a major record label.
Granted, my own exposure to Paul’s music may have been somewhat atypical. Ardent Huey Lewis and the News fan that I’ve been, in recent years I’ve gotten to see Paul open for HLN all over the country, usually in a captivating 45-minute solo acoustic set, but increasingly, as his fortunes have allowed, with his own entire band.
Paul’s a fantastic storyteller, whose lyrics are uncomplicated tales of humor and poignancy, a southern bard whose Mississippi drawl sings about everything from star-crossed love in trailer parks to heart-wrenching odes of longing to uplifting triumphs over adversity and pathos. Depending on the song his style can be traced to blues, rock, folk and gospel, or some combination thereof. While his singing voice has a solid blues raspiness his musical voice overall, whether solo or with his excellent and extremely tight band, is always clear and straightforward. One can’t hear more than a measure before being swept up and away by the performance. Consequently everywhere he goes he picks up fans, becoming everyone’s worst-kept secret as word of his talent is whispered from one convert to another. But lately that secret’s been spreading increasingly quickly.
He and his “entourage,” including musical partner Billy Maddox and bandmates Jeffery Perkins (drums), Doug Kahan (bass), Michael “Dr. Love” Graham (keyboards), and Bill Hinds (guitar and webmaster), have always taken advantage of technology to connect with their growing fanbase, through the use of Yahoo groups and email newsletters, online forums and now blogs and RSS. And they aren’t afraid to try other outlets, like yesterday, when they performed a concert in virtual reality through Videoranch (simultaneously broadcast on KPIG, an early Paul Thorn-convert radio station out of Santa Cruz).
Of course, nothing replaces hard work, and every bit of success they may have today or tomorrow is due entirely to the enormous dedication and years-long effort they’ve put into it in the past. But because they’ve never been dependent on a mainstream record label, who could either promote or whither his future on a whim, he’s kept his enormous song repertoire on homegrown Perpetual Obscurity Records, building up an increasingly enormous catalog he is able to control. Which is not to say there’s no role for more established media outlets — national distribution deals, for instance, are very helpful for getting his records into more retailers’ hands. And then there’s network television. Last week he made his national musical debut on Conan O’Brien (follow this link and click on March 19 to view his performance), and on April 22 he’ll be on Jimmy Kimmel.
The effect of this exposure has already clearly been evident. A few times a year he tends to pass through a local Marin County music venue, Rancho Nicasio (owned by his manager, Bob Brown). In the past I could always get a seat even by calling in for a reservation that day, but those days are over, as even days before Wednesday night’s concert they were so full up they had to turn people away.
But if ever there were someone whose talent and personality deserved success it would be Paul Thorn. The son of a Pentecostal preacher he traces his roots as an entertainer to standing in front of his father’s congregation, perched on the altar with a tambourine in his hand, singing gospel songs with his little three year-old voice. Even though today the stories in his lyrics run the gamut from the sacred to the profane, with some songs about strippers and sex and others about heartfelt love and mercy, he always carries with him a basic ethic of goodness.
The other night at Nicasio he was talking about all the people who came up to him after appearing on the Conan O’Brien show to ask if next he’d try to be on American Idol. To me the very suggestion seems like an implicit insult, erroneously supposing that he would even need such a commercial construct to thrust him into the kind of fame and success his own talent and effort are more and more legitimately earning him, but what gives him pause is how the success of shows like that seems entirely dependent on the gratuitously brutal slaying of their contestants’ dreams. “I want to be a champion for the people,” he recently wrote on his blog in a post thanking those who have supported him. “I want to help steer the world away from mean spirited bullshit and start a love chain.”
If you aren’t familiar with his unique voice that statement might sound either a bit self-righteous or flippant, but in reality it’s neither. As someone with a keen eye for observation and an even keener sense of humor, he’s unafraid to find the candid language he needs to describe the world as he sees it. Willing to be self-deprecating, yet able to recognize his own strength, he intuitively understands that keeping people entertained does not mean he can’t also keep them inspired.
Over the years that I’ve been privileged to know him, as I was building up my career parallel to him building up his, he’s always been a voice of support to me, cheering me on as I passed through law school, graduation, and what felt like eons of bar exams. I’m happy to return the favor and cheer him on however I can.
After all, when he sings the song from his recent release, A Long Way from Tupelo, “What have you done to lift somebody up?” it’s always good to be able to have something to say.