Tucked inside the lobby of Dallas’s Belmont Hotel is a pearly white Essex piano. On the instrument’s top left corner, a small picture frame contains the italicized words “amateurs please refrain.” Guests typically just walk past it on their way towards the shaded patio, or the quaint corner bar directly across from it.
But for nearly two years, the rising country songwriter Paul Cauthen has used this particular piano as a launching point for his distinctive songs. Cauthen called the sprawling Belmont campus home for those years—specifically a second-story roost known as Room 41, located on a hill. He’d moved down to Dallas from Wichita Falls after a long, serious engagement came to an abrupt end.
Full of grief and regret, Cauthen would often post up at the piano in the dead of night, typically after a night of drinking and reveling. After the parties died down and everyone went home, Cauthen would find himself alone. There, he started sketching out the songs that would become the foundation for his recently-released album, aptly entitled Room 41. In many respects, Room 41 listens as a natural companion piece to his 2016 debut, My Gospel, a country and gospel manifesto about faith and life. There, listeners first got a sense of how Cauthen’s rambunctious bellow—reminiscent of Waylon Jennings’ signature style—and Elvis Presley-esque bravado melded to form a unique artist.
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But Cauthen seemed to double down on his larger-than-life Tall Texan persona while staying at The Belmont, a lost weekend of sorts that lasted nearly two years. A few weeks into his stay, he asked Jordan Ford, the Belmont’s proprietor, if he could make The Belmont his unofficial residency until further notice (Ford cut him an extended stay deal, which helped matters). Ford welcomed Cauthen’s company and, in some ways, become an unofficial documentarian for Room 41. He has a stack of Belmont notepads with song lyrics and ideas, photographs, and other scraps ready to be framed for the room Cauthen stayed in during that time.
Walking along the paved footpaths of The Belmont this past August, Cauthen unfurls the places, and stories, that haunt the songs of Room 41. His thunderous talking voice is just as potent as the whiskey-soaked baritone with which he sings. He’s giving me a personal tour of the grounds some six months since he officially moved out of Room 41, chuckling as we make our way towards a covered patio where the rough outlines of “Cocaine Country Dancing,” the album’s disco and funk-tinged lead single, began to materialize. He nods his head toward a two-story room near the pool that he stayed in when Room 41 was being renovated. Eventually, Cauthen makes his way back towards the lobby and sits on a chic ‘70s style couch, raking his fingers across the white piano.
Cauthen’s time at The Belmont wasn’t a prolonged stretch of bar-hopping, afternoon pool floats, and pale mornings watching the sunrise. Following the breakup, the never-ending bender eventually took on a life of its own. “No one needs to go that far. I pushed those limits because, well, I didn’t have a reason not to,” Cauthen sighs. “When you don’t have a reason not to, you can find yourself in the worst position. The first six months were a disaster. I’ll never have to do this record again. And I’m fucking thankful.”
Room 41 finds Cauthen in peak writing form, yielding glimpses of vulnerability amidst Cadillac swagger. There’s the flickering night prowling of “Holy Ghost Fire,” and the Dr. Dre and G-funk-infused “Freak”—yet the strongest moments originate from Cauthen’s darkest trials. That four o’clock restlessness dominates the likes of “Slow Down,” with its gospel choir-inflected crescendos, and the pained warbles underpinning “Can’t Be Alone.” “Give ‘Em Peace” listens like a prayer, and album closer “Lay Me Down” is a beautiful string-laden ballad about Cauthen’s grandfather, Jim Paul.
There’s a reason these spirituals immediately follow Room 41’s more self-indulgent moments. Cauthen leans heavily into the faith that marked his upbringing with solemn gospel choirs, self-awareness, and a dose of tough love. “My first manager told me once, ‘Cauthen, you gotta suffer for your art and you gotta earn your fucking ballads,’” he remembers. “Well, it’s happened.”
Cauthen doesn’t call The Belmont home anymore, but he isn’t too far: He’s now living in a downtown Dallas condo. He still stops by regularly, often cooling off by the pool or visiting friends coming through town. These days, Cauthen’s in a better head space, in part due to a new relationship, and through contextualizing the past few years in song, too. “I don’t want to people to get the wrong impression and think this whole time was just a sad, dark, horrible time,” Cauthen says. “But you mask the darkness with happiness. Somehow, I floored it without busting the engine.”