For better and worse, Paul Cauthen has spent his life breaking the rules.
Parting from his conservative Christian upbringing in East Texas, the “Cocaine Country Dancing” singer served a brief stint in jail for marijuana possession.
The death of his grandfather, who first introduced him to the guitar, followed by his parents’ divorce, had set Cauthen on a rocky path to early adulthood.
One day during his six-month incarceration, Cauthen says he’d managed to convince a prison sergeant to let him feed Whataburger cheeseburgers to the other prisoners on his on a chain gang.
But music was a grounding force for him. The jail cell became an increasingly crowded venue where he sang gospel hymns with fellow inmates, forging new bonds.
Cauthen’s latest album, Room 41, is named after the room in West Dallas’ Belmont Hotel where, over two years of highs and lows, he wrote songs steeped in despair, destruction, and redemption. With it, he hopes that owning his darker times can lift his audience.
His father was a song leader in the ultra-conservative Church of Christ. Cauthen says that would make him a fifth-generation preacher or song leader.
He’s following in those footsteps in his own way.
“I feel like it’s my duty to try to spread goodwill to humanity and try to help people throughout their day through song and, whether it makes them sad or happy — maybe it touches an emotion that then allows them to cope or get through a tough time,” he said in an interview with All Things Considered.
“The only thing I’m preaching is, ‘be good to one another and leave the hate behind.’ “
Eschewing country tropes, Cauthen’s new record infuses his baritone timbre with R&B, Country-Western, hip-hop, jazz and funk — a genre-defying work apparent from the production credits alone, which include modern soul torchbearer Leon Bridges and Americana rocker Jason Isbell.
“Our goal was to kind of create our own genre, let it just be our music — good music,” Cauthen said. “You know, I wish we could get back to two genres — ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ “
In the album’s opening boot-stomper, “Everybody Walkin’ This Land,” Cauthen calls out everyone from “the racists” to “the saints,” letting them know: I felt your hurt, drank your fear.
It’s a crowd-silencer, he said.
Cauthen grew up among Southerners who would sling racial slurs and preach attitudes he now finds unacceptable.
“That’s when you make a stand in life you know,” he said. “I’ve learned from that.”
“We’re all kind of screwed up right now,” he said. “And so, I just try to write some lyrics that can maybe prick somebody’s heart.”