Paul Thorn Spreads a Soulful, Positive Message

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Paul Thorn‘s buoyant Too Blessed to Be Stressed offers upbeat messages from start (“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”) to finish (“No Place I’d Rather Be”). CMT Edge spoke with the Mississippi native about growing up in the church, songwriting and the energetic new album.

“This whole record’s a bit of a departure for me because I’ve been known as a storyteller from my other albums,” Thorn says. “These are positive anthems, for lack of a better term, real singalongs. The choruses are very simple.”

CMT Edge: Did something specific happen to shift your songwriting focus on this album?

Thorn: It’s just in general. I see a lot of hurting people. Back down in Mississippi where I live, there are a lot of people struggling and trying to get out of debt, a lot of heartache. I think people need to hear something positive to turn them back in the right direction and change things and make things happen again. I think the world needs that right now in the condition that it’s in. Maybe somebody who’s not feeling good can put this record on and it’ll make them feel better.

Can music change the world?

No, I don’t think music itself does, but when people hear things, they get inspired and take action. I’m trying to write songs that people just enjoy listening to. This record’s like Americana Kool & the Gang. (laughs) It’s just a bunch of positive songs.

Tell the story behind writing the title track.

Yeah, there was a lady I used to go to church with named Sister Johnson, and she and I were friends. When I’d see her at church, I’d say, “How you doing, Sister Johnson?” She’d go, “I’m too blessed to be stressed!” I always liked that phrase. It’s stayed on my mind since I was a kid, and it just hit me one day to write a song called “Too Blessed to Be Stressed.”

Is Sister Johnson still around?

Nah, she was an old lady when I was a kid. She was one of those old Southern ladies who has all these great one-liners. I loved to hear her talk.

Bet she would have loved to hear the song.

Hey, maybe she has heard it! Maybe they got Spotify in heaven. (laughs)

How has the church generally shaped you as a songwriter?

Well, I grew up with my father as a Pentecostal minister, you know. I grew up going to church my whole life. Although I’m not a Christian artist, I am heavily influenced by that whole experience. As a kid in Mississippi, there were two churches: one the black people attended and one the white people attended. My father being a minister, we went to both. That’s how I got to meet Sister Johnson.

You’re from Tupelo, right?

Yeah, I’m from the same town as Elvis: Tupelo, Mississippi. He had a similar upbringing. He went to church and that’s where he cut his teeth and learned music. He went to the black churches and white churches, too.

Describe Elvis’ presence in Tupelo today.

Oh, my god. Elvis is huge. He’s a big deal for Tupelo. They’ve made a museum out of his birthplace. They’ve got a bunch of his memorabilia. People come once a year and have a big pilgrimage. It’s amazing. He’s been gone so long and he’s still so revered. His popularity never goes away. He’s arguably the most famous person who ever lived. If he’s not the most famous, he’s close to it.

Has that been good for the economy, or has Tupelo become a tourist trap?

Oh, well, it’s not to me. They need to be thankful. Elvis Presley’s legacy does bring people into the city, and it helps the hotels and restaurants get business and keep everything floating. It even helps me because I have a really big following in my hometown. The people get behind me like they did Elvis, and I’m really thankful for that.

How did the town itself shape you as a songwriter?

I just write about what I do, man. I worked in a furniture factory for 12 years right out of high school before I even got my music thing going. There’s a lot of rich characters and interesting people and that’s where all my stories come from.

How did “Backslide on Friday” come to you?

Well, the term “backslide” is something they say in church. If you get right with God and then you sin, they say you backslid. So, I wrote this tongue-in-cheek song that’s about the human condition. You know, sometimes I tell myself I’m only gonna eat ice cream on Sundays. Then you eat it every day because you’re weak as a human being. So, I wrote this song about how I backslide on Friday to make everybody else comfortable. They know they’re not alone in their struggle to do right.

What songwriters do you draw from most?

There are tons. Lately I’ve been listening a lot to Roger Miller. Also, this guy’s name gets thrown around a lot and it’s almost like a cliché, but it’s true: Kris Kristofferson is one of the best songwriters ever. … I actually like some of the ’70s great pop melody guys like Burt Bacharach and those cats who made those beautiful melodies.

How did you approach “Doctor My Eyes” on the new Jackson Browne tribute album?

Well, they told us what song we were gonna sing, but luckily I really like that song. I like Jackson Browne‘s body of work altogether. They just flew the band down to Dallas, Texas, and we recorded it in one day. It was a real thrill for me because I got to be on the same record as some great artists like Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt and Lyle Lovett. I felt like I was really in a special thing.

When did you discover that song?

I heard it on the radio when I was a kid. I was singing along even though I had no idea what it was about. I still have no idea what it’s about, to be honest, but I like it because it sounds good. (laughs)

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