Paul Cauthen doesn’t want us to call him an artist. He hates that.
He’d rather we know him as a Texas redneck, a beer-drinking NASCAR fan who makes music that’s honest. Even raised in a family of preachers and dropping albums with names like Have Mercy and My Gospel, he’s earned the outlaw-country brand, doing plenty of drugs and suffering his share of benders and breakups; he even did time in the clinker as a young man after being busted with weed in Texas. After that, he lived in Colorado — what he calls “a free state” — from 2007 to 2010. Then he returned to outlaw life in the Lone Star State, which he pays tribute to in a tattoo on his arm.
Whether he likes it or not, Cauthen’s an artist, and he’s making country music his own way. He’s also a rebel, though not in the Robert E. Lee-loving sense of the word. He’s one of the few country musicians rebellious enough to call out fascists, racists and bigots as they worm their way into the halls of power.
On his soon-to-drop album, Room 41, he shows he’s more likely to sing about cocaine than a longneck bottle. And while he respects a handful of Top 40 artists, most of what’s making radio stations millions of dollars is what he describes as “regurgitated vomit.”
Westword caught up with Cauthen over the phone a couple weeks before his first Red Rocks appearance, with headliner Cody Jinks and fellow opener Mark Chesnutt on July 13.
Paul Cauthen: Sorry I’m late.
Westword: It’s a miracle I’m on time, so don’t even worry.
How’ve you been?
I’ve been good. I’ve been in the swimming pool, so I just kind of forgot about this.
I’m jealous. Where are you?
I’m at the FOE — the Fraternal Order of Eagle — in Dallas, Texas. It’s a public pool.
Oh, my God. That sounds great.
They serve beer. It’s great. I’m having a good time.
Your songs have such a distinct sound. Is there room for you right now in the country-music scene?
I don’t even know. It’s the real thing, you know — real songs. My music’s different than anything else. I think it’s a slow burn, but maybe it’s just honest enough to where maybe, hell, I could have a shot. So let’s give it a shot.
I ask myself [that question] a lot, too. I’ve been at it for a long time. This record means a lot to me, and I feel like it’s going to be at the front of sound.
This is Room 41?
Tell me about it.
I stayed at the Belmont Hotel in Dallas for two years, writing this record in Room 41. I had just gotten through a big breakup. I went through a dark time and pulled myself up, and wrote a lot of songs in between.
What’s that like — two years in a room like that?
It’s like being on tour for two years, living out of your bag.
Are you wrapping up touring your last album, Have Mercy, or is that a distant memory now?
That’s done. I’m just amping up for this record.
Talk about how your music has changed between the two projects.
Man, it’s just currently evolving. I’m going for deeper low end and all the sonics I can. Just trying to make it happen — be different than everybody else and stay true to my own preference and sound.
Do you ever get tempted to stray from that?
What? And just go mainstream and write songs about flip-flops and fuckin’ beer?
Yeah. I think about it a lot. I watch a lot of people make a shitload of money doing it. It’s kind of funny to watch.
What do you think of it?
It is what it is, man. The radio stations are getting paid millions of dollars for those singles. That’s just how it works. It’s within the mold. It doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings, and it’s about a good time. It is what it is. It’s not honest, in my opinion. It’s just machine-shop music.
It’s interesting what the fans view as an original voice in that kind of country. It’s almost indecipherable between what you’re talking about and the radio stuff that’s supposedly independent — Eric Church or whatever.
I mean, Eric Church is one of them I like. Dierks Bentley, too. I mean, they write good songs. Randy Houser’s a good friend of mine, and he’s a Top 40 guy. And those guys have fuckin’ million-dollar houses. Everybody can talk shit if they want. I’m not the guy to talk shit. I’m the guy to question my own art, because when you see what’s hot, it sure as hell ain’t me; it ain’t my sound. My sound’s me. It hasn’t really broken yet. But if it does, by
God, I’m at the front of it, because it’s fuckin’ mine.
How have audiences responded to “Everybody Walkin’ This Land”?
Oh, man, that was a banger. It freakin’ really caught fire, and people love it. We don’t play it much live. It’s funny.
But when we do, it’s always a crowd-pleaser. It’s been one to kind of organically go, and then when [Starz series] American Gods put it on the premiere of the second season, it really lifted off.
It’s not every day in country music that you hear anything anti-fascist like “Everybody Walkin’ This Land.” That’s a rarity since Johnny Cash died. Maybe Willie does it a little bit. Has singing against fascism caused any tensions for you?
Man, I’m a tell-it-like-it-is guy. And I fuckin’ hate when people say I’m an artist. I’m just a fuckin’ Joe Blow redneck from East Texas that likes NASCAR and drinkin’ beer. I’m writin’ songs and smokin’ bongs, and hopefully people sing along, you know?
At this point, I’m not overlooking any of it. The market’s got to be my market, or I’m not going to fit in. I’m building my own market, my own sound, my own music, and I don’t have anybody to tell me what the fuck I can do.
That’s where I wanted to be, and I’m making enough to pay my $1,250 rent, and I’m making enough to put gas in my Dodge Ram, and that’s about all I need. I’ve arrived and made it, because my old funny dream of being a musician actually came true. So at this point, if it goes up, that’d be awesome. But if it doesn’t, maybe I’m writing about fuckin’ flip-flops and sandals and beer next year.
You have a sound of your own, which is more than most people.
It isn’t boring. I think that makes it different from a lot of radio country.
That’s regurgitated vomit. It’s like you throw up, it works, and then it sticks, and then people scrape up that vomit, take it into the next songwriting, and they eat it, and then they throw it up, and then the next person comes in... It’s like the baby-bird method. That’s what’s happening in country music, in my opinion. People are baby-birding vomit that works.
At least vomit has a flavor.
Fuck, yeah, man. I guess it’s working.
What do you want people to know about this album as you’re approaching the release?
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That it’s honest. It’s true grit. It’s just red, white and blue, stars and stripes. This thing is as honest as it can be.
I’m really stoked about Red Rocks. I’m just ready to shake the Red Rocks. Just shake it.
Paul Cauthen, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 13, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, $39.50-$200, redrocksonline.com.