Delicate Thunder: The 'Gospel' according to Paul Cauthen

You go looking for Paul Cauthen in Wichita Falls, Texas, a woodsy, verdant tornado-torn country where weeping echoes of steel pedal guitars run with the winds through the trees, and what you find in that stormy songwriter's mind is a passion for dissing the country mainstream, but also someone who is not necessarily your standard brand neo-outlaw redo. Because at the root of his talent is the angst of the somewhat lapsed choirboy, perhaps even a kind of reclusive genius who likes to push on the boundaries of the terrain, the expectations, of what it is to be in country music field.

"I'm an odd character," he says during a telephone interview from his home in Wichita Falls. "I'm very moody. I'm telling you I live in these f...ing songs. I'm that f...ing crazy."

So he admits it. He's a somewhat flawed guy. One who certainly doesn't give much tow to mainstream country (Naturally, he's opening for Social Distortion just before he gets to play in Flagstaff at the Museum Club). He lives on that jaded edge where a lifetime of hard road creates that hole in the roof where the rain pours through, and the result is an album like "My Gospel." The record reveals his artful vulnerability. As he said recently, “You don’t have to write about tan-lines and flip-flops and cold beer and the sand every f...in’ day … Write about your feelings, for once.”

He says the intent of the record was to be "timeless and righteous," and that's pretty much the motto for the band. A group of musicians who, he says, he'd be perfectly willing to go to a show just watch them play.

"We've got the recipe," he says of his band mates and his producer, Beau Bedford, who managed to pull together sessions at three different studios into a seamless record, right down to the old-tyme gospel look of his album cover. "We were able to get these guys to kill themselves for the part, to the point we were almost beat down, but right there. We want to be timeless and righteous every time we are in the building. When you get the Muscle Shoals type sound, it's like a bunch of angels are helping you."

"My Gospel," released last year, features Cauthen's booming baritone and a swamp-country groove on "Still Drivin," which is a little Dire Straits like, with yes that Waylon Jennings roll. For the rest, there is an intelligent, gospel style to the music with a submerged spirituality, as if he might be country's Van Morrison, considering all of the things he can do with that booming voice. "Marfa Lights" captures the mystery of the the desolate West Texas town to the point it's downright spooky with its lyrics sung in minor keys. He says the song is about the UFO-like phenomenon of perhaps gas lights known to hang in the sky in the region. “It’s a mysterious, cosmic love song,” Cauthen says. "My Saddle," with its vocal also in a minor key, has a kind of anthemic quality that, when punched up live, is a real crowd pleaser.

"They love that one," he says of audiences about "Saddle." "It's a showstopper. That shows our love for hanging out on the line like nobody's business. I was going for Jimmy Rodgers on peyote. Or a Quentin Tarantino movie. My head is all visual. It's a big canvas."

On the day of the interview he described his day this way: He spent the day obsessing over his catalog in his music room upstairs, then reminded himself to relax and "just kick it" with his two dogs and his fiance. Because when he gets into the studio he can get so absorbed he can forget to come out for air.

"I'm going over my catalog and doing what I need to do," he says. "It's been great, but it's also pretty low key. We are trying to make it more than just keeping it low key because right now we are just barely getting by. We are thinking about moving to Fort Worth or Nashville, because this is my job and when I look at these heavy writers out of Nashville, the roots of their (success) comes from a real work ethic. So I really try to grind. We want to make it a machine, per se."

He says the freedom of his private time in the music room allows him to isolate and focus.

"That leads it open for me to write. I want a rock feel, a gospel feel, even though I feel like its a country aesthetic since I grew up here in east Texas. I want to get my voice to the point where it's almost a whisper. With singers like Curt Cobain of Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Elvis ... they have a delivery that's almost frail and nimble."

Therefore, in the future, Cauthen albums may indicate a desire for more exploration, as opposed to an affirmation of classic country.

"I feel like so many people play like they are in a box," he says.

So, based on these details, Cauthen's "country" is based on a broader palette than the Luckenbach, Texas crowd. Not so much stark and traditionalist as rich, almost to the point of being jazzy, like a Marc Cohn (who made a hit of "Walking in Memphis") or Lyle Lovett, who adorned his alt-country records with jazz and swing. This is all because of instead of growing up in honky tonks, he grew up learning to sing in an a capella gospel choir.

"I grew up singing in a gospel church, and it didn't believe in instruments. It was all about singing," he says. "I started out singing old bluegrass tunes that my granddad liked, stuff like Woody Guthrie or even earlier, Grimm's fairy tale tunes. That got my imagination going, using these building blocks of harmony. It was 'Amazing Grace.' It was that album, 'Elvis Sings Gospel,' and then it was Willie Nelson's 'Red Headed Stranger.' I come from a Scottish, Irish, a mixed, definitely Anglo-Saxon type thing coming from five or six generations of people who were all preachers."

His grandfather encouraged him to sing loud at the Church of Christ.

"It was almost like being raised in an opera. You had to belt it out to be heard. My grandfather said for me to find an object in the back of the room and sing toward that. If that certain thing can't hear you, you are not doing your job."


Cody Jinks: master of country music doom

A decade ago Cody Jinx experienced trial by fire fronting a thrash metal band called Unchecked Aggression. He has the tattoos and the Wild West beard to prove it. But after the Dallas-Fort Worth area band broke up during a tour to Los Angeles, he decided to go into country music ... and then, nothing happened. 

He released a half-dozen recordings of his songs, but it was a struggle. For 15 years he played in empty bar rooms with his empty pockets. His CDs failed to reach any music chart. Even the 2015 release, "Adobe Sessions," which perfected his doom-struck sound fusing Johnny Cash style traditionalism with a kind of epic, tragic balladry, call it dark Garth, well that got attention with the critics but again, no chart action.

However, six months ago, everything changed for Cody Jinks. His second album recorded at the remote Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, released in August, suddenly took off, selling 11,000 albums. The new album, "I'm Not the Devil," dominated the Billboard charts. It went No. 4 on the Country Albums Chart, No. 3 on the Independent Albums chart. Cody Jinks was no longer, well, jinxed.

"I felt fortunate as much as anything else," he says during a telephone interview from his home in Denton, Texas. "We debuted at number four, and that was a good thing for us. I was surprised charting as high as we did. We are still hanging around (on the chart) pretty good. I felt gratified.

"But I don't worry as much about chart placement as much as just being on the chart for a while. I'd rather have some longevity, staying there at around eighteen or twenty."He says the longevity of the music was really dependent on the integrity of the effort, and he felt like "I'm Not the Devil" reflected that. The edge of his recent records, he says, came from the realization that there's not much difference between Metallica and Hank Williams Jr.

"What I found is there's a lot of similarity between traditional country, metal and punk," he says. "That's why you see so many punk bands covering Johnny Cash."He credits the spaciousness of the rootsy country sounds on "I'm Not the Devil" to the band, called the Tone Deaf Hippies, to the group getting more comfortable in working in the small studio outside of El Paso. The Sonic Ranch studio kind of has that romantic sensibility about it, as if they went way the hell out there to find the real thing to begin with.

"We were able to come out with a bigger sounding album and were able to manipulate the room a little better," he says. "It was basically just a little adobe room. The main complex out there is really quite large. But where we recorded was like a mile away and it's the only freestanding building around. It's probably a couple of thousand square feet  with everything, I mean everything in there, the recording area, the booth. We were out there for a couple of weeks."

Jinks learned a few licks of country music from his father at the age of 16, and learned from him a little about Cash, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. But at that time he wanted to be the next James Hetfield of Metallica. Even so, he says he was often found in some back room before his metal band performances, strumming country songs on an acoustic guitar.

Unchecked Aggression played around the Dallas-Fort Worth "metro-plex" for the most part, covering such influences as Metallica. Megadeath, Anthrax and Pantera."Those guys are fantastic," he says.

When the band broke up he didn't know what to do. So a little over 10 years ago he was coming out of his last day job, working 30 hours a week, getting gigs three times a week. He started to do more acoustic guitar shows in Denton, and pretty soon was able to live, somewhat, playing shows in that style, perfecting his baritone country singing voice. Then started to do some recording, starting with his best first effort being "Cast No Stones" on his own label in 2010. After five years of relative futility, he he it big with "I'm Not the Devil," again made on his own label.

The album is about more than trucks, honky tonk life and cheatin' hearts, the standard fare of country. Take, for example, the song "Heavy Load," which was the last song recorded for the record. As he sings:
The train jumped track some time ago
You can't root that heavy load
It's all downhill from now
And be sure we paid the toll
The train jumped track some time ago

I heard the voice of the fourth beast say
Come and see
And I looked and behold a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him

With a song like 'Heavy Load,' that sounds definitely apocalyptic," he says. "With all that about the rider and the pale horse, I draw back to something from metal and punk. I still like that intensity a lot, the social commentary. I'm always drawn the the heavy subjects. I do it without distortion now."

Now he's, along with Whitey Morgan, who he often tours with, one of the twin towers of the new dark bearded and tatooed dudes in alt-country. He's writing new songs with Morgan, as well as a host of other songwriters he's met with the newfound attention from the success of "I'm Not the Devil."

"I've been picking the brains of other writers, my contemporaries," he says. "I'm working on (a new album) right now. It's going to be drastically different because I'm learning how to hold back, getting more focused on the songwriting."