There is a sense, throughout the covers-filled What the Hell is Goin’ On?, of broken-in familiarity. Paul Thorn and his longtime backing band aren’t simply pulling out these songs to try to move records. They have loved, and they have lived, every one of these tales.
That authenticity meshes perfectly with the Tupelo, Mississippi-native’s back catalog, not to mention his persona as a hard-living, truth-telling son-of-a-preacherman/ex-boxer turned singer-songwriter. There are times, in fact, when you forget these songs aren’t new, so completely does Thorn inhabit them.
What the Hell — due May 8 from Perpetual Obscurity/Thirty Tigers — includes songs straight out of the trying-to-go-straight hymnal (like Buddy Miller’s “Shelter Me Lord”), and shit-kicking saloon thumpers (like Big Al Anderson’s “Jukin”), a mixture perfectly in keeping with Thorn’s own writing voice in triumphs like Pimps and Preachers, which topped the Americana charts for three weeks and eventually appeared in the Billboard Top 100 back in 2010. The storytelling aspect — some country-fried, some very tall, all of them deeply Southern — on Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” and Wild Bill Emerson’s “Bill Mountain Bridge” deftly recalls Thorn’s lesser-known, but still finely detailed 2008 release A Long Way from Tupelo.
He adds a grease-popping twang to “Don’t Let Me Down Again,” a pre-Fleetwood Mac song from Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks that serves as the opener on What the Hell; and simply tears into “Walk In My Shadow,” an obscure track from Paul Rodgers and Free. Then, there are the quieter moments, the times when Thorn opens up in song — perfectly echoed here in emotional tracks like the soul-lifting backwoods blues of “Shed a Little Light”; and the shattering album-closer “Take My Love With You,” by Eli “Paperboy” Reed.
Thorn has been touring with guitarist Bill Hinds, keyboardist Michael Graham, bassist Ralph Friedrichsen and drummer Jeffrey Perkins for some 15 years, and many of these tunes have shown up as part of the set list. That also burnishes the sense of joy and genuine connection surrounding What the Hell is Goin’ On?, not to mention giving it a rambling looseness that’s often missing in tribute projects. When guests stop by — you’ll hear underrated blues-rock legend Elvin Bishop playing on the title track, which he originally penned; Delbert McClinton and the McCrary Sisters — they slip into the group’s symbiotic groove like a new guest at a front-porch picking session.
The result is not unlike a raucous round of reminiscences, sometimes funny and occasionally sad, but the kind of thing that adds coloring and flavor to your understanding of a person. In exploring his influences, Thorn has given us a fuller understanding of his own muse.