For better and worse, Paul Cauthen has spent his life breaking the rules.
Parting from his conservative Christian upbringing in East Texas, the "Cocaine Country Dancing" singer served a brief stint in jail for marijuana possession.
The death of his grandfather, who first introduced him to the guitar, followed by his parents' divorce, had set Cauthen on a rocky path to early adulthood.
One day during his six-month incarceration, Cauthen says he'd managed to convince a prison sergeant to let him feed Whataburger cheeseburgers to the other prisoners on his on a chain gang.
But music was a grounding force for him. The jail cell became an increasingly crowded venue where he sang gospel hymns with fellow inmates, forging new bonds.
Cauthen's latest album, Room 41, is named after the room in West Dallas' Belmont Hotel where, over two years of highs and lows, he wrote songs steeped in despair, destruction and redemption. With it, he hopes that owning his darker times can lift his audience.
His father was a song leader in the ultra-conservative Church of Christ. Cauthen says that would make him a fifth-generation preacher or song leader.
He's following in those footsteps in his own way.
"I feel like it's my duty to try to spread goodwill to humanity and try to help people throughout their day through song and, whether it makes them sad or happy — maybe it touches an emotion that then allows them to cope or get through a tough time," he said in an interview with All Things Considered.
"The only thing I'm preaching is, 'be good to one another and leave the hate behind.' "
Eschewing country tropes, Cauthen's new record infuses his baritone timbre with R&B, Country-Western, hip-hop, jazz and funk — a genre-defying work apparent from the production credits alone, which include modern soul torchbearer Leon Bridges and Americana rocker Jason Isbell.
"Our goal was to kind of create our own genre, let it just be our music — good music," Cauthen said. "You know, I wish we could get back to two genres — 'good' and 'bad.' "
In the album's opening boot-stomper, "Everybody Walkin' This Land," Cauthen calls out everyone from "the racists" to "the saints," letting them know: I felt your hurt, drank your fear.
It's a crowd-silencer, he said.
Cauthen grew up among Southerners who would sling racial slurs and preach attitudes he now finds unacceptable.
"That's when you make a stand in life you know," he said. "I've learned from that."
"We're all kind of screwed up right now," he said. "And so, I just try to write some lyrics that can maybe prick somebody's heart."
A previous version of the Web story identified "Everybody Walkin' This Land" as a track on Paul Cauthen's latest album, Room 41. In fact, the song is on his EP that was released last year. Additionally, we previously suggested that Cauthen had parted from his Christian faith. He identifies as a believer.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, we get to visit with a musician who's been described - by Rolling Stone, no less - as one of the most fascinating and eccentric voices in country music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCAINE COUNTRY DANCING")
PAUL CAUTHEN: (Singing) Roll up to the club in my 1964 Caddy straight ready to stunt at a quarter to one, just a-looking for fun.
MARTIN: That is Paul Cauthen. He's impressed audiences with his soulful take on country music. His latest album, "Room 41," takes on despair, destruction and redemption. And Paul Cauthen is with us now from member station KERA in Dallas, Texas.
Mr. Cauthen, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
CAUTHEN: Hey there, Michel. It's good to be here.
MARTIN: So you know I've got to ask you about the title...
MARTIN: "...Room 41."
CAUTHEN: Yes, ma'am. Well, here in Dallas, Texas, there's a hotel, the Belmont Hotel. And I happened to stay in Room 41 for almost two years. So I figured after we wrote all the songs there, and I was - we were searching for a title. And I was like, well, how about "Room 41?" I mean, that's where this all went down. So it just kind of brought itself to the table, and that's what the title became. And we ran with it.
MARTIN: How would you describe your sound? And I know that, again, artists hate to do that. They hate being pigeonholed in that way. But how would you describe your sound? I've already described how some of the critics have described your sound.
MARTIN: What do you say?
CAUTHEN: The thing about it is I haven't been following the lead of any other genre or sound. So our goal was to kind of create our own genre.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL CAUTHEN'S "BIG VELVET")
CAUTHEN: Let it just be our music - good music. You know, I wish we could get back to two genres - good and bad.
CAUTHEN: And - but it's really kind of all cross-contaminated. And I think we just call it our genre.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG VELVET")
CAUTHEN: (Singing) There's a devil on my shoulder, and he's doublin' down, throwing his weight all over town. Stable off the table. I've been shrugging off redemption for judgement day, threw it all out before I held it. Now you gonna meet the real Big Velvet.
It's like nothing else. We took from rhythm and blues. We took from the country-Western. We've taken from hip-hop. We've taken from jazz. We've taken from funk. You know, we try to have all those little spices. I always go back to food because I love food.
CAUTHEN: So we take all these spices, and, you know, that's our genre.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG VELVET")
CAUTHEN: (Singing) Run my veins till I go numb, threw it all out before I held it. Now you gonna meet the real Big Velvet.
MARTIN: Well, and people can hear the faith - you know you love food but you also feel the faith. I feel the faith in it. Let me play - do you mind if I play something off your album, "Prayed For Rain"?
CAUTHEN: Go ahead.
MARTIN: Let me play a little bit of that and we can talk a little bit more.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAYED FOR RAIN")
CAUTHEN: (Singing) You know some things will never change. I think about it when I pray for rain. The rain turned to hail - cold, dark and pale. It beat me as I fell. Lord, I fell.
MARTIN: There's some serious thoughts here, some serious sort of spiritual and philosophical thoughts, if you don't mind my saying, if it's not too fancy. I understand that your family is deeply rooted in religion with the church. I understand your grandfather was a song leader in the Church of Christ.
CAUTHEN: Song leader, and his twin brother was the preacher. So they kind of had a little duo, a little Everly Brothers Christian Church of Christ duo going on.
MARTIN: Did you see yourself when you were growing up as belonging to that tradition? I mean, did you feel like that was your destiny to sing in church?
CAUTHEN: Well, I was just scared of getting pinched by my grandmother. You know, she would - we say these Texas pinch a plug in you if you didn't sing or you acted up there in the pew. So you sing loud and you read out of the hymnal and you read the Bible, and if you don't, you're going to get swatted or pinched. So I tried to stick in between the lines. And then all of a sudden, I was like, wow, I can sing harmony, and I can pick out the parts. It's because I was scared of getting pinched by my grandmother.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAYED FOR RAIN")
CAUTHEN: (Singing) 'Cause all my friends, we were born survivors. And every time I close my eyes, I'm dreaming about tomorrow. You know some things will never change. I think about it when I pray for rain. Oh, some things will never change. I think about it when I pray. Pray for rain.
MARTIN: What role do you feel like your faith plays in what you're trying to say now or however you see yourself spiritually? Do you know what I mean? Are you trying to connect to a bigger thought than you think a lot of people are? I mean, I know you've called out a lot of people for sort of focusing on the trivial like about, you know, tan lines and flip flops and cold beer and it's all about that. And you are thinking some sort of bigger thoughts. But how do you feel that your - maybe your upbringing or your - whatever your orientation is - spiritual orientation reflects to what you're trying to say?
CAUTHEN: Well, I'm pretty much a fifth - I'd be a fifth-generation preacher or song leader in the church. And I feel like it's my duty to try to spread goodwill to humanity and try to help people throughout their day through song and whether it makes them sad or happy, maybe it touches an emotion that allows them to cope or get through a tough time. I'm a spiritual person. I'm a believer. That's what I try to preach. The only thing I'm preaching is be good to one another and leave the hate behind. And this is our generation, so let's make the best of it.
MARTIN: OK. But you are not afraid of a little holy ghost fire, if I may say, not afraid of it. All right. I'm going to play Everybody Walkin' This Land.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' THIS LAND")
CAUTHEN: (Singing) All you racists, fascists, nihilists and bigots - I'm callin' you out, my friend. I've felt your hurt, drank your fear. Your actions will not stand. Get on your knees, bend to pray - Look at me, you can change. You racists, fascists, nihilists and bigots - I'm calling you out, my friend.
MARTIN: I could play more but you get the gist of it. Did anything in particular bring this out?
CAUTHEN: Well, you know, I wrote that song with my producer from Dallas. And it's crazy. It was one of the craziest co-writes I've ever been in because we felt like there was a third party involved and like we were called to do this song. And I was like, what are we doing here, man? We're like - we're writing a Bob Dylan tune or something, you know. This is like, what is this? Bob Dylan tune meets, you know, "God's Gonna Cut You Down" Johnny Cash or something. And I was just like trying to pull out whatever I can. And all of a sudden, we're just - racists, fascists, nihilist bigots. You know, we're just like - those people, let's talk to them, you know.
MARTIN: Do you ever play it in concert?
CAUTHEN: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: Oh, yeah. How does it go down?
CAUTHEN: It quiets the crowd. It's kind of crazy. And then the last verse comes up, we bring it up, we modulate. We really rip into it. It becomes beautifully dynamic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYBODY WALKIN’ THIS LAND")
CAUTHEN: (Singing) All you mothers, you brothers, you sisters, you fathers, you believers, pretenders, bona fide sinners, racists, fascists, nihilists and bigots, prophets, saints and angels and the ladies, all you gentlemen.
It's been good. It's been received pretty well.
MARTIN: Well, one of the things I like about the lyric is you say I have felt your hurt. I've drank your fear.
CAUTHEN: Oh, yeah. I've been there. I grew up in East Texas. I was never a racist or anything. You know, I have been taught certain ways, and I've heard things, and I've accepted it. And that is wrong, just being around it and hearing racial slurs or this or that. That's when you make a stand in life, and I've learned from that. And we're all kind of screwed up right now. And so I just try to write some lyrics that can maybe prick somebody's heart.
MARTIN: You've got a song, "Give 'Em Peace." And have you found your peace?
CAUTHEN: Oh, yes. I've never been so peaceful in all my life. I've finally gotten to a point where I got a little condo in Dallas. And I can go on the road, and the band can get paid. You know, it's the little - it's those things, you know, putting gas in the tank. You know, I'm just trying to stay blue collar for the rest of my life, no matter how much money I make.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE 'EM PEACE")
CAUTHEN: (Singing) Well, Lord, whomever you shall be, send your grace on the ones who want peace. Give 'em peace.
MARTIN: That was Paul Cauthen. His new album, "Room 41," is out now. Paul Cauthen, thanks so much for talking with us. Congrats.
CAUTHEN: Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE 'EM PEACE")
CAUTHEN: (Singing) Give 'em peace. A holy ghost fire will burn and sing. Give 'em peace. Give 'em peace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.