The (mostly, probably) reformed ex-con who turned 20 behind bars and had a hit with “Cocaine Country Dancing” transformed from pot slinger to righteous outlaw singer.
Editor’s Note: The Real Deal is C&I’s 2021 entertainment feature where we share our recommendations for musicians, writers, entertainers, and podcasters who possess a common trait: unmistakable authenticity. Paul Cauthen leads the pack of figures to watch in 2021.
In country music, “the real deal” is a title reserved for those who not only possess iconic voices, but who live the lifestyle they sing about. Or, at the very least, make you believe they live it.
Cash never served time in Folsom Prison, and while Merle indeed “turned 21 in prison,” he wasn’t “doing life without parole” like he says on “Mama Tried.” But you believed them both when they sang about it.
Paul Cauthen’s got the voice. His rich, smooth baritone voice earned him the nickname “Big Velvet.” As far as the outlaw country lifestyle goes, when Cauthen sings about going to prison for getting caught with “the devil’s lettuce,” he’s not playing a character.
His art almost always imitates his life.
“I turned 20 in prison,” Cauthen, now 34, told me as we sat down at a picnic table on the porch of the Blue Store outside our shared birthplace of Tyler, Texas.
But Cauthen is much more than a rebellious outlaw wringing the most out of life. He’s also a deeply spiritual man walking the fine line between the sacred and the profane.
“The weed’s under your seat, so if we get caught it’s yours,” Cauthen says as we wind down East Texas back roads in his 1989 Dodge Ram Charger on the way to spend an afternoon on Lake Palestine.
There’s a reason Cauthen sells shirts that read “Country Band With Contraband.”
He was arrested in high school for possession of marijuana and after parole violations in college was imprisoned on a six-month sentence. After his release he moved to Colorado where he says he began building on both his music and his outlaw careers.
“I started getting into that bluegrass hippie scene, taking a lot of acid and mushrooms and experimenting with my life,” Cauthen says. “I was just floating by the seat of music — and selling a lot of f---ing weed.”
He says he was part of a larger operation spread out across several states, but instead of splurging with the money he made, he began investing it in his music career.
After several years in the Americana duo Sons of Fathers, Cauthen went solo. His 2016 solo debut, My Gospel, was an old-school country effort that shot him into the conversation with other non-Nashville country stars like Sturgill Simpson and Cody Jinks. But instead of riding a wave of success and fame brought with his breakthrough, Cauthen had a breakdown.
A broken engagement sent him into a downward spiral. He lived for two years out of a suitcase at the Belmont Hotel in Dallas, driving himself into the ground even as he worked to create his next album, the brilliant Room 41, so named after the room where he almost died.
“I bought a Harley and I would drive it 120 mph over the bridges in Dallas,” Cauthen says. “I would wake up in the morning with songs in my voice memos that I had no memory of recording. I was having to relearn my own s--- during the day.”
The result was an album that was an extreme departure from his first. Room 41 has funk, disco, and even some hip-hop beats with Cauthen’s undeniably country voice. The lyrics are sometimes personal, often vulnerable, and, like on the hit “Cocaine Country Dancing” sometimes pure, hedonistic fun.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I’m an apostle,’” Cauthen says, smoke blowing past his face as we zoom around in his 1983 Chris-Craft boat on a windy summer afternoon.
Cauthen grew up in the Church of Christ and still claims a Christian faith, even if that looks very different from the one he grew up in.
“My sermons aren’t preached from a pulpit, they’re preached on stages in venues all across the country,” Cauthen says.
His apostolic realization came after he pulled himself out of his black hole, moved, and began a new relationship. As Cauthen tells the story, a homeless man asked to pray with him and quoted scripture from the Apostle Paul. When he learned Cauthen’s first name, he began to cry. This interaction signified to Cauthen that he had a greater purpose in life.
“People think I’m this wild guy because I have a song called ‘Cocaine Country Dancing,’ and I like that they think that,” Cauthen says. “But I also wait after every show and meet every single person that wants to meet me and I say, ‘God bless you, and thank you so much for coming,’ and you would be surprised how much that means to people.”
These days, Cauthen is engaged to a woman he says saved him and changed his life, the June to his Johnny. They’ve moved back to Tyler and spend most of their days during the COVID-19 lockdown out on the lake.
He told me his next album will be about drinking beer with friends on the lake during the summer. Once again, Cauthen’s art is imitating his life.
Paul Cauthen-Approved Country Singers
Charlie J Memphis
A 19-year-old with a mature voice well beyond his years, Memphis’ Cauthen-produced debut album is due out in 2021.
You’ll swear Blevins is the long-lost daughter of Dolly Parton when you hear her voice. Cauthen says he produced her upcoming album as well. Until that is released, check out her 2015 and 2018 EPs Runnin’ and Walk Home, respectively.
Joshua Ray Walker
A Dallas-based country singer with the perfect twang, Walker is already on the road to stardom with profiles in Rolling Stone and shows with Shooter Jennings and Charley Crockett. His albums are full of heartbreaking, honest lyrics. In 2019 he released a widely acclaimed debut Wish You Were Here and followed it up with Glad You Made It in 2020. He also released an album in 2019 with his band Ottoman Turks.
The C&I Hot List
It’s no surprise that a great country voice comes from Bristol. Except, instead of Tennessee, Yola is from Bristol, England. You won’t hear a more authentic country singer from anywhere than the former backup singer turned Grammy nominee. Her debut album Walk Through Fire was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Yola’s country-soul voice is on best display as a guest vocalist on “Highwomen” from the Highwomen’s self-titled 2019 album.
A descendant of Davy Crockett, something he won’t hesitate to emphasize, Crockett is a modern-day country and blues troubadour. He grew up dirt poor in South Texas, has lived everywhere from New York City to Paris to Northern California, and has risen to alt-country and indie stardom. His prolific output has seen him put out eight albums since 2015.
The Purcell, Oklahoma, native with the boyish face has been writing mature, bluesy, and rocking Americana music for the better part of a decade. Millsap creates compelling, relatable characters in his music. From a veteran sticking up a Quik Trip to a zealous long-haul trucker trying to convert the prostitutes frequenting his truck, his music weaves a rich tapestry of the people who make up this country. It’s not hard to pick up the influence of the Pentecostal church in his performances.
Photography: Images courtesy Paul Cauthen, Anna Webber, Charlie J Memphis, Brittany Phillips, Chad Windham, Alyesse Gafkjen, Charley Crockett, Tim Duggan
From our January 2021 issue.