Paul Thorn is a secular country singer these days, but as a child in Mississippi he sang in his father's Church of God tent revivals, and that experience continues to color his music. On his records he favors midtempo, backbeat-heavy country rock that borders on cliched, but musical references to his background--gospel quartet harmonies, jubilantly percussive piano, rollicking praise-song rhythms--crop up throughout. And his lyrics, like a good sermon, mine profundity from everyday life, raising more questions than they answer. On his latest, the brand-new Mission Temple Fireworks Stand (Back Porch), he's at his most God-haunted but also his most optimistic. On folkish numbers like "Downtown Babylon" and "Lucky Man," set in the soul-threatening night of the big city, Thorn meditates on loneliness and salvation. "Rise Up" tells the story of a struggling single mother who sells her wedding ring at a yard sale and summons the courage to start over, while "Something Out There" looks at the unknown through three pairs of eyes--to a little girl it's a nighttime terror; to a teenager, the dangerous temptations of "adult" life; and to an old woman, the sanctuary of heaven. The disc's centerpiece is "Even Heroes Die," on which Thorn honors heroism but questions its meaning: the song takes us from Elvis's sordid demise at Graceland to a homeless shelter where a broken-down street preacher dies alone in a bunk. "Some disappear and drop out of sight / Some stay too long and get crucified," Thorn murmurs, sounding both ravaged and tender: "This world ain't no place to be when you're larger than life." When it comes to writing about heroism, headliner Toby Keith--who's riding the success of the testosterone-poisoned patriotic anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"--could take a few pointers from Thorn. Saturday, August 17, 8 PM, Allstate Arena, 6920 Mannheim, Rosemont; 847-635-6601 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Heather Thorn.