credit: Jody Domingue
Paul Cauthen remembers sitting alone in an Austin house after a weekend-long bender. A life making music seemed to be slipping away. Wide awake with nothing to lose, he fell on his hands and knees right there, bowed his head, and threw down a divine gauntlet.
“I dared Him,” Cauthen says, recalling his desperate challenge to God. “I said, ‘Use me. I’ll be a rag doll. Just put me out there, let’s go. I dare you.’”
Most people don't plead in the form of a dare. That blend of vulnerability and brash confidence is part of what makes Cauthen and his music––which often hinges on the same paradox––so compelling. Whether it was by heavenly intervention or sheer force of will, Cauthen emerged with My Gospel (Lightning Rod Records), his mesmerizing full-length solo debut. Produced by Beau Bedford, the record is both an artistic and personal triumph. My Gospel captures a young artist in full possession of a raw virtuosity that must sometimes feel like a burden: If your singing takes listeners on white-knuckle rides and you write like a hard-luck Transcendentalist poet who abandoned the East Coast for the desert, you’d better do both. Anything else just wouldn’t feel like living. “I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do in life,” Cauthen says. “So I just kept on working. Even when I didn’t hardly have money to eat, my songs allowed me to get into the studios. I wrote my way into this thing.
Americana music fans will remember Cauthen’s name from Sons of Fathers, the raucous Texicana group he co-founded in 2011 with bassist David Beck. The band earned glowing praise from Rolling Stone, NPR, and others, thanks to two albums that climbed into the Top 10 of the Americana Music Chart. “We had just played a show with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, playing for 7,000 people,” Cauthen says. “And I quit. I just knew it wasn’t where I was supposed to be anymore.”
That was three years ago––and the impetus for ending up in that apartment in Austin. Cauthen has since learned to channel his racing mind and rumbling baritone into the blues, gospel, and rock-and-roll that fuel My Gospel with gale-force power. Over the course of three years, Cauthen recorded the album in several different studios across the country: Willie Nelson’s Arlyn Studios in Austin; FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals; Sargent Recorders in Los Angeles; Modern Electric Sound Recorders in Dallas. The result is a quintessentially American album unlike anything in recent memory. “We were going for timeless. We were going for righteous. Those were the two words that we focused on while we were recording,” Cauthen says. “That’s it.”
Cauthen has been the strongest, loudest singer in the room for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Tyler, Texas, where his grandfather––a songwriter and gospel song leader originally from Lubbock who worked with artists including Buddy Holly, Sonny Curtis, and other Crickets––taught Cauthen and his two sisters to sing harmony. “He threw us all in the bathtub because it sounded really good in there,” Cauthen says with a laugh. Sundays and Wednesday evenings were spent at the Church of Christ, singing a cappella in the choir. “My granddad was all about music. He’d always ask people, ‘Can you sing? What songs do you know?’” Cauthen lovingly imitates his grandfather as he shares the memory, changing his inflection to sound both excited and earnest.
When his grandfather died, Cauthen was 10 years old and heartbroken. He abandoned the guitar he’d taught him to play. “It made me too sad,” he says simply. But his grandmother pushed him to pick it up again, and she handed over his grandfather’s ’58 Gibson acoustic along with Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger as she told him, “Learn every bit of Willie’s licks. Then you’ll be a guitar player.” She also put plenty of Elvis, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, the Everly Brothers, and more in his hands.
Cauthen delivers the songs on My Gospel with the tortured showmanship of Jerry Lee Lewis and seductive ease of Elvis. The idea of a life-affirming power found in the connectedness of people courses throughout the record.
Ultimately, Cauthen is on a mission: to make music he can be proud of that also serves a higher purpose. “On this album, I wanted to push a message that tells people that life’s short. Love the ones you’re with. Just take any opportunity to run with it––don’t think twice.”