In 1997, when Paul Thorn was a virtually unknown artist trying to launch a music career, the late KPIG co-founder and DJ Laura Ellen Hopper gave him a break. She started playing tracks from Thorn’s debut album Hammer & Nail “when nobody else would play it,” Thorn says. Hopper, along with the KPIG community of DJs and listeners, helped Thorn establish his first market, and kick-start his career.
This year, as Thorn celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hammer & Nail, he’s not sure how two decades of making music has happened.
“I had a lot of help,” he says. “If I had to describe myself in one word, I believe I’d have to say ‘fragile.’ Without friends and support and places like Santa Cruz where they gave me a shot at something, I wouldn’t be much. I’m fragile, but I think everybody’s fragile. That’s why we need each other.”
Thorn’s humility and appreciation for life has always run through his music, but it’s front and center on his most recent release, 2014’s Too Blessed to be Stressed. The album is a soul-stirring collection of songs packed with inspiring, insightful, joyful tunes that reframe life—struggles and all—as a blessing.
“My objective was to help lift people’s spirits and put into songs things I’ve learned that have helped me,” he says. “There’s a lot of negativity and unpleasant things going on. I figured there are enough sad songs and I just wanted it to be happy.”
Too Blessed to be Stressed has gospel elements, including tales of redemption and an acknowledgement of the challenges of taking the high road. Some of the lyrics on the album are things Thorn grew up hearing, and the title was a common phrase in his hometown.
The son of a preacher, Thorn still lives in his native Tupelo, Mississippi—“the birthplace of Elvis,” he adds, without missing a beat. Listening to his dad preach had a profound influence on his music, he says, most strikingly in the way joy and grace are always nearby.
“Whatever I write, even if there’s sadness in it, I try to leave the listener a way out,” he says. “I don’t want a song to leave them wallowing in the ditch. I want to tell them something that’s going to give them a way to get out of whatever trouble they’re in.”
When Thorn was a “young and green” singer-songwriter who “didn’t know anything,” he was pleased when major record label A&M picked up Hammer & Nail. What he didn’t realize was that the company was in the process of being bought by a larger company. His debut received “absolutely no push” from the label, and he was dropped—a fate that befalls many singer-songwriters after a major label signing.
For his next album, Thorn and his longstanding band—comprising Bill Hinds, Michael “Dr. Love” Graham, Ralph Friedrichsen and Jeffrey Perkins—decided to use their own small studio to “cut some CDs and go out there and build an audience.” Since then, Thorn and company have self-produced and self-released all of their albums. Getting dropped from A&M, it turned out, was a good thing.
“These days, record companies are kind of like dinosaurs,” Thorn says. “They’re going extinct, because music is free now—you don’t have to pay for music anymore. Luckily, we put the work in early on, and built a fanbase that we’re very proud of. And they’re still with us.”
In early 2018, Thorn will release a bona fide gospel album he recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama. A project that could raise Thorn’s uplift inclinations to a fever pitch, the album is also the subject of a PBS documentary to be released in conjunction with it.
In the meantime, Thorn is on the road touring around the country, including a June 23 stop at the Rio Theatre. A longtime favorite of Santa Cruz roots and Americana music fans, Thorn is excited, as usual, to come back to Santa Cruz.
“The Santa Cruz area feels like old friends,” he says. “It was the first market where I could play, and with the friend’s I’ve made on top of that, it’s just one of the highlights of when I go out and play. Usually once a year I try to come over there and see everybody.”
The Paul Thorn Band will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 23 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $26. 423-8209.