Tom Ross: Strings pushes its own boundaries

Tom Ross
Tom Ross

— Paul Thorn, who performed at Strings Music Festival on Friday night, is a naughty, naughty boy, and unabashedly so.

Thorn, who has a rare ability to introduce songs that push social taboos while flashing a disarmingly boyish smile, was naughty enough to excite a significant portion of Strings’ Gray Panthers audience — others, not so much.

But that didn’t stop him from performing his neo-swamp-rock tunes with provocative lyrics like “I’m going to burn down the trailer park,” and songs titled “Joanie the Jehovah’s Witness Stripper.”

Thorn quickly excused himself by adding that Jehovah’s Witnesses are wonderful people and sometimes the only people who will talk to you.

“If the Jehovah’s won’t talk to you, maybe you should work on your social skills,” Thorn suggested.

But then there’s the title track from Thorn’s past album, “Pimps and Preachers,” and his new release, “What the Hell is Goin’ On?”

It wasn’t like Thorn’s edgy performance was unexpected. Strings Executive Director Kay Clagett introduced him by reminding the roughly three-quarters-full concert hall that he was last here on Valentine’s Day with his band backing the contemporary blues singer Ruthie Foster.

“We knew right then we had to have Paul and the band back this summer,” Clagett said.

It would be fair to conclude that Strings, looking for the path to its future, intended to shake things up a bit. Thorn certainly delivered on that promise.

My favorite live shows always involve artists who have something to say to their audience and at least seem to be having a good time. Thorn met those expectations.

He talked about growing up the son of a Pentecostal preacher and the nephew of a one-time pimp. He explained to his audience that both men held him to their own sets of high standards and taught him valuable life lessons.

“None of us are all bad, and none of us are all good,” Thorn said from the stage in his Tupelo, Miss., drawl. “So give everyone a chance.”

It almost sounded like a sermon until he introduced a tune by saying, “Here’s a nice song about a drug dealer who was taken down by a Ku Klux Klan member.”

Thorn intentionally treads a fine line between good and evil. And even though his press clippings describe it as roots music from the Americana genre, I call it full-throttle rock, thanks to the blazing guitar work of Bill Hinds, who is a deity in his own right (I mean that, dude).

Thorn’s ambivalence toward, or maybe his conflicted relationship with, religion was apparent from the top of the show, when he sang “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand,” a song about a man who ran a combined revival tent/fireworks stand. In the chorus, Thorn mentions the Holy Ghost and the Big Bang theory in rapid succession. “Which is it?” he seems to be asking. “It’s both,” comes the answer.

Thorn introduces a number of his songs with jokes he’s been telling on tour for years. But he makes them sound fresh, and I think I’d laugh at them if I’d already heard them five times.

However, at Strings, where he was celebrating his 48th birthday, he had some fresh material from a vacation with his family the week before at Dollywood.

The world sure is changing, Thorn avowed, and then he related the story of how his oldest daughter had been dating a young man who did not have her best interests at heart. He held his tongue until she learned for herself that he was a bad egg and decided on her own to break up with him. The only problem was, he wouldn’t answer calls from her smartphone, so it was impossible to turn him loose.

“My 8-year-old gave her some advice,” Thorn said. “She told her sister to text him and say, ‘You and I are through, poop face!’ — which she did.”

A few minutes later, Thorn turned that barb on members of the Strings audience.

“During my concerts, I always try to make eye contact with individuals in the audience. When they give me a smile back, it makes me feel good. And a lot of you have done that tonight. But a couple of you did not. Well, you and I are through, poop face.”

The Strings audience roared at that, and Thorn and the band launched into the next shock rocker.

Congratulations to Strings for pushing its own boundaries.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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