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 the 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 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.
The songs on Don’t Let the Devil Ride, co-produced by Billy Maddox and Colin Linden, likewise fall into that same comfort zone. 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.