The Belmont Hotel in Dallas is an imposing building. Its art deco design with bold curves and contrasting colours make a big statement. But what has this place got to do with music? Quite simple, its Room 41 was home to Texan troubadour Paul Cauthen while he wrote and recorded his latest album called, well, Room 41. In terms of big and bold he had a lot in common with his surroundings.
Everything about Cauthen is big; he is six foot four, his voice, sound and lyrics are immense so it came as little surprise that when I spoke to him recently on the phone he sounded as if he were sitting next to me instead of at home in Texas. The breakfast he said he was tucking into probably made the full English look rather modest.
The obvious first question was how he came to make a record in a hotel room. “It wasn’t all done there. I wrote and massaged the songs there, we recorded in Dallas and Fort Worth”. There is a deeper side though as Cauthen paid a high price personally to make Room 41. “I was going through a tough time. I’d had a break-up then I moved to Dallas from North Texas. I had little money so stayed at the Belmont. It’s the nucleus of the Dallas art scene and I had the big party to mask my pain. I got drunk, did drugs, had surface relationships. Nothing mattered except the music. I really leaned into that, all I focused on was getting the record finished. I guess sometimes you have to suffer for your art but I don’t want to repeat those times”.
Room 41 is different to Cauthen’s previous two albums with more production and musical styles but what remains consistent is his resonant, smooth baritone voice. “I treat my voice as I would an electric guitar. I can give it different tones, pick-ups or timbres. So my voice is an instrument that I can adapt to each song. It’s like salt and pepper in a recipe, nobody wants over-salted steak”.
Listening to that voice throughout the album I hear Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, JJ Cale, Tony Joe White, Waylon and even Elvis. Was I hearing things? “Oh man, you nailed them all! Those are my favourites. I met and played with Tony Joe White once, “you wanna go catch some sole out of the river” he said”. (Cauthen’s voice dropped a few octaves to reach a perfect rendition of the king of swamp rock).
Fired up, Cauthen continued, “a Cash song was a conversation. He wasn’t singing but speaking to you on his porch. Elvis just had to look! I l also love old gospel, the Statler Brothers and I love Pavarotti. My grandma played me his records, he was note perfect from toes to head”.
Talking of family, wasn’t your grandpa a big influence on you? And where did the preacher bit come from (see the video of ‘Holy Ghost Fire’). “I believe everyone has somebody they look up to, even if they haven’t met. My grandpa was a preacher who said what he thought. He wouldn’t want anything except total honesty. He’d even tell a member of his church, “m’am you’ve used too much hair dye, your head has turned purple”. When he passed I felt called to continue. To tell a story you need emotion, you give a bold message that’s got to be both understandable and relatable”.
Taking that further, what do you write about? “Humanity in general. We’re like animals, we just don’t realise it. We can work as a pack or turn on each other. My job is to relate a message with light and hope. I believe in patience, compassion and forgiveness. You can still push a message whether it’s from a pulpit or, as I do, from a rusty metal club stage full of smoke and booze. My church is the dive bar”.
Cauthen isn’t too bothered about leaders and politics. It’s the day to day things that matter. “It’s the small things that rise to the top. We’re just granules of sand in the Gobi Desert. Hate and negativity don’t get you anywhere. My sermon may be cliched but I preach peace on earth and goodwill to each other”.
With a new album the cycle begins again with touring. “I’m a sponge full of air. Give it a squeeze to pull everything in, that’s recording the songs then I wring it out by playing those songs to the people”. Have you got any plans for the UK soon? “I’ve just returned from touring in Europe where the audiences are so gracious and thankful it’s heartwarming. I’ll be back soon”.
There is certainly less country in Room 41 compared to its two predecessors, particularly My Gospel. But it is still there and combined with the gritty soul, 1970s funk and gospel Room 41 makes for a compelling listen. Those aforementioned names all experimented in one way or another and like them Cauthern’s core is the same vocal dexterity. For that reason alone Room 41 is a rewarding listen, even if some of those styles have less individual appeal.
Opener ‘Holy Ghost Fire’ sets the scene. The keyboard echo sounds ominous as the big preacher man turns up to deliver his sermon. A song of choice and temptation, watch the video to feel its full effect. This is one of the songs that Cauthen admitted most epitomised his time at the Belmont.
Unsurprisingly, one of the others is ‘Cocaine Country Dancing’. Its title and funky rhythm punctuated by what almost reaches a cry of anguish from Cauthen very realistically describes the chaotic times he spent in that room. But the song that he said really sums up how he felt then is ‘Slow Down’. “I’m faded/ Staring at four in the mornin’/ Still waitin’/ For the good Lord to strike the chord” sums up his desperation. The big sound has evaporated replaced with a much lighter touch. Softer too is Cauthen’s voice which, given less to compete with, gains even greater authority. “Slow down, slow down/ You’ll make it back, my friend”.
That rich smooth baritone earned Cauthen the nickname of ‘Big Velvet’ and the song of the same name is why. As the man said, this is an instrument and in a single song he goes from the swamp sound of Tony Joe White to a rocking Elvis. ‘Can’t Be Alone’ brings in two others, Cash and Orbison.
While Cauthen’s magnificent voice is the star of Room 41 the record wouldn’t have happened without the dedicated contribution of others,“a good group of ringers”. Cauthen considers producer Beau Bedford as his right hand man who goes back to their time with The Texas Gentlemen.
In Room 41 Paul Cauthen mixes musical genres like ingredients to his signature dish rather than relying on only one or two. The result is a sound that might match the Belmont Hotel on a particularly rowdy night but underneath all that is an artist who recognises that this may have been some party but it came at a high price.