“This is the culmination of my whole life in music, coming back to my gospel roots,” says Paul Thorn about his newest album, Don’t Let the Devil Ride. “My message on this record is ‘let’s get together’—I want to help lighten your load and make you smile.”
The son of a preacher man, Mississippi-raised Thorn spent much of his childhood in church, participating in multiple weekly services with his father as well as at neighboring African American congregations, where he became entranced with the music whose infectious spirit is captured on the new album.
Don’t Let the Devil Ride collects soulful songs originally cut by black southern gospel groups, and features guests Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, the Preservation Hall Jazz Horns, and Bonnie Bishop.
The album was recorded at three temples of sound: the Sam C. Phillips Recording studio, whose namesake gave another son of Tupelo his start; at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where Thorn worked as a songwriter for legendary producer Rick Hall early in his career; and at Preservation Hall, where horn players from the celebrated jazz venue lent songs a New Orleans vibe.
The new release marks Thorn’s first time recording gospel music, after a dozen albums in roots-rock mode, though his upbringing has previously been reflected in his creation of a body of strikingly original songs. In his own songwriting, Thorn often addresses the foibles of human relationships, although he doesn’t favor the sacred over the profane.
As an accomplished painter, former professional boxer, and seasoned skydiver, Thorn has never shied away from new challenges, but cutting a gospel record was just like going home.
Thorn’s father Wayne was a bishop in the Church of God of Prophecy, a Pentecostal denomination, and Thorn was just three when he began singing and playing tambourine at services. Congregational participation was valued more than skilled soloists, and Thorn also found a showcase for his talents at Saturday night “singings.”
But his most memorable musical experiences were at an African American branch of his father’s church, the Okolona Sunrise Church of Prophecy. “There might be ten people playing the tambourine, but the rhythm was locked in, and they’d let me play bass. I loved the Appalachian gospel of my parents’ church, but it was a treat to play with those musicians. They worshiped in a different way and the music was different, and I feel blessed to have been in that church setting.”
The sermons in Church of God of Prophecy churches warned sinners of fire and brimstone, and it wasn’t uncommon for congregants for congregants to speak in tongues. But the lasting legacy for Thorn wasn’t a strong sense of guilt, as it was for many others who grew up in Pentecostal churches. “I think that they use guilt to intimidate you, but I don’t buy into that anymore. There ain’t no love in that.”
Instead he continues to be inspired by the strong sense of communion that was fostered by musical fellowship. “One of things that I take a lot of pride in is that I love everybody, and what I learned in church paid dividends. When I’m up there entertaining it’s also a glimpse of what my life has been, and how gospel music has molded me into who I am.”
Thorn’s parents wouldn’t allow him listen to secular music at home (in his teens, he had to hide his only two LPs – Elton John and Huey Lewis – from his father), so he listened at friends’ houses to Kiss, Peter Frampton and the bawdy “chitlin’ circuit” comedy albums that he credits with inspiring the dark sense of humor that pervades his lyrics. But gospel music remains Thorn’s most abiding musical touchstone, the sounds that first stirred his soul.
He was just 14 when sometime gospel artist Elvis Presley died – “the world stood still in Tupelo,” he recalls – and while the King’s records weren’t a major influence, Thorn emphasizes the similarity of their early experiences.
“Elvis literally went to a lot of the same churches I did. It’s almost identical how we started. When they filmed him from the waist up, it wasn’t vulgar, it was the moves he learned in church, dancing in the spirit.”
At 18 Thorn was caught sneaking out his bedroom window to romance a young neighbor, and his father presented the ultimatum of publicly repenting or “disfellowship” – losing his church membership. He chose the latter, and immediately took out a loan to buy a trailer (where he lived ‘in sin’ with that girlfriend), landed a full-time job at a furniture factory, and joined the National Guard.
Tupelo presented few avenues for professional musicians, but Thorn soon met his longtime songwriting partner Billy Maddox, who had strong ties to the musical hub of Muscle Shoals. The duo began writing under contract for Rick Hall, owner of the legendary Fame Recording Studios, where Thorn cut demos of their songs.
As a performer, Thorn was playing solo gigs in Tupelo for $50 a night, and further supplemented his factory income with boxing. He learned to box from his paternal uncle Merle, a one-time pimp celebrated in “Pimps and Preachers,” Thorn’s autobiographical song about his two mentors: “One drug me through the darkness/One led me to the light/One showed me how to love/One taught me how to fight.”
Thorn would box fourteen professional fights (10-3-1) as a middleweight between 1985 and 1988, with his most prominent match against four-time World Champion Roberto Duran. He lasted a respectable six rounds before a doctor stopped the fight due to multiple cuts.
Although proud of his boxing career, Thorn says that he’s not surprised he’s achieved more success as a performer. “I went a long way in boxing, and got to fight one of the greatest, but the reason Duran beat me and everyone else was that he had the ability to relax under extreme pressure. When I was in the ring I was nervous and afraid, but when I’m on stage I’m comfortable. I’ve been singing in front of people all my life, and I know what I’ve got to do.”
The songs on “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” co-produced by Billy Maddox and Colin Linden, likewise fall into that same comfort zone.
“We’re bringing Paul’s fans under the tent at a revival,” says Maddox, who likewise grew up listening to black gospel. “A lot of emotion goes on in those places, with people being saved while the band’s playing behind them.”
The exuberance of the music, says Thorn, evokes the warm-hearted nature of these social gatherings. “The first track, ‘Come On Let’s Go,’ it’s talking about going to church—that I can’t wait to see you, and see you how you’ve you been doing,” says Thorn.
Few of the songs here are well known. Maddox found most of them while digging through releases from small gospel labels in Mississippi and Alabama. “We just picked things that had a great pocket,” he says. “One person described the feel as ‘gospel lyrics set to stripper music’ and that’s pretty close. The songs are slinky and greasy and right in Paul’s wheelhouse.”
The most familiar track here is no doubt Thorn’s relaxed tempo version of the O’Jays “Love Train,” a song whose feel-good qualities readily adapt to a gospel setting. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, whose records Thorn listened to as a teen, made it a staple of their live performances.
The other songs stretch back much farther, but their themes – of redemption, taking stock of one’s life, and resilience in the face of troubles – are universal, making them readily adaptable to the fresh takes here. Nashville’s McCrary Sisters, for instance, lend a buoyant feel to “You Got to Move,” a northeast Mississippi standard, best known through a solemn, slide guitar take by Mississippi Fred McDowell.
The sisters’ father was a founder of the Fairfield Four, a capella gospel singers whose live radio broadcasts on CBS in the ‘40s and ‘50s were extremely influential. Fellow guest artists the Blind Boys of Alabama, founded in 1944, were founders of the “hard gospel” quartet style that dominated the era from which many of the songs on this record where drawn. Also joining Thorn on vocals is Texas-born Bonnie Bishop, who attributes her soulful singing style to spending her formative years in Mississippi.
Both Maddox and Thorn were longtime friends with Hall and the Phillips family, and Maddox says that recording in Memphis and Muscle Shoals was a natural extension of the whole process, and the only proper way to honor this particular body of work. “We were returning to the Motherland.”
Rick Hall died in January of 2018, making the whole experience that much more poignant for Thorn and co-producer Maddox.
“The last time I saw Rick he came into the FAME studio to say hello,” Maddox recalls. “We invited him to sit down and listen to the playback of a track we’d just finished. He closed his eyes and leaned over the console as the music played.
“About halfway through the tune he turned the monitors down, looked me right in the eye and said, ‘What have you done?’ I asked him what he meant. Then he got this big grin on his face and said, ‘Well, that sounds just like me.’ That moment validated everything about this record for me and Paul.”
The McCrary Sisters
“Singing with family means everything,” says Alfreda McCrary. “We’ve been out with the best of the best onstage and in the studio, but there’s nothing like singing harmony with your own flesh and blood.”
The list of artists the McCrary Sisters have collaborated with, both as a group and individually, reads like a stroll through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder), but with their exhilarating new album, ‘McCrary Sisters: Live,’ it’s clear that the McCrary women shine brightest when they’re center stage. Captured at Music City hotspot 3rd & Lindsley, the album marks the legendary quartet’s first concert release and showcases all of the ecstasy, passion, and heartbreak that have made them some of the most beloved and sought-after singers in Nashville.
A typical McCrary Sisters show overflows with kind of inimitable magic that can only come from sharing your life and love and art with your kin, but the remarkable performances documented here find the sisters hitting new heights of raw power and emotion. It felt like all of Nashville turned out to celebrate the group that night, and the atmosphere on the album is absolutely electric as the sisters feed off of the adoring crowd. The energy in their voices is palpable, as is their sheer joy at being joined onstage by band members old and new along with a slew of special guests, including several of their nieces and daughters.
“We were all of one accord that night,” remembers Regina McCrary. “Everybody’s spirit and mind was set on the same thing, and the atmosphere was perfect. It was just so special to look around and see our girls up there carrying it on for the next generation, too.”
Bridging generations through music is a McCrary family tradition. The sisters—Ann, Regina, Alfreda, and Deborah—were born and raised in Nashville, TN, where they learned to sing at a young age from their father, the Rev. Samuel McCrary. The reverend was an original member of The Fairfield Four, the iconic vocal quartet whose towering influence transcended gospel music and inspired everyone from Sam Cooke to B.B. King. The McCrary household regularly hosted traveling gospel artists including the Staple Singers and Shirley Caeser, but soul, R&B, blues, and country all had a place on their radio, which helped the girls develop into extraordinarily versatile singers.
“Music is music,” says Ann. “When it’s deep down in your soul, it doesn’t make any difference what kind it is. It’s easy for us to pull all those genres together in our songs because we grew up listening to all of them, and they still resonate in our souls.”
Marriage, careers, and family obligations took the girls their separate ways as they grew up, and over the years, they faced more than their fair share of personal tragedy and triumphs, but music always sustained them. Regina may have had the most prominent gig of the bunch, joining Bob Dylan on the road for eight years and singing on three of his albums, but each of the sisters continued to sing in award-winning choirs, on television, in studios, on stages around the world, and, of course, at home for the sheer love of it. Whether it was at Madison Square Garden or in the kitchen cooking supper, it didn’t matter; for the McCrary girls, to sing was to live.
It wasn’t until the early 2000’s, though, that the sisters finally fulfilled their father’s dream and came together to form their own group. The quartet’s chemistry was immediate and undeniable, and Nashville (along with the rest of the world) quickly took notice. The Oxford American raved that the McCrary Sisters “brought a glimpse of heaven to recordings by Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Allison Moorer, Mike Farris, and other Americana artists,” while the LA Times hailed “the exuberance in their voices,” and NPR said they demonstrate “the power of living history and the timelessness of family connection.” The sisters took their harmonies everywhere from The White House to PBS, in addition to recording and performing with major stars like Dr. John, The Black Keys, Martina McBride, Eric Church, and more. They joined the house band at the world-famous Ryman Auditorium for the annual Americana Awards ceremonies, where they’ve backed Loretta Lynn and Jackson Browne among others, and released a trio of their own studio albums to critical acclaim. The most recent, 2015’s ‘Let’s Go,’ was a hit on both sides of the pond, with the Associated Press asserting that the album “speaks to the moment while ranking with the most potent roof-raising, pew-shaking music ever created,” and The Guardian praising “their close-harmony vocals [that] switch effortlessly between gospel, soul and foot-stomping R&B.”
That effortless genre hopping is a hallmark of the sisters’ sound, and it’s at the heart of ‘McCrary Sisters: Live.’ On show opener “David Dance,” the band blends Afro-beat horns and Caribbean rhythms underneath the sisters’ spiritual vocals, while “Hum And Moan” is a slow burning, slide guitar blues, and “Stones” calls to mind the avant-funkiness of Prince & The Revolution. The sisters wrote or co-wrote every track on the album save for show-closer “I’ll Take You There,” and despite the varied musical ground they cover, the songs are all inextricably tied together through their optimism and resilience.
“If there’s a song that has a message that’s about loving and supporting and caring and reaching out, I’m in,” says Regina. “Any song that has a message about love and happiness and joy and peace, you’ve got me. That goes not only for the four sisters, but for our whole family. We love singing songs that will inspire and encourage and help motivate people to find their way and get to the light. That’s what this is all about.”
The sisters sing of brighter days to come on “Train” and “Other Side Of The Blues,” assure us that we’re not alone with “He Cares” and “If You Believe,” and offer up a reminder that no burden is too great to bear if you have faith on “Help Me” and “Bible Study.” Perhaps the concert’s most affecting moment arrives with, “Let It Go,” a song which Deborah wrote in the aftermath of a debilitating stroke that nearly ended her days as a performer.
“When I had my stroke,” says Deborah, “I remembered that God does things for a reason. That’s where I was supposed to be, with my sisters by my side. I thank God for my sisters because they’ve helped me in a lot of ways, and that whole experience gave me a deeper understanding of just how much I love being with them.”
That affection extends beyond the stage, too. In 2015, the sisters released their first book, ‘Cooking With Love,’ a collection of stories and recipes passed down from their mother, who was affectionately known in their family as Mudear.
“Our mom used to smile with so much pride to see how happy we were to sit down at the table and eat her food,” says Regina, her voice lighting up at the memory. “Everyone knew what an amazing cook she was. There were lawyers and businesses and hospitals that would ask her to cook big dinners for their banquets and conferences. She’d be in that kitchen for two or three days humming and singing and cooking. The book is most of her recipes, and it’s our way of paying tribute and showing our love to her memory.”
For the McCrary Sisters, showing love is what it’s all about. This album itself is an act of love: love for their family, who joined them on the stage and the audience that night to share in their joy; love for Nashville, which introduced them to a whole wide world of music all in one city; love for their fans, who would so often ask the sisters after concerts for a way to bring home the transcendent night of music they’d just witnessed; and most especially, love for each other. Like any family, the McCrary Sisters have had their ups and downs, but at the end of the day, there’s only one rule.
“We don’t judge,” says Regina. “We just love.”