Paul Cauthen’s Big Ego (And Big Voice) May Be Just What Country Music Needs

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Paul Cauthen boasts about having Benjamins to burn in “Fuck You Money,” an outrageous, tongue-in-cheek song on his latest album, the wildly entertaining Country Coming Down. And when he called from New York earlier this spring, it was obvious he’d taken the title to heart.

The Tyler, Texas, country singer flew to New York on a whim just to see, in person, a Spotify billboard featuring his likeness in Times Square. “My wife styled me and made all my clothes and she said, ‘I’ve got to see it with my own eyes.’ So, I’m like, let’s go,” Cauthen says from his hotel room, where he’s just splurged on 30 different varieties of bagels. “We’re just taking one bite out of each.”

Cauthen is nothing if not proudly over-the-top. Onstage, he lets loose the alter ego of “Big Velvet,” an outsized dandy who’s fly like Huggy Bear but with a booming voice halfway between Johnny Cash and Nick Cave. He’s keen on large hats and flashy satin jackets; in his press photo, he carries a cane. To witness the imposing Cauthen perform live (he’s on tour through September) is to see a man undergo a transformation. The vibe in the room — especially during his hard-partying years when songs like “Cocaine Country Dancing” were not so much fantasy as mission statements — can feel dangerous.

“‘Big Velvet’ is something I can kind of blame or put excuses on if I get wild onstage,” he says. “I like to put on my cape and lean into show business. We try to be Superman. When I was a kid, I was told by my granddad, ‘This is your kingdom. When you stand up on a stage, you’re the king. You’ve got to own everything in the room and show everybody that you got the light and you’re there to shine it.’”

On Country Coming Down, Cauthen blazes brightly, in stark contrast to the darkness that shrouded his 2019 album Room 41. While that record was written as an exercise in purging pain and various demons, its songs, especially the brooding but irresistible “Cocaine Country Dancing,” helped Cauthen and producer Beau Bedford land on the Big Velvet sound: a sweaty blend of country-funk and danceable R&B. If Cauthen’s 2016 debut, My Gospel, was a mostly acoustic affair best suited for early morning introspection, the decadent Country Coming Down is made for showing out into the wee hours.

“I understand what the crowd really wants: They want to move. They want to shake their ass, you know? I needed to bring that thump [for Country Coming Down],” he says. “If it wasn’t a banger or something that makes you move your toes and makes you dance, then I didn’t want it on the record. That’s where my mindset was, to fulfill a good sonic balance between Merle Haggard and Funkadelic.

“I think country music, most of it now, is fucking boring,” he continues (“Real cowboys don’t rock to Kenny Chesney,” Cauthen sneers in album single “Country As Fuck”). “I don’t even know if there is country music. Genres are so cross-contaminated, it’s turned into a pissing contest of ‘What do you call this, what do you call that?’ Mine is ‘Paul Cauthen’…and I’m just here to freakin’ light fires.”

Cauthen referring to his music, or even himself, in the third person is right in line with the Big Velvet persona. The reason the character works, and why songs with ridiculous titles like “Fuck You Money,” “Country As Fuck,” and “Country Clubbin’” succeed, is due to the East Texan fully believing in his own myth-making. “She’s wearing Versace and I’m flossin’ Tom Ford/What the hell am I even nominated for?” he sings in “Champagne & a Limo.” “People are like, ‘Man, is it satirical?’” Cauthen says, “and I’m like, ‘You can call it that, but it’s me.’”

Still, Cauthen is aware that his oversized swagger may rub some folks the wrong way. But he likens it to the boasting that defines hip-hop.

“Golly,” Cauthen says, echoing one of his grandfather’s favorite sayings. “Jay-Z was talking about slinging crack rocks in his first two records.”

Besides, he admits, he doesn’t really have “fuck you money.”

“It’s almost like laughable arrogance,” Cauthen says. “But I don’t have to have a billion dollars. If I can go buy a steak anywhere in the world and eat it that night, I think I’m a rich human. That’s fuck you money.”