Paul Cauthen: ‘I’m unboxable. Nobody’s gonna ever tell me what I need to sound like’

Paul Cauthen is a country musician like no other. Alli Patton talks to the Texan star about his new album ‘Country Coming Down’, the joy of swearing and how he came to be known as ‘Big Velvet’

Sunday 03 April 2022 12:54 BST
Cauthen, a truckstop Tchaikovsky, is a composer of highs and lows, uppers and downers, drifters and saviours
Cauthen, a truckstop Tchaikovsky, is a composer of highs and lows, uppers and downers, drifters and saviours (Jody Domingue)

Out in the wilds of America – the backwoods, the sticks – something shiny and silver under the lifted carriage of a pick-up truck might catch the eye. It’s a symbol of status, a badge of honour. It’s a pair of metallic bull testicles dangling from a trailer hitch.

“Truck nuts!” Paul Cauthen says excitedly. We are talking about all things country.

The C-word is thrown around a lot in the singer-songwriter’s bold new album Country Coming Down, but it’s not just a country record. It’s a little funk, a little soul and a touch of rock. Mostly though, it’s “good timin’” gospel. “There’s a little bit for everybody,” the Texan singer says. It’s an album of bangers and ballads, riddled with “so many good ebbs and flows, ups and downs, peaks and valleys”.

“Country” is often thrown around in reference to Cauthen’s character, too. At first glance, it’s easy to see only a Stetson and cowboy boots and write him off as just another cliché. But it’s hard to put a finger on exactly who Paul Cauthen is. As “Country as F***”,  his recently released, over-the-top parody of bro-country suggests, he is but he also isn’t. He’s far out and yet just within grasp. To understand the enigma, you might first need to get acquainted with Cauthen’s alter ego, “Big Velvet”.

“‘Big Velvet’ is an overachieving, wild man on stage that just wants to light fires in venues and just rip it up,” Cauthen explains. “Paul Cauthen is a guy who likes to hit golf balls and drink with his buddies, waterski and write songs.”

“Big Velvet” is a necessity, a lavish extension of Cauthen that he can lean into while performing. Equipped with a whiskey-drenched voice, his sound is classic, but not old-fashioned. On “Country as F***”, his husky, less polished tone is the perfect foil, as he rattles off tongue-in-cheek hick-isms like Nascar, dive bars, catfishin’, and skinny dippin’. Even if you don’t quite get it, “Big Velvet” – the lumbering figure draped in a satin bomber jacket emblazoned with the Texas flag; crazed eyes shaded behind Jim Jones sunglasses – makes you believe it.

Texas-born Cauthen says ‘Big Velvet’ gives him licence to be an ‘overachieving wildman on stage’ (Jody Domingue)

His look suggests Wild West porn star circa 1972 – “Boogie Nights” meets "Butch Cassidy”. It’s deliciously sleazy, 100 per cent cheesy, but the “Cocaine Country Dancing” singer is doing anything but putting on a cowboy charade.

A lifelong Texan, Cauthen grew up in the small town of Tyler – 100 miles east of Dallas – where music became a way of life from a young age. His grandparents introduced him to singing and the piano and his family’s leadership in the local Church of Christ opened up another kind of music to him. His five-year stint in Americana duo Sons of Fathers set Cauthen on his solo journey. First came My Gospel in 2016, then 2019’s Room 41. But Country Coming Down is his most brazen album yet.

Songs on this new album bound between heavy and vulnerable ballads such as “Till the Day I Die” to much more outspoken sentiment. The persona of “Big Velvet” means a no-holds-barred approach on songs like “F*** You Money” – a tune about the naysayers-turned-hangers-on – is easier to deliver. Plus on party track “Cut a Rug”, only “Big Velvet” could reinvent the square dance where a call to “drop that ass” replaces the usual dosey doe.

The moniker “Big Velvet” was given to him by a man at a taco stand who told him his voice was, you guessed it, big and velvety. “It just kind of snapped from that day with some tacos and a litre of Mexican Coke,” Cauthen recalls. “I was like, ‘Holy s***. I am Big Velvet.’”

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“It’s the only way in my mind I can stay sane,” Cauthen says. “If I roll around every day dressed up like crazy, wild man 'Big Velvet' I wouldn’t make it long. But when I get to put on that jacket and go out on stage and get down, I let all ego go.”

“It is me,” he states, claiming he’s far from playing a character. “It’s just really leaning into your full potential.” Cauthen is well aware that he’s fortunate to have a time and a place in which to let “Big Velvet” shine. “I’m lucky that I can turn it on and off,” he says. “When I’m doing a hip thrust on stage as a 6’4,” 250-pound man, I don’t think I’m going to do that in the front yard in this little hometown of Tyler. It’d scare off the neighbours!” he laughs. “It’s like Superman. Like putting on a cape. That’s what I feel like when I hit stages now. There’s no barriers with me on stage and I don’t want there ever to be.”

To understand Cauthen, you need to know where he’s been and how far he’s come. A truckstop Tchaikovsky, he’s a composer of highs and lows, uppers and downers, drifters and saviours. It’s not always been pretty, but it’s always been real.

“It’s almost to a fault how blunt and honest I can be sometimes,” he explains. His candour is best demonstrated in 2019’s Room 41, an extremely personal album in which Cauthen lays bare his soul to listeners. Named after the room in Dallas’s Belmont Hotel where he spent a near-two-year bender, the album chronicles a dark period of heartbreak, substance abuse, depression and anxiety. It was in that hotel room that Cauthen laid the framework for what would become a soundtrack of drug-addled hymns about getting loaded, destroying himself, and then searching for peace in the rubble.

“I’m having a lot more fun right now,” he says, well aware of how rocky the road to this record has been. “I was on a search and a journey for so long and now I’m just feeling stable.” He describes Country Coming Down as a continuation not just of Room 41 but of his life in general. Cauthen has cleaned up, found love, and got married since his battles at the Belmont. “That was that record,” he says, and Country Coming Down is something else entirely. A stark contrast from the aches and pains in Room 41, he’s finally able to open the curtains and let in some light.

Cauthen considers Country Coming Down a “good timin’, get-out-of-your-comfort-zone kind of record”. He lists his main muses as “Alan Jackson’s ‘Chattahoochee’, waterskiing, and drinking cold beer”. And the F-word. “I think it’s one of the greatest words ever invented,” he says. “You can use it in so many different sentences.” Coming from several generations of church leaders and growing up in a conservative setting, this doesn’t sit terribly well with his heritage. “My dad was probably not the happiest about a lot of it. But it’s honest,” he says. Priding authenticity above all, he adds: “If I can say the word ‘f***’ out on the golf course, by god, I can say it in a song.”

Cauthen did not want his new album, which was created during the pandemic, to mirror the seemingly inescapable horrors of the time. “Everybody’s talking about all the s*** that’s crumbling down around them all the time,” he says. “Let’s have a good-time record. I just think that’s what the world needs right now.”

To call Country Coming Down a “good timin’” album hits the nail on the head, but to try and sort it into a genre is almost impossible. It’s chrome bull testicles under a pick-up truck – unusual and out of place, but it makes you smile. When asked how he sees his work, he simply says: “It’s my music.”

“Radio never wanted anything to do with me,” he explains, “Nashville, LA, New York… nobody wanted anything to do with me. None of these genres would really open their arms for me in the beginning and now they wanna put me in this box or say that I’m this or that.” Cauthen laughs about it now. “I’m unboxable. I’ll drop a dadgum jazz record next year if I want to. Nobody’s gonna ever tell me what I need to sound like.”

Good luck trying to pin down Paul Cauthen. He’s country as f*** one minute and a promising jazz experimentalist the next. Maybe the best way to understand Paul Cauthen is to not understand him at all.

‘Country Coming Down’ is out 1 April

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