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Making the Rounds

Singer-songwriter Paul Thorn has learned firsthand that boxing has more in common with the music industry than just being hard on the ears. Long before the 33-year-old Mississippian signed a deal with A&M Records, this closely cropped and chiseled crooner had a few hits in the ring. A boxer since the age of 10, he went on to fight professionally and even earned a world ranking. Then, 10 years ago on national TV, he faced Roberto Duran in a career-ending bout.

“It turned out to be a good experience because it prepared me for this music thing,” says Thorn of the Atlantic City fight, which he lost in seven rounds. “To be honest, when I get up there and sing, I don’t have any jitters whatsoever, and it’s because of that.... I just go out and have fun with the music.”

After his boxing career came to a close, Thorn returned to music, his first passion. He started out writing songs, landing cuts with Tanya Tucker and Ronnie Milsap, before deciding to pursue a solo career. Now, after a few years of playing music, he’s keenly aware of just how much the music biz is like his former gig: “As far as mass success and appeal, it seems like you are only important when you are getting radio airplay. It’s the same way in boxing. You’re only a celebrity when you are winning fights.”

A cousin, Shenandoah’s Stan Thorn, discovered Paul’s writing talent early on and introduced him to songwriter Billy Maddox, who quickly became the young writer’s mentor. In the years since, Thorn and Maddox have formed an impressive partnership; they cowrote the 10 songs on Thorn’s debut album. “[Maddox] taught me how to put songs together at an early age, and we’ve been working together ever since,” the singer says. “Eventually, I developed my own style of writing, and we combined the two.”

Thorn describes his music as “American singer-songwriter” because it’s equal parts rock, blues, and country, with a little gospel thrown in. His influences range from James Brown and Abba to the church-choir music he performed as a child. “My lyrics are more in line with country lyrics because my mentors have all been country songwriters,” he explains.

Thorn experienced one of his first successes when Tanya Tucker recorded “I Bet (S)he Knows.” He recently sang background vocals on Toby Keith’s rendition of his song “Double Wide Paradise.” “Toby got a copy of my record through a mutual friend,” Thorn says. “There were actually two or three songs they wanted to cut, but I didn’t want to let them go.”

Thorn recorded several of the album’s tracks here, and he’s also made the regular singer-songwriter rounds: the Bluebird, 328 Performance Hall, and Tin Pan South. “It seems like the crowd that comes out to the shows are song people, and they are more respectful and attentive to new songs,” he says. “They seem to be interested in hearing new songs, unlike other places, where they want to hear cover tunes.”

Thorn can appreciate a community steeped in musical tradition—he hails from Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. “Elvis is everywhere,” he says, speaking by phone from his living room. “I don’t know that Elvis influenced me musically. [But] I count Elvis as a learning experience. I’m not saying that I’ll ever have the mass appeal of Elvis—who will?—but what I learned from Elvis was he had a whole lot given to him all at once...[and] he ended up self-destructing.”

It was in Tupelo that Thorn was discovered by employees of Sting’s manager, Miles Copeland, who signed him to A&M. He has performed in the United Kingdom and has shared bills with Sting, which he says was just as “surreal” as the Duran fight. “I’d look down and see Morgan Freeman down there dancing in the front row,” he says. “It was a blast. Celebrities would walk up and tell me they’d liked my stuff. Pat Boone told me I had what it took.

“It’s like Halloween; it’s not real. Some of the things that become available, it’s too much. That is why I generally choose to go back to the hotel room and hang out with my friends who came with me because I can see how easy it would be to get sucked into taking wrong paths and turns.”

Paul Thorn plays Aug. 17 at 3rd & Lindsley.

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