When searching for recent signs of life in and recognition of country music's biracial heritage beneath the rhinestone crust of NashVegas culture, I became an unwitting fan of Tupelo, Miss., singer-songwriter Paul Thorn via his "Mission Temple Fireworks Stand," as covered by Sawyer Brown with black sacred-steel whiz kid Robert Randolph. Then there were the good words passed on from Thorn's participation last year at a Birmingham, Ala., medicine show for my friend Scott Boyer of Cowboy. Nor does it hurt that my all-time hero, Kris Kristofferson, has claimed, "Paul Thorn may be the best-kept secret in the music business. He and writing partner Billy Maddox turn out songs like a Mississippi Leiber and Stoller that put me in mind of Harry Crews's creations absolutely Southern, absolutely original." And when I finally caught up with this paragon last month at Manhattan's Living Room, it was clear from the intimate set that Thorn lived up to the promise.
The goodwill extends to Thorn's eighth album, A Long Way from Tupelo (on his Perpetual Obscurity imprint), although it gets off to an underwhelming start. Openers "Lucky 7 Ranch" and "Everybody Wishes" sound like subpar Bruce Springsteen sans polemical stridency. Yet the slow-building, smoldering third cut gets to the heart of Thorn's voice. "A Woman to Love" is an instant soul classic, and a great retro-nuevo standard for the postmodern South. His muse proceeds to get happy on the funky gospel of "I'm Still Here" and the passionate, torchy "Burnin' Blue." Grammy darling and rockist hard-liver Amy Winehouse could make hay from "Crutches" and should be encouraged to heed its message closely. And even soul twangmaster Travis Tritt's recent The Storm (Category 5, 2007) could have been improved by including a cover of Thorn's title track with its brimstone-full blues-rock power and tale of illicit romance. Thorn, raised by a preacher father in the Church of God, gets back to sanctified roots on "What Have You Done to Lift Somebody Up." Yass, y'all, the song comes quick with the holiness as it spreads a simple message of human kindness. Tupelo is an interesting case of an album getting stronger as it goes on, instead of kicking off with the expected fury. The later songs are suffused with soul and spirituality, as well as Thorn's lyrical mix of home folks' vernacular and trademark offbeat tragicomedy previously seen on beloved Thorn compositions like "Burn Down the Trailer Park." And the references to other artists demonstrate his creative possibilities and reach across roots-regarding genres. In this tricky transatlantic cultural moment, Thorn seems poised to emerge strong from his decade of steady toil at the margins of assorted scenes, including the Americana ghetto. Whereas in the past he has benefited from rich mentoring friend and collaborator Delbert McClinton, Police manager Miles Copeland, late outsider artist the Rev. Howard Finster Thorn may finally make it big purely on the strength of what's unique to him. He charmingly makes his down-home allegiances plain by donning a Piggly Wiggly muscle T on Tupelo's back cover.
Thorn is prescient and fortunate enough to be releasing this effort amid what's starting to look like another boom of magnificent Southern expression and genius as demonstrated by a range of recent releases from Donnie, überATL-ien Janelle Monáe, Thorn's homeboys the North Mississippi All-Stars, current toast Bettye LaVette, her producers the Drive-by Truckers, and Gnarls Barkley.