Few entertainers have Paul Thorn’s particular skill set: songwriter, storyteller, humorist, rock ‘n’ roller and Holy Roller, so we decided to throw caution to the winds and pair him with fellow Tupelo native Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, Elvis was unavailable by press time, so we asked Thorn for his opinions on some of the King’s answers and went to a well-known authority (maybe a sometime authority), musician Dennis McDoNoUgh (who sometimes performs as Elfish Presley), for his less orthodox answers. See below for the results: Paul Thorn, the salt of the earth, and Elfish Presley, best taken with a grain of salt.
Americana singer/songwriter Paul Thorn was born July 13, 1964 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His family moved while he was still a toddler, raising him in Tupelo, Mississippi, a mecca of blues and southern gospel that inspired Thorn musically and emotionally. Thorn’s father (whom Thorn often credits for his gift of storytelling) was a Pentecostal preacher, and his work exposed the young Thorn to Mississippi’s gospel music. Thorn began performing in churches as a kid, getting his first paid gig while barely out of diapers, and later held various jobs, including furniture factory worker, skydiver and professional boxer—he even fought against five-time champion Roberto Duran in a nationally-televised event.
Thorn was eventually discovered performing in a Tupelo pizzeria, after which he quickly recorded his first album, Hammer & Nail (1997), followed two years later by Ain’t Love Strange. Four more albums followed, including the autobiographical Pimps and Preachers (2010) and 2012’s What the Hell is Goin’ On? (the Number 12 most played album of 2012 on the AMA Charts) to great acclaim and attention from his peers, including collaborators and tour mates like Sting, Ronnie Milsap, Carole King and Delbert McClinton (Thorn has headlined McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise in recent years). Thorn’s humor and anthemic messages of joy and positivity have certainly made him successful, and his latest album, Too Blessed to be Stressed balances this with the rock ‘n’ roll of his four-piece band of 20 years and a lyrical and uplifting perspective; it currently sits at Number 2 on the AMA Chart, right behind Lucinda Williams. Today, Thorn performs extensively both with his band and solo, where he combines his traditional plainspoken style with big vocal hooks.
The story according to Dennis McDoNoUgh: Elvis is alive and well. After faking his own death in 1977 to escape his own fame and misfortune, Elvis Aaron Presley went underground. He briefly shared an apartment, and anonymity, with the famed 1960s political activist, humorist and Yippie Party founder Abby Hoffman before being taken in by the infamous Skull and Bones witless protection program. He owned and operated a Burger King franchise in Dearborn, Michigan for several years before relocating to the Island of Misfit Toys, now home to “dead” stars of stage, screen and music, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Jim Morrison.
Dennis McDoNoUgh is a musician and performance artist who channels Elfish Presley, Juice Brucesteen and others. For a complete musical education, listen to Elfish Presley sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas;” you’ll never hear it the same way again.
Elmore: What are you listening to right now?
Paul Thorn: I’ve been listening to the Del McCoury Band a lot lately. An under-the-radar band, I don’t know why they’re not one of the biggest bands in the world—great songs, great singer, great everything. EM: What do you think Elvis would be listening to today? Because he was like me, growing up in the South going to church, he loved gospel music. I think he would listen to lots of different things but I think he would always go back to gospel music, because that was really his deep love. The only records he ever did that won Grammys were gospel. I think old-school gospel is what he would be listening to.
Elfish Presley: The radio and nothing. I don’t like CDs. They sound like…inferior! And I can hardly read the song titles and liner notes; the writing is so small! I still listen to (and read) and enjoy vinyl records. I’m a yard sale-ing, storing, consignment-shopping, sidewalk surfing, cutout-bin bargain hunter. I find treasure in other peoples’ trash, lookin’ for my favorite albums: Elvis Costello’s Mighty Like a Rose, Patti Smith’s Dream of Life, and Brian Eno and John Cale. I listen to them more than any of my other albums or cassette tapes.
EM: What was the first record you ever bought?
PT: Elton John’s Greatest Hits, I believe. Pre-teens, I believe. It was just like one killer song after the next; you cannot deny that guy has an incredible body of work. We weren’t really supposed to buy records, so I had my father—the preacher— inspect it and make sure it wasn’t Satan in any way.
EP: We didn’t own a record player when I was growing up, so I wasn’t really buying any records, so I guess the first record I ever really bought was my own! I went into the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Record Company back in 1953 and paid $3.98 to make a record of two songs to give my mama as a belated birthday present. [That acetate of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” was recorded on July 18, 1953 and today is valued at over $500,000.] I remember buying “(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window” by Patti Page. The boys and I were fooling around in Sun Studio one night and I sang “How Much Is That Hound Dog In The Window,” but Mr. Sam and Col. Parker wouldn’t let us release it.
EM: What was the first instrument you played?
PT: A Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket with two wooden spoons—it was a drum. I painted it to look like a drum and my identical twin sisters, a little older than me, would play upbeat gospel songs on the piano and I would beat on a KFC bucket. I was less than ten.
EP: Well ma’am, that would be my voice. I’ve been singing since the day I was born in Tupelo, Mississippi—literally. I’m told that when the doctor slapped my bare bottom, I didn’t start crying, I started singing! My daddy loved tellin’ that story when I got famous.
EM: What brought you to the instrument you now play?
PT: My dad bought me a Glenn Campbell Ovation guitar, signature model. When I was a kid, those Ovation guitars were the coolest thing, with that round back and everything. My mom and dad are from a different era and when they got married, she was 14 and he was 15. She played the accordion and he played the guitar, like a rockabilly thing, and they were a big influence on me. When I got that guitar, my dad started showing me chords. EM: Why are you seated at a piano on your current album cover? We took our album cover photos in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which is a very historical place and we were just going around looking for locations and on the side of the road under this overpass was a piano that someone had painted and we liked the way it looked. I can’t play chopsticks for you! It reminds me of a heterosexual Liberace album cover. I’m sort of like a Liberace impersonator—only the exact opposite.
EP: I got my first guitar at age 11, which we bought at the hardware store, but I never did get very good on that. Chuck Berry used to bust my mutton chops and sing “Elvis B. Bad” instead of “Johnny B. Goode.” He’d say, “Somebody should liberate that poor guitar from your chubby little hands!” I still love Chuck Berry to this very day. He’s the true King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, man. Little Richard is the queen! That’s a joke, man! I love Richard too.
EM: Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?
PT: Kris Kristofferson; if you’re gonna shoot for the stars, shoot for the stars. He’s one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. I would’ve liked to have written with Roger Miller or write with Burt Bacharach, one of the great melody guys. The quality of songs isn’t what it used to be, I don’t think. Across the board, they’ve lowered the standard on what a hit song is.
EP: I didn’t really do songwriting on my own, you know. Chuck Berry, Bono, Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift can write for me. I need hits!
EM: What musician influenced you most?
PT: This may sound like a cliché, but Elvis Presley. I’m from Tupelo, Mississippi. The guy wasn’t a songwriter and wasn’t a great singer but he was one of the most charismatic people who ever lived, and aside from his drug problem, who doesn’t want to be like him?’ When Elvis came on The Ed Sullivan Show, there weren’t that many channels. There will never be another situation like that again.
There’s no entertainer who ever lived any better than Dean Martin. He was so nonchalant. On his variety show, he would tell jokes and make people laugh and be drinking his whiskey. There was just something about him that drew people in and he had this star thing you can’t create; you have to be born with it. I have all of his shows on DVD; I study him. He’s really been a huge influence on me, not as a singer, but as an entertainer.
EP: Dean Martin vocally and alcoholically. Bill Monroe and Carl Perkins musically. Johnny Burnette in every way! How that cat never made it popular like me, I’ll never understand. And hey, Paul Thorn! What do you mean I wasn’t a great singer? I read that! That hurts, man.
EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?
PT: I grew up singing in church and, unbeknownst to me, getting up and singing was actually laying the groundwork for me to grow up and be an entertainer. Really the pivotal moment was when I got into the sixth grade talent show. I wasn’t a popular kid in school, but when I sang at the sixth grade talent show with my teensy Ovation guitar, I won first place in the contest and I went from being a social outcast to being the most desired boy on the playground. I had the girls; I didn’t know what to do with them, but I had them at my beck and call.
Because I’m from Tupelo, I know a lot of people that knew Elvis and, at school, he was an outcast. He would bring his guitar to school and sit under a tree alone, seeming like a nerd to everybody. But when he got on stage and started shaking and the girls went crazy, that’s probably when it clicked for him. Like when I went up and did my “Three Times a Lady” thing. If you’re very insecure and you have a history of being unpopular and a moment like that happens, it changes your whole life and points your life in a new direction.
EP: I think it was just listening to songs I heard on the radio; whether gospel, country or R&B, the music moved me. It touched me deeply and made me feel good inside, and I thought, man, someday I’d like to sing on the radio and make people feel good inside, too. So I knew early on that I wanted to be in music. But then Mr. Phillips, heard my singing and told me, “Boy, I always said that if I could find a white who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I’d make a million dollars. Well, son, you’re it!” That’s when I knew I could make it in music. And make a million bucks for Mr. Phillips too.
EM: What was it like the first time you didn’t have to carry your own bags?
PT: Being a preacher’s kid, I wasn’t allowed to go to secular concerts as a child. The first concert I ever went to in my entire life was when I was opening for Sting.
EP: The first time I didn’t carry my own bags, my luggage got left outside on the curb at the airport. I didn’t know about tipping, man. A dear friend of mine used to say, “Love all, trust few, and paddle your own canoe.” That’s a metaphor, man. It’s a modern-day proverb. In rock ‘n’ roll terms, it means, “Love few, trust no one, and carry your own bags.” I gave away Cadillacs so my friends didn’t have to carry their bags. We had so many people around, man, I had no idea which bags were mine—but I carry my own meds, man.
PT: The band I have, they’re as good as anyone in the world. Aside from them, Malcolm Young from AC/DC on rhythm guitar, and on lead guitar, probably Jeff Beck. Leland Sklar on bass. John Bonham on drums, and on keyboard, probably Liberace—he was very versatile; he could do anything. Backup singers: the McCrary Sisters; they’re already on my album, but you can’t beat them.
EP: Well, I’m not sure they’ll all make it to heaven, but I know they’ll make a hellofa band! I guess you could say that Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black] were my “heaven on Earth” band! On guitar, Scotty [Moore] of course, as well as Bo Diddley, Chet Atkins, Les Paul and living legend Bill Kirchen. On bass, Bill Black, then Willie Dixon, John Entwistle and Paul McCartney—dead or alive! On piano, Chuck Berry’s “sideman” Johnnie Johnson, first and foremost, then Dr. John, Leon Russell or the Rolling Stones’ Ian Stewart. On a Hammond organ, either one of the Jones boys: Booker T. Jones or John Paul Jones, take your pick. Ray Manzarek or Billy Preston on the Fender Rhodes. Ray Charles on anything! Percussion: Keith Moon, Charlie Watts, Jerome Green on maracas and Davy Jones on tambourine. Vocals: the Jordanaires, the Four Seasons, the Mae Trio, the entire San Francisco GLIDE Memorial Church Ensemble and gospel choir. I’d also like to duet with my princess, Lisa Marie.
EM: What’s your desert island album?
PT: The first Boston album. That first record is a classic. It’s one of the most amazing records front to back. I’m a big fan of gospel music but I’m not a fan of contemporary Christian music. In black gospel music, I like old groups like the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Blind Boys of Alabama. I like country gospel music like the Chuck Wagon Gang. I’ve been listening to Mahalia Jackson, one of the great gospel singers, quite a bit. EM: Elvis’ desert island album? If I had to guess, I would say Elvis would probably enjoy the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
EP: Some Girls by the Rolling Stones. It’s perversely diverse and has just about everything you need musically: rock ‘n’ roll, blues, Motown, punk, country…even disco, man! Many different genres to suit many different moods. But if mama’s reading this, of course it would be anything by Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Mahalia Jackson.