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BAND BIO - PAUL THORN
“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 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.”
BAND BIO - JARED DECK
I JUST GOT FIRED FROM CHURCH
Jared Deck was fired from his last church music job - via text message. “I was in the studio, tracking vocals for my first album, when I got the text. I remember saying, ‘I just got fired from church.’ The producer asked if I wanted to quit for the night. I said, ‘No, let’s keep going,’ hopped into the booth, and did another take.” That defiant, never quit attitude is a lifelong theme for blue-collar songwriter, Jared Deck, and dominates his new album, Bully Pulpit.
“I had played in churches my entire life, but that megachurch was a doozy. There was this wall of deception, complete with lip-syncing and fake-playing instruments. At one point, I was required to watch video of myself and told to look ‘more real’ on stage while no actual sound came from my instrument. The irony was palpable. Ultimately, I hit a point of no return, and my boss told me to walk. In hindsight, I should’ve trusted my instincts instead of submitting for the good of the order.” But in a life marked by perseverance, Deck has risen from harder times.
THE KIND OF THING YOU SEE ON TV
As a young factory worker, Jared saw firsthand the heartache of corporate outsourcing. “My crew got off shift at 7 a.m. and received a note as we walked out, asking that we return for a plant-wide meeting at 9:30. So we went to the coffee shop to stay awake and speculate upon the big news.” At the meeting, it was announced that outsourcing was afflicting western Oklahoma. “I was lucky to be so young (27 at the time), but many of my friends had made careers there. It was difficult for some to bounce back. I remember thinking, ‘This is the kind of thing you see on TV, something that happens to other people.’ But this time, it happened to us.” This seemingly hopeless experience inspired Deck to go into politics, running for Oklahoma State House of Representatives at age 28. “I should’ve gotten my tail kicked, but I worked hard and my message seemed to resonate with folks. So I lost by a little instead of a lot.”
Deck released his eponymous debut album in 2016 to critical acclaim from outlets such as Rolling Stone Country and American Songwriter. He won First Place in the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival Songwriting Contest for his song, The American Dream. However, with his follow-up record, he wanted to unmask further, include more of his influences, and open up his voice. “After the debut, I still had more to say – more stories to tell. Additionally, I’ve often compartmentalized my different musical influences; I kept the gospel at church and the country at the honky-tonk. With Bully Pulpit, I tore down those walls to expose a more ruthless honesty about myself, my experiences, and my reflections on the world around me.”
From gospel shouts to country croons, Bully Pulpit showcases Deck’s road-ripened voice. From Where I Fall - a heartbreaking country tale of how tragic loss can divide a home - to True Believer - a stern gospel-esque warning of false prophets and politicians, Jared’s voice puts a shine to otherwise coarse subjects. While the folky Make Your Mama Proud provides a glimpse of tenderness, Great American Breakdown showcases Deck’s gritty rock-n-roll side. A timeless ballad, Sometimes I Miss Being Lonely fetches a new perspective of holiday blues, and Over and Over finishes the album like a benedictory hymn. “Folk music is who we ought to be, rock-n-roll is who we want to be, and country music is who we really are. Personally, I find a bit of myself in all of them."
Jared returned to 115 Recording in Norman, OK to work with Grammy-nominated producer, Wes Sharon (John Fullbright, Parker Millsap, Turnpike Troubadors). “Wes has become a musical partner. We discuss how life affects what we create and share our favorite records with each other, simultaneously expanding our horizons and sharpening our connection.” For Bully Pulpit, Sharon convened such accomplished musicians as Turnpike Troubadours’ Gabe Pearson (drums) and Hank Early (pedal steel), along with Dan Walker (organ), who plays for Heart, and members of Deck’s backing band, The Travelers. Legendary fiddler, Byron Berline (Flying Burrito Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Rolling Stones), adds his touch, as well. The background vocals of Oklahoma treasures Chanda Graham and Myra Beasley add the final polish to this soulful album. The album will be distributed by Smith Entertainment.
REASON TO BELIEVE
For a man who’s been on both sides of the pulpit, outsourced by a corporation, defeated in an election, and fired from church, the album title rings true. Bully Pulpit harmonizes Deck’s country storytelling with his gospel upbringing and blue-collar authenticity. “Through every failure, I never stop believing in the truth of my experiences, the man I hope to be, or my ability to reach any goal I choose. I move forward at all costs, tell my story, and hope it resonates.”
425 NW 23rd st
Oklahoma City, OK, 73103