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."