On paper, Paul Thorn should have recorded a gospel album well before the upcoming Don’t Let The Devil Ride — whose version of the O’Jays’ “Love Train” is premiering exclusively below.
Thorn’s father was a Pentecostal preacher in Mississippi, and gospel was the only music played in the family home. Thorn, of course, found secular music and has released seven albums of rootsy Americana rock on his own, but he’s long felt the pull of his musical roots and finally decided to heed it.
“All these years in the back of my mind I always wanted to do a gospel record, ’cause that’s what I cut my teeth on and that’s what I know best,” Thorn tells Billboard. “So I got together with the people I worked with and we talked about it and started digging for songs and figuring out what it should sound like.” The resulting album, however, has less in common with the Appalachian gospel of the family church and hews closer to the African-American sister congregation the Okolona Sunrise Church of the Prophecy.
“Once in a while we would go and visit the black church, and that was when the music really lit me up and made me feel something,” recalls Thorn, who attends his wife’s Palestine Baptist Church when he’s home in Tupelo, Miss. “I liked the way black people sang gospel music. It had a different beat. It wasn’t country. It was more rhythm & blues style. That’s the kind of music I grew up with and really loved.”
Thorn recorded Don’t Let The Devil Ride, which comes out March 23, at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall, with the Preservation Hall Jazz Horns, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters and Bonnie Bishop guesting. “We decided that we wanted to stay away from songs that have been done to death, like ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Amazing Grace,'” Thorn explains. “I said, ‘Stay away from staples.’ Those are good songs, but they’ve just been done to death. So we dug around and searched and found songs that are pretty obscure, but they’re really good songs. These are kinda like gospel music you would hear in a strip club — literally, some of these songs sound like pole-dancing songs, something just a little bit almost raunchy. It’s that good and the bad, like when I was a kid I had a Bible under my pillow and a Playboy magazine under a tree out in the woods. I’ve been dark and light my whole life.”
His slowed-down, gritty rendition of “Love Train,” however, is a moment of unambivalent light on the project. “The message in that song, what it’s saying is so relevant to the times we’re living in ’cause there’s so many things dividing everybody,” Thorn says. “If everybody would listen to the words of this song and live by those words it would fix everything. It’s a song about loving everybody. That’s something worth singing about.” But Thorn isn’t doing a great deal of preaching on the album, otherwise.
“I don’t think there’s any real message,” he says. “I wanted to tip my hat to the music I grew up loving and the music I grew up singing and my favorite style, which is black gospel. It moves me. But I’m not trying to convert anybody or anything. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the music and how it makes you feel, just really good songs and we performed them the best we could with the highest level of energy, and the cast of people who are on this record is like a dream come true for me.”