Paul Cauthen's recent album Room 41 shares lessons learned from a rough period in the Texas singer-songwriter's life through the quasi-religious "Holy Ghost Fire," the even more left-of-center "Cocaine Country Dancing" (which glorifies dancing, not cocaine) and eight other new tracks written while holed up in a Dallas hotel.
"I kind of got to the point where I was almost manic," Cauthen says. "I wasn't really a good friend or family member to anybody. I was a curmudgeon, a scrooge like Ebenezer Scrooge. I was wildly drunk and reckless, but then I finally pulled myself out through song and got some clarity through my team of what I was trying to do. I was in the hair-pull-out zone of making art. I'm glad I went through it all, but I don't think I'll have to go through that again."
Cauthen came out on the other end with a new album grounded in his personal life turnaround and inspired as much by the all-time pop-rock chameleon David Bowie as the Texas rock 'n' roll of ZZ Top and songwriting legends JJ Cale, Tony Joe White and Waylon Jennings.
"We planted a seed and it started growing, but none of us knew what kind of flower it was," adds Cauthen about his most imaginative work to date.
Despite being "spiritual and not religious," Cauthen's songs tend to reference his childhood experiences with the Church of Christ.
"The word 'Lord' is in my record 40-something times," he adds. "It's kind of like the word 'heart' in Mumford & Sons. They say it about a million times on their records, and I say Lord a lot. You can't scrub that out of your soul."
Mumford & Sons jokes aside, Cauthen values elements of his strict upbringing despite finding inner peace elsewhere.
"That's how I learned how to sing," he says. "I wouldn't take it back for the world, but at the same time I grew out of the whole 'go to this one church and pray for just these certain people underneath this certain steeple.' I'd rather go help ole Billy over there that needs some water and is sweating underneath the tree and is homeless, today and right now, instead of talking about it in a church, dressed up nice."
Amid generally good responses from critics and fans, at least one stranger's fake outrage reinforced that Cauthen's successfully dodging cliched songwriting.
"I had a random number text me, and it said your record is nothing but poop emojis," he says. "It goes all the way down (with emojis) and he says, 'This isn't country. This isn't Americana. I can't believe you turned your back' and all this stuff. I just said, 'Thank you so much.'"
Any sort of attention, from the soul-crushing poop emoji to the preferable cowboy hat-wearing smiley face emoji, reminds Cauthen that he's fortunate to put out honest-to-goodness music that spreads without mainstream interference.
"The fact that it can be heard is my greatest blessing in life," he says. "So many people have great art that's never seen or heard. I'm one of the lucky few that's got a platform that's being built organically and is honest."