Next summer, Southern raconteur Paul Thorn and his six-piece band will team up with five-time GRAMMY-winning Gospel legend, Blind Boys of Alabama, for a one-of-a-kind musical collaboration as headliners of the 2018 Levitt National Tour. Levitt audiences across the country will experience these exhilarating, soulful shows blending old-school gospel with rock, blues and country.
Taking place next June and July, the 2018 Levitt National Tour will stop in seven cities including Arlington, Texas; Bethlehem, Pa.; Dayton, Ohio; Denver; Los Angeles; Memphis; and Sioux Falls, S.D. (the future home of Levitt Shell Sioux Falls). The Tour follows on the heels of the 2017 Levitt National Tour, which featured Gulf Coast Soul sensation The Suffers, and previous Levitt National Tours featuring genre-busting violin outfit Black Violin (2015) and the world-music fusion of Playing For Change (2014).
“We’re thrilled to present this incredible artist collaboration, crossing multiple musical boundaries and illustrating the power of music to bring us together,” says Sharon Yazoswki, executive director of the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation. “The Levitt network was unanimous in their artist selection for the 2018 Tour—the acclaimed singer-songwriter Paul Thorn alongside celebrated music royalty, Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s going to be an unforgettable experience for all!”
No stranger to Levitt, Thorn has performed at the permanent Levitt venues in Memphis and Arlington, and looks forward to returning to Levitt stages as part of the Tour. “I am so honored to be the 2018 Levitt National Tour artist along with Blind Boys of Alabama,” says Thorn. “It means a lot to me that Levitt provides places where everyone can come and enjoy the music, where nobody is excluded. People deserve an opportunity to go out and be entertained.”
Blind Boys of Alabama vocalist, music arranger and drummer Ricky McKinnie, who has been with the group for 30 years, concurs. “Anytime people can come out and there isn’t a price tag on a show of this magnitude, it’s just a great thing to do. It makes us feel good to know people of all ages and backgrounds will experience these free Levitt concerts.”
Southern charm, living legends
Thorn’s humorous knack for storytelling presents itself in an eclectic fusion of country and blues, which NPR describes as “irascible, fun and irreverent.” Credit his unconventional background as a prelude to his music career, which launched 20 years ago. This includes working in a furniture factory in his 20s, followed by a professional middleweight boxing career during which he battled four-time world champion boxer Roberto Duran on national television, and exercising his love for the high-thrills stakes of skydiving (169 times, to be exact). All the while, Thorn was writing original songs about his atypical life and his Southern roots.
While playing an open mic night at a local pizzeria in 1997, Thorn caught the attention of BMI representative Roger Sovine. Sovine subsequently invited several music executives to come hear Thorn perform, and within a month he landed his first high-profile gig – opening for Sting in front of a crowd of 14,000 people. His 13 albums since have debuted on Billboard Top 100 charts—his most recent, “Too Blessed to be Stressed,” encourages listeners to tune in to the positivity in their life, embodying the charms and ideals Thorn has based his musical career on.
As a legendary pioneer of gospel music, Blind Boys of Alabama has been cementing their legacy since the original members first sang together as school children at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939. In the almost eight decades since its formation, the group has taken home five GRAMMY Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), performed at the White House for three different presidents, been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and influenced generations of musicians. Blind Boys of Alabama has appeared on recordings with artists like Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville, Susan Tedeschi, Ben Harper, Patty Griffin and Taj Mahal.
The New York Times has praised the group for coming to “epitomize what is known as jubilee singing, a livelier breed of gospel music” across the 20th and 21st centuries. The group’s latest release, “Almost Home,” shares the personal stories of the two surviving original members, Clarence Fountain (age 87) and Jimmy Carter (age 85), and reflects on the turbulent journey of coming of age in the segregated South. No matter the obstacle, Blind Boys of Alabama has proven time and time again that there is no match for the resilient power of their music.
“They were my superheros”
The 2018 Levitt National Tour will feature songs from Thorn’s much-anticipated album, “Don’t Let The Devil Ride,” an old-school gospel album set to be released in early 2018 that features collaborations with Blind Boys of Alabama, as well as other artists like Bonnie Bishop, The McCrary Sisters, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
While the forthcoming album is Thorn’s first true gospel album, he has deep roots to the genre and has penned songs with a spiritual theme throughout his career. A Tupelo, Miss., native and son of a Pentecostal preacher, Thorn credits his musical influences to the black and white gospel choirs he grew up listening to. “I’m not a gospel singer, but I grew up singing gospel and I’m a huge fan of black gospel music,” says Thorn. “Blind Boys were like these mythic figures to me when I was growing up. I dreamed I would one day be on stage with them. They were my superheros.”
Thorn had previously met Blind Boys while playing at the same music festivals, but they had never recorded or performed together. When Thorn got the idea to make an old-school, R&B-style gospel album featuring lesser-known tunes from the 1960s and 70s, he knew he had to invite his longtime idols. “I just approached Blind Boys and asked if they wanted to sing on the album. And to my astonishment, they said yes!”
As word got around that Blind Boys were set to record on Thorn’s new album, PBS became interested, which led to a behind-the-scenes, “making of the album” documentary. “It was just an incredible experience, the making of the album, having the cameras follow our every move, and now, getting to tour with living legends like Blind Boys,” says Thorn. The documentary is set to premiere in early 2018.
“We’re gonna light up the sky!”
For the 2018 Levitt National Tour, audiences across the country will be treated to an energizing and heartfelt evening of song, inspiration and personal connection. “We’re gonna light up the sky!” says McKinnie. “We sing from the soul, we dance, we go out into the audience and shake hands with people.” He adds that Thorn’s driving spirit will “reach out and touch you.”
Gospel favorites like “Love Train,” “Look Where He Brought Me From” and “You Got to Move” are just a few of the uplifting numbers audiences will experience, as well as more obscure gospel tunes like “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed.” Thorn’s muscular brand of Southern roots, country and blues music will be interwoven throughout the set, and he will also give a nod to his dad as he plays the role of “preacher” during the show.
Levitt audiences will also be inspired by the shows’ messages of hope and resilience in overcoming adversity—whether that centers around physical challenges such as blindness or growing up on the margins of society. McKinnie, who lost his eyesight at age 23 following glaucoma, says, “Once people get to see Blind Boys perform, they will realize we don’t have a disability—we have a limitation. And a limitation doesn’t have to be a handicap. Music brought me closer to who I am and kept me in tune to what I could do.” He hopes their story will encourage people to follow their hearts. “We are all dreamers. If you can dream the dream and keep the faith, you can make it happen.”
Thorn is similarly determined, sharing this pearl of wisdom from his favorite boxer. “Mohammad Ali once said, ‘Don’t count the days. Make the days count.’ And I want to live my life that way, to get up every morning and use every moment for good. I hope I can bring a bit of that to people.”
Stay tuned for 2018 Levitt National Tour city dates early next year!
Watch our interview with Paul Thorn, as part of Levitt’s “Meet The Artist” Series: