A wise man once said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” and there may be no better mantra to summarize the life of Paul Cauthen. Full throttle, flat out, and with no margin for error, the Texas songwriter knows all about the art of the crash-and-burn. Which is what makes Cauthen one of the most fascinating, and eccentric, new voices in country music – and not just because of his Waylon-and-Cash-incarnate baritone.
“This whole songwriting thing, man, you just get to a point where you rip your hair out. You’re like, ‘I can say it right now, I know what I want to fucking say, but I can’t fucking say it,'” says Cauthen, his voice climbing into a maniacal shout before trailing off into a cackle as he relaxes at the Belmont Hotel in Dallas, Texas. “I believe that’s where art, when our madness just about kicks in” – he whistles, a glimmer in his eye – “watch out, that’s where the true artist shines.”
Seeing Cauthen – a frequent collaborator of Cody Jinks, the Texas Gentlemen and Margo Price – perform in person is to know that his is a death-defying routine. Often appearing in cowboy hat and suspenders, he dips and dives, weaves and wiggles, his 6-foot-4 frame shaking and skittering around the stage with surprising litheness. He sings like he’s wrestling with a bull – or, to paraphrase the man in his own words, like “some fucking psycho dancing around” at a “snake-charming-ass Baptist church.”
Raised in the church himself, religious imagery is writ large in Cauthen’s music, including his new EP Have Mercy, out June 22nd on Lightning Rod Records. Raised in Tyler, Texas, he’s the only grandson of a fourth-generation preacher from the Church of Christ. “I call it the belt buckle of the Bible Belt,” he says of East Texas, where he attended services three times a week in his youth. “That’s who I am, that’s my upbringing. I can’t deny it.”
Cauthen is a chip off the old block from his grandfather, Jim Paul, an imposing figure with a Jimmy Swaggart streak who taught him to wield his voice like a blunt object and instilled in him a deep love of classic country music. “He didn’t need a microphone in the Church of Christ with 500 people, and you could hear him like Pavarotti,” says Cauthen. He rolls up the sleeve of his pearl-snap shirt to show off a tattoo of his grandfather’s signature, taken from his will. His friends, not coincidentally, call him “Paw Paw.”
It’s not hard to imagine Cauthen, with his deep, bellowing voice, as a charismatic figure behind the pulpit. But his hellfire sermons aren’t the work of the church, even though his journey so far has had a touch of the prodigal. In a past life, he was one half of Sons of Fathers, a indie-inflected Americana act built on airy harmonies, but he quit in 2014. “When you’re in a band for five years and you’ve got your best friends within it and you lose that and y’all are not talking anymore, it’s like losing a girlfriend or a loved one,” Cauthen says.
The next year saw him plunge into a prolonged bender, but more heartache followed with the unraveling of an on-again, off-again relationship. The couple got engaged, but broke things off for good in 2017. “That was the worst year of my life. It sure did look good in smoke and mirrors with all the write-ups in the papers and stuff. Well, I was getting through that,” he says, soberly. “Being with me, man, I’m moody. I’ve been down. I’m not the easiest person to live with, so bless her heart. She went through a lot of shit.”
In both situations, Cauthen – who’s lived out of a suitcase at the Belmont for the past two years – coped via a typically extreme process of creative bingeing and purging, churning out what he estimates to be 50 songs. “I went crazy. I honestly went crazy,” he says, his voice raising an octave as he veers between tangents, simply speeding up as he talks rather than stopping to catch his breath. “I’ve written six songs in a day before. I’ll just be on a tear. Then I’ll go 10 days without picking up a guitar, because I get drunk for 10 days, I get wild with friends, I go water-skiing.”
Cauthen’s first solo LP, 2016’s My Gospel, found him with one foot still in the Americana world even as rollicking cuts like “Still Drivin'” and “Saddle” situated him as a road-wearied country outlaw. Have Mercy‘s seven tracks don’t hedge any bets, finding him leaning fully into a wild, unpredictable, and genuinely captivating persona. Though the twang in his voice grounds the music in country, he moves freely on a spectrum from rock to schmaltz. The surreal, cha-cha-ing boogie of “Resignation” is a perfectly bizarre kiss-off to convention, while the title track’s day-of-reckoning showdown gets torn wide open by a schizophrenic guitar solo.
With such an over-the-top character, it begs the question of just how much Cauthen buys into the mystique he’s developed. For the most part, what you see is what you get; when he offers up a ride in “My Cadillac,” it’s because he drives a 1964 Fleetwood. Even when the subject matter gets dark, as on the politically charged opener “Everybody Walkin’ This Land,” it stems from a deep-seated sense of guilt. “The church scared the shit out of me. You know what I mean? That’s not a way to live,” he says.
Except righteousness isn’t piety, and Cauthen isn’t interested in forgiveness. He wants redemption. For him, that comes through making music, but it’s a notion he also learned from Jim Paul, for whom the sacred mingled inextricably with the profane. A onetime friend of songwriter and Buddy Holly bandmate Sonny Curtis, he never abandoned the wild antics of his youth, right up until his death when Cauthen was 10 years old. “My grandmother kept $500 in her wallet at all times because she never knew when Granddad was going to jail,” Cauthen says with obvious pride.
That’s why he considers “Lil Son” to be the most personal on Have Mercy. The tale of a grandfather who imparts wisdom to his grandson, it’s based on a real-life conversation that Cauthen recalls as a passing of the torch from Jim Paul.
“He was just blunt and honest, like, let’s get to the fucking point,” Cauthen says. “He always talked about legacy. That’s the only thing that we have. What are they going to say when you’re gone?”