The Two Years The Texas Country Outlaw Spent Crashing At The Belmont Hotel Unexpectedly Gave Him The Most Honest Album He’s Ever Written.
It’s not exactly a secret that country music is experiencing a moment of defiance right now.
Kacey Musgraves has dominated the conversation of contemporary country music despite country radio’s attempts to whisper her name. The newly-cemented record for the longest-charting no. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100 just so happens to be a country song performed by a gay, black man. And those two examples are just in the immediate, introductory scope of where the genre resides right now.
Paul Cauthen finds himself somewhere in the center of all that change. Sonically, he’s a bit of a throwback, what with his booming voice and gospel-country aesthetic. But the Tyler native actually does boast a similar fuck-all attitude to his contemporaries; he’s rather unafraid to lyrically dive into his hard-partying, drug-using lifestyle. But while he often shares these ideas in jokey, bombastic ways, he says he’s not playing a character with the loud public persona seen in his music videos and social media postings. Nope, that’s just him writing his own story, Cauthen says when we caught up with him over the phone last week.
Remaining true to himself in his songwriting has given him freedom on his latest material, he says. In fact, he’s quick to call his today-released new album, Room 41, the “most honest art” he’s ever created. Written over the course of a two-year stay in room 41 of West Dallas’ Belmont Hotel, Cauthen’s latest release is a product of both the best of times and the worst of times. Its creation worked out, Cauthen says, because so many talented musicians happened to be regulars at the Belmont during a stretch in which Cauthen didn’t really intend to write any new material at all. And while he’s proud of what came from that effort, he also says he never wants to put himself through that process again.
Or so he told us from the middle of a European tour, with Room 41‘s release today looming on the horizon. Scroll down to read a transcript of our interview, which focuses on Cauthen’s signature sound, the chaotically productive time that inspired the new album and why he doesn’t give a shit about the same old country music tropes.
Thanks for taking the time to give me a call, Paul. Where exactly are you right now?
I’m in Sint-Nicklaas, Belgium. It has been crazy over here.
European people are really big country music fans! Who would have guessed?!
Man, it’s been a wild awakening to see how many people are coming to the shows. I love it.
So the new album was inspired by the two years you spent crashing at The Belmont Hotel here in Dallas. Take me back to the beginning of that. How did it happen?
I was in a relationship for a while and it kind of fell through and I needed a place to live, but I didn’t have much money. I had a good buddy of mine, Jordan Ford, opened up the Belmont to me and allowed me to stay there. I ended up being on the road so much that it didn’t make sense for me to get a lease on a house, so I made a deal with [Ford] to stay in room 41 while I was there so I had a place that I could have time to write in.
That’s not a bad set-up!
Yeah, it’s really cool to be a part of that whole scene where we were putting on shows in the lobby. And Jason Burt, who ended up helping produce this record, lived there at the same time. It was just wild as shit. Everybody on the road was coming in to stay [on tour], and we’d be there and just throw it down. It was just one of those times in life where you kind of pinch yourself and realize it happened after the fact.
It sounds like time was just kind of on your side, and everything just worked out naturally.
Yeah, it kind of just all worked out, man. It was never premeditated. I didn’t ever want to live in a hotel that long — it wasn’t even something I wanted to do, but it ended up that it became my home. With Jordan Ford there, it was just a big nucleus of a big art scene. They’ve got artists coming in from all over the world. And beautiful, beautiful writers. All kinds of weirdos. It’s cool.
So even though living in a hotel, or even making an album for that matter wasn’t necessarily in the plan, did having so many other artists literally at your doorstep like that make it easier for you to put Room 41 together?
Oh, man. Modern Electric Sound Recorders, Jeff Saenz, Beau Bedford and those guys all have kind of an open slate to go and record. And then Logan Rodgers at Lightning Rod records and myself, we all just teamed up. No egos were there. Everybody just worked hard to get the job done. The studio was just a blessing at that perfect time because I totally just consumed myself in the art. And, y’know, drinking. I’d get in trouble just playing down there at 4 or 5 a.m. Guys like David Ramirez would pop in and stay a while, and he’s one of my favorites and a dear friend. It was just organic. And Beau bought a house up the hill so we called it the “Beaumont,” so we’d always go up there and listen to our mixes. Everybody was a team, and it was a bunch of friends just having fun in the studio.
Did that make it feel like you were making an album or did it just feel more like having fun with an album was a happy accident?
It definitely felt like we were making an album. We all knew what we were trying to do. We knew that we all had the right tools at the right time with the right people to make something that we all felt like we could collectively make a splash with — something that we all had faith in from the start. And, all of our work ethics were in common. I was writing sometimes upwards of six songs a day. I was almost going manic a little bit. Beau was going crazy, too. We all caught ourselves at a good time of crazy.
Being that there is a long history of musicians taking up residences like that, was it the experience you thought it would be?
Y’know, the whole sex, drugs, rock n’ roll and all that shit — people talk about it, and you don’t realize you’re even a part of it until it’s done, and then you’re like ‘Man, I’m fucking glad I got through that.’ It kind of leads to a hall of smoke and mirrors.
You’ve been making music for quite some time now. Is now the first time you came to that realization?
It’s taken me this long to realize it. I’ve been on the road since 2007. The last time I had a full-time job was serving in Tyler, Texas, in 2007. I still remember the last time I clocked in. Ever since then, it’s been the ups and downs and ins and outs. Been through four or five vans and probably two million miles.
And now Europe!
And now I’m in Europe! And we are grinding over here. I saw Holland today for the first time. We went into a coffee shop and my buddy and tour manager went and got us some weed. Now, we’re in Belgium. Day before that, we were in Berlin — that got wild. Berlin is crazy as shit. It reminds me of New York City.
Isn’t it wild that you can jump all over the continent over there? Whereas back home it can take us 12 hours just to get out of the state?
Oh, yeah. The other day our tour manager was like, ‘It’s a killer day tomorrow! Get ready for tomorrow!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah? Why’s that?’ and he was like, ‘It’s a five-and-a-half-hour-drive.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck, dude?! I’ve gone 8 hours to the fucking Blue Light in Lubbock — my same state!’
You mentioned drugs briefly, and your drug use has been something you’ve been open about in your music. Does that fuel your work or does it hinder it?
It definitely hinders it. I mean, I’ve smoked some weed and, yeah, I’ve done my fair share of cocaine and all that stuff, but I am not a guy to stay on one thing. Y’know, alcohol mainly can really rock your world. You dig deep in there. When you’re doing that, [sometimes] you make a decision to do cocaine. It’s not a good thing, but it tends to sometimes just show up. And, y’know, when you’re in a moment where you’re vulnerable with your art, sometimes you’ll do things and make wild decisions. I’m definitely not an advocate for hardcore drugs like cocaine, but there were times it was turned up.
That sounds… tough.
There were definitely some ups and downs. And when I was down, I was pretty manic and bipolar sometimes. And I never want to have to write a record like this again. Ever. And I never will. I’ve been keeping it on my health train lately, though. Trying to stay out here for a while.
That’s good to hear. It sounds like a pretty exhausting experience, to be honest.
Times were great. It was a great experience working with these artists. Everybody was on the same playing field, everybody was adding creative elements. Nobody gave a shit about who said what or who critiqued who. And then we’d go down to the bar at Shipping & Receiving in Fort Worth. Everybody came to play. It felt like a World Series baseball team — but we haven’t won the World Series yet. [Laughs.]
You might be playing in your own league, though. You have your own sound, and you’re kind of in your own lane when it comes to your music. Do you think that’s been a barrier to breakthrough in country or do you think it’s helped you stand out?
It’s been a barrier — but one that I’m going to break through. People can follow suit. I always want to be a breakthrough artist on my own terms. I’m gonna be against the grain and I’m gonna be a slow burn, y’know? I’m not gonna write about fucking flip-flops and a suntan.
It’s interesting you mention that. You’re kind of a part of moment in country music where people are starting to break from the tradition that’s been in place for a while.
Yeah, man. Because what the hell do we have? We don’t get to be our true self. I love big record labels. I’m glad they’re doing their thing. I love radio promoters, and I’m glad they’re doing their thing, too. I love all those people. But guess what? Sometimes, when you keep on throwing a bunch of clutter in the lane, you sound like everything else. It’s just a money decision rather than an artist’s decision.
Do you feel like you’ve found your home at Lighting Rod Records? And that’s why you’re able to be so open and free about yourself?
I’m not in this thing for myself. I’m going to take it my own way. I’ve been watching everybody move for 15 years because I want to have my own label out of Austin and Dallas one day called Velvet Rose Records, which is my record label and it is putting out half of this album. I have to know how to put out a record correctly. I just want to help others artists here in the next couple years, but I’ve got to break through with my own art first before anyone thinks I have don’t have any clout to tell them how to do their own album.
So with Room 41, do you feel like this the first time you’re being completely 100 percent yourself with your art?
Yeah, it’s the first time I can say that. My Gospel was one thing. I needed to do that record. But it wasn’t… I was still searching. You have to trial and error and figure out your own voice and figure out what the fuck you wanna say. I’m very passionate about what I do — I wanna spread a real message that’s not just Joe Blow music to get someone shit-faced out in the crowd. This Air Force guy came up to me that’s been stationed up here in Germany for three years away from his family all alone, and he told me my music got him through depression and kept him hard at work and thinking about the long goal. I think that’s what we’re all here for. It’s better to see how we can turn out what our long goal is, and how we can help somebody else along the way.
You don’t shy away from your struggles either, especially in your lyrics. Is that approach to your art why you think this album is finally a reflection of who you truly are?
I think if I didn’t do it, I would be cheating myself. You have to break through with what you’re trying to say. So, I’m just trying to be bloody honest. That’s who somebody can relate. If you don’t talk about feelings or emotions in life, I think we’re just cutting ourselves short. That’s been my approach the whole time. So, yeah, that’s probably why major labels have teetered around me, because I’m very open with both my spirituality and the ways I fall short.
That’s why you’re in your own lane, though.
And I couldn’t be surrounded by these high level of artists that I am! And God. That’s been the core to my existence since I was a child. And I don’t call [my higher power] a he or she or white or black or anything. But there’s something there. There’s a reason why I was introduced to Jason Burt, who introduced me to the Texas Gentlemen, who introduced me to Beau Bedford and then Austin Jenkins and Matt Pence. Like you said, it’s just a beautiful thing with the timing.
Cover photo by Anna Webber.