Don’t You Think This Paul Cauthen Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand

Paul Cauthen at Two Step Inn Fest, Georgetown, TX. Taken by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos

“Who are you gonna become if all of your heroes died young?” –Anna Tivel

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Let’s delve a little bit deeper into this Paul Cauthen arrest business to clear up some misconceptions, address some unfair criticisms, and talk about how all of this plays into the independent country music community at large. If you’re unfamiliar with the back story, Paul Cauthen was arrested on May 18th in Isle of Palms, South Carolina for possession of Xanax and Diazepam, as well as possession/distribution/manufacture of marijuana. To read a more detailed article on the arrest compiled from the police report, CLICK HERE.

First and foremost, everyone must understand that any time a music artist of any significant size gets arrested, the press is going to cover it. That’s just the way it is. If Saving Country Music or any other outlet is going to cover big mainstream artists like Sam Hunt driving drunk the wrong way down a principal highway in Nashville, then it has no choice but to cover a Paul Cauthen drug bust in South Carolina.

Choosing not to cover an arrest to help shield an artist from criticism would be the biased and unethical decision, not vice versa. And Saving Country Music was far from the only outlet to cover Paul Cauthen’s arrest. Three or four dozen other outlets including Rolling Stone and Whiskey Riff ran stories on the arrest as well.

Let’s also quickly dispense of this idea that reporting on Paul Cauthen’s arrest caused any sort of injury to Cauthen’s career. Make no mistake about it, this incident has been a publicity boon for Cauthen that publicists and managers only dream of orchestrating. This is the reason that his management/publicity company (Q Prime) immediately sprung into action, and expedited the release of a new single to exploit the situation and financially capitalize off of it. We very well may look back on Paul Cauthen’s arrest in the future as the moment he “made it.”

Folks screaming at the press for putting Paul Cauthen’s business on the street need to appreciate that Paul used an image of himself being hauled off in handcuffs as the cover art for his new single “Wild Man.” If anything, Paul Cauthen owes a debut of gratitude to the press for publicizing the situation pro bono, and to such a demonstrative degree. As the old saying goes, no press is bad press, with some exceptions of course. But in 2023, there is no greater social capital than victimhood. In this instance, Paul Cauthen is marketing himself both as the victim, and in many respects, the hero of the situation as well.

But let’s step back a little bit and look at the broader picture of why folks were even asking if Paul Cauthen had been arrested. The story didn’t start with the arrest. It started with Paul Cauthen announcing multiple show cancellations. Pre COVID, any time an artist of any significant size canceled a show or a run of shows, the press would commonly cover it. Though since COVID, cancellations are so significantly more common, this is not always the case.

But for Paul Cauthen, these cancellations created frustration in his fan base because recently, Cauthen has been cancelling quite a few shows. In fact, the show in Knoxville, TN at The Concourse scheduled for May 19th that Paul Cauthen cancelled after the arrest was a makeup show for another cancellation on September 30th, 2022. A show scheduled at Washington’s in Fort Collins, CO earlier this year was rescheduled to July. A show scheduled for February 3rd in Wichita, KS was moved to June due to inclement weather.

Paul Cauthen also had to cancel some shows in December 2022 when his van and trailer were stolen. Some or all of these cancellations very well may have been warranted. But as some Paul Cauthen fans have pointed out themselves, if Cauthen was released from jail at noon on May 18th, why couldn’t he make a show the next evening in Knoxville, or perform at Loretta Lynn’s Hurricane Mills Ranch two days later?

Bands have had vans and trailers stolen including all of their gear, buses explode into fireballs, and have still made that night’s gig. Perhaps Paul Cauthen shouldn’t be obligated to play a show 30+ hours after likely not sleeping at all in the slammer, and the trauma of being arrested. But if he’d played through and not cancelled those shows at all, there’s a chance nobody would have known Paul Cauthen was arrested unless he offered that information up voluntarily.

But once the news was out as to why Cauthen had cancelled the Knoxville and Hurricane Mills shows, an entire new set of questions was presented. Since the news of the arrest broke on a Friday afternoon—and it wasn’t until the next Monday that we could get the full details—there was a lot of speculation about just what Paul Cauthen had been arrested for. We knew from a online record that was spreading across the internet that Paul had been arrested for a drug possession charge, as well as a possession/distribution/manufacturing charge. But that’s as far as the information went.

As a side note, it turned out that the online record that many people were sharing and searching for about Paul Cauthen’s arrest was incorrect. It showed that the possession charge was due to marijuana, and the distribution/manufacturing charge was due to prescription drugs, with the drug Cauthen was accused of possessing being Flunitrazepam, a.k.a Rohypnol, a.k.a. the “date rape drug.”

In truth, the distribution/manufacturing charge was for the marijuana seized on the bus, not the prescription drugs. And the possession charge was for a few pills of Xanax and Diazepam, not Rohypnol. This is one of the reasons it’s imperative for the press to attempt to vet all information, and to get information correct instead of solely going off of one incomplete source.

Wanting to get the information correct is the reason Saving Country Music reached out to obtain the police report on Paul Cauthen’s arrest. That is also the reason Sgt. Matt Storen of the Isle of Palms Police was spoken to in order to make sure the information was correct, and to get clarification on the distribution/manufacturing charge. Saving Country Music also reached out to Paul Cauthen’s publicity/management Q Prime in order to help clarify information, to alert them that reporting was on the way, and to allow them to make a statement to coincide with the initial reporting on the matter.

Did any of us really think that Paul Cauthen was selling/distributing/manufacturing drugs out of his tour bus? Perhaps it’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it seemed unlikely. Again, this is one of the reasons it’s imperative for the press to ask questions. As the fourth estate, it is the job of the press to police the police, and this was part of the reason for the inquiries to the Isle of Palms Police Department.

Over the years we have seen traveling musicians accused or charged with distribution/manufacturing of drugs due to their occupation requiring them to carry large sums of small bills as change for merch, as well as bags and other retail items, sometimes postage scales for shipping purposes, etc., all of which can be construed as drug paraphernalia. As can be seen in comments on Saving Country Music, this was an initial concern that was raised in Paul Cauthen’s situation. Police can also simply take the circumstances of a drug bust to upgrade charges to distribution/manufacturing, which often comes with larger penalties, and sometimes graduates charges from misdemeanors to felonies.

Ultimately, after talking with Sgt. Matt Storen of the Isle of Palms Police, it was determined that it was the combined weight of all of the marijuana found on the bus that made a distribution/manufacturing charge against Paul Cauthen compulsory due to South Carolina law, not the fact that there was any evidence that Cauthen was actually distributing or manufacturing anything.

Paul Cauthen has been personally complaining about how he’s being mischaracterized in the press specifically because of the “manufacturing” claim. “I am not a drug dealer and I don’t ‘manufacture’ drugs,” Cauthen said in a May 22nd statement. But the press was simply reporting the charges against him as they read.

For the record though, Paul Cauthen himself has bragged about being a drug dealer and part of a big drug operation to the press in the past. Speaking with Cowboys and Indians in 2021, Paul Cauthen said about his early career:

“I was just floating by the seat of music — and selling a lot of f—ing weed.”

He says he was part of a larger operation spread out across several states, but instead of splurging with the money he made, he began investing it in his music career.

Was there any indication that in May of 2023 when Paul Cauthen was arrested that he was distributing or manufacturing marijuana? Absolutely not. It solely had to do with the total weight of the marijuana found on the bus. The gross weight of all of the marijuana on the bus was 111.97 grams, or nearly 4 ounces.

But this leads us to one of the major important points of this story, and something that Paul Cauthen seems to want to tell, but is not in a position to do so at this point. It appears that Paul Cauthen took the fall so that his fellow band mates and road personnel wouldn’t be implicated in the drug bust. This theory is no more than speculation at this point, but after reading through the police report on the incident, it appears that Paul Cauthen decided that if someone was going to be arrested that night, it was going to be him and him only as opposed to other people in his entourage. It’s his name on the marquee, and he made the decision to offer himself up as the fall guy.

As the police report states, Paul claimed possession of all of the various bags of marijuana that were found by the police in the common areas of the bus, and the marijuana that Cauthen volunteered up from his own personal stash. Regardless if Cauthen had purchase all of the weed himself, if it was other individuals who “possessed” it, it would be their individual responsibility. But by claiming it all, Paul Cauthen protected the rest of his crew from criminal wrongdoing. It’s also what resulted in the distribution/manufacturing charge since all the marijuana on the bus added up to such a large amount.

This is reminiscent of the time Willie Nelson’s bus was raided in 2010 at the border patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas. A total of six ounces of marijuana were confiscated on the bus. As opposed to multiple individuals going to jail, Willie Nelson took responsibility for it all, offered his wrists to the officers, and they took Willie to jail. Willie knew they would win the battle, but he would win the war.

“Whatever the case may be I’m a good man that’ll take a bullet for my family and friends,” Cauthen said in a May 31st statement, and it appears that’s what Paul Cauthen did in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. You can make the case that Cauthen’s crew was careless for illegally parking his tour bus, which led in part to the search and arrest. You can criticize Cauthen for carrying a substance illegal in South Carolina in the first place. But it’s hard to not give Paul Cauthen credit for taking the fall when the situation could have been dramatically worse for everyone involved.

How much worse could it have been? It could have been gravely worse. Cauthen also said in his May 31st statement, “Oh and don’t believe every detail you read in the news. Never really sunk in that I was famous until I got popped in Carolina. It’s gone from weed, prescription drugs, heroine, coke…. On every local news station and paper around.”

The initial statement from Cauthen’s publicist Mary Moyer also stated, “Paul was arrested for marijuana possession in Isle of Palms, South Carolina,” not making reference to any other drugs.

But Paul Cauthen was also found in possession of small amounts of pills that turned out to be unprescribed Xanax and Diazepam. Also according to the police report, cocaine and heroin were found on the bus in a tube and a bag respectively.

As for the question on if the police overreached in the matter, or trumped up the charges against Paul Cauthen, it’s hard to affirm that when reading through the police report. While Cauthen fessed up to the marijuana and pills, he did not do so to the cocaine or heroin. The police could very well have detained everyone in the bus until someone claimed possession of these drugs, which obviously would come with significantly steeper penalties than the marijuana or pills.

But the police didn’t do that. With two charges already secured against Paul Cauthen for the marijuana and pills after he voluntarily admitted to possession of them, the police apparently seemed satisfied without having to ruin someone’s life via harder drug charges.

Again, this very well could be the result of a smart move on Paul Cauthen’s part. As soon as the police rolled up on his bus and smelled marijuana, Cauthen knew a drug bust was about to ensue. Instead of being confrontational, Paul Cauthen volunteered all the marijuana on the bus up. This move may have put him on the good side of the police.

The police report also states that the cocaine and heroin found on the bus were destroyed, while the marijuana and pills were booked into evidence. That means there appears to be no intention by the Isle of Palms police to pursue further charges against Paul Cauthen or anyone else after the fact for the cocaine and heroin.

But make no mistake about it, heroin and cocaine were found on the bus. This is not a fabrication by the press. Perhaps there’s a plausible explanation for these harder drugs being on the bus. Perhaps they had been placed there by someone else. Perhaps they were a “gift” from a fan, but had no intention of being used—a common circumstance for touring musicians. Perhaps they weren’t for Paul Cauthen, but for someone else in his band or crew. Perhaps cocaine was purchased, and it was laced with heroin.

But let’s be honest. Does it really come as a surprise to anyone that an artist whose biggest song is called “Cocaine Country Dancing” was found with powdery substances testing positive for illicit drugs?

There is also a significant difference between the implications of cocaine and heroin, just as there’s a difference between the implications of marijuana and cocaine. There are recreational cocaine users. Very few people who use heroin could be characterized as recreational. There’s also the ever-present concern with both cocaine and heroin that fentanyl could work its way into the supply.

On August 23rd, 2020, Justin Townes Earle was found dead in an apartment in Nashville at the age of 38, shocking the independent country and Americana community. A few months later, the toxicology on Earle was released, along with a statement from Justin Townes Earle’s family.

“Three months after we lost Justin, the medical examiner has concluded that the cause of his death was an accidental drug overdose,” the family said. “Next to alcohol and cocaine the autopsy report revealed traces of fentanyl indicating that that usage of fentanyl laced cocaine resulted in an overdose.”

The statement continued, “Even though Justin was very outspoken and concerned about the opioid epidemic and the dangers of the ‘legal’ drugs fed by the pharmaceutical companies, he became the victim of a deadly dose of fentanyl. Illicit drugs laced with fentanyl are causing an enormous rise in overdoses, turning cocaine usage into an even deadlier habit. It only takes a few salt sized granules of fentanyl to cause an overdose. And in most cases, happens so fast that intervention likely could not reverse it.”

The reason Steve Earle and the rest of Justin Townes Earle’s family decided to be so up front and expressive about what killed Justin is because they didn’t want another family or fan base to have to endure what they did. Steve Earle was arrested for heroin possession in 1993, and cocaine possession in 1994, serving prison time before entering rehabilitation. Steve Earle regularly cites himself as a recovered heroin addict.

Country artist Luke Bell died in August of 2022 on the streets of Tucson, AZ of a fentanyl overdose. Similar to Justin Townes Earle, Bell was likely using another drug that was laced with fentanyl that resulted in his death. He was 32-years-old. According to the autopsy report performed by Pima County medical examiner Gregory L. Hess, M.D., “In consideration of the known circumstances surrounding this death, the available medical history, and the examination of the remains, the cause of death is ascribed to fentanyl intoxication. The manner of death is an accident.”

This would be the place to cite the statistics for the amount of overdoses ravaging the United States at the moment, but that feels pedantic. We all know overdoses are the highest in history in part due to fentanyl working its way into the drug supply, and how it’s a scourge on society. And though it’s not as grave of a concern, we have also lost artists, managers, and other professionals in the music business due to the abuse of Xanax. It was one of the drugs cited in the toxicology of Tom Petty.

Again, we have no clue if Paul Cauthen was the person that was responsible for the heroin and cocaine on the tour bus. He was not charged with possession of these drugs. But to be frank, it comes across as flippant and irresponsible for Paul Cauthen’s management and publicity (Q Prime) to cast off this moment as simple marijuana possession, for Paul Cauthen himself to chide the media for mischaracterizing the situation, and for the Paul Cauthen camp in total to attempt to exploit this situation as a marketing opportunity.

It’s 2023. As an industry, we must be better when talking about these kinds of drug and addiction issues. We must work to make sure artists are protected and healthy at all times—mentally and physically—as they attempt to perform rigorous tour schedules. If an issue is presented such as heroin found on a tour bus, concerns should be raised by everyone involved in an artist’s team to make sure that the people on that bus are being cared for, and treatment and intervention is being offered if necessary.

If this support structure was offered up in Paul Cauthen’s case, it didn’t happen publicly. What did happen was defiance, the release of a single called “Wild Man” that seemed to lean into Paul Cauthen’s out-of-control nature, and in part, a level of deception by trying to downplay the matter as just being about marijuana, and casting aspersions on the press for supposedly trumping up the situation—the proliferation of articles about Cauthen’s arrest through syndicated networks like Gray Media that did seem excessive notwithstanding.

Of course, this opinion will be laughed off as alarmist, prudish, and uncool by certain Paul Cauthen fans. They’ll say that Saving Country Music is biased, and sowing even more click bait off the back of Paul Cauthen’s misfortune from an antiquated drug enforcement regime.

Undoubtedly, the drugs laws in the United States are antiquated. The idea that we’re putting someone like Paul Cauthen in jail, and he may face prison time because he fessed up to all the pot on his tour bus is a travesty. We should be treating people if they have drug problems, not incarcerating them at taxpayer’s expense. It’s the seat of irony when you read the Paul Cauthen arrest report and the victim named for the crime is “society.” It really spells out just how ludicrous and outmoded the entire drug war is.

But it’s just as outmoded to use someone’s potential drug issues as a marketing opportunity. Many have cited how Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, Waylon Jennings, and others used their drug issues to market their music too. But what they don’t tell you is that it was always in the context of cautionary tales. “Cocaine Blues” and “Cocaine Train” are the polar opposites of Paul Cauthen’s “Cocaine Country Dancing.” The song “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” by Waylon Jennings is how the marketing of his Outlaw image had brought undue attention to him, and ultimately, way more harm than good.

This isn’t about attacking Paul Cauthen, any more than it’s about attacking Paul Cauthen when constructive criticism is shared about his music. This is about caring about Paul Cauthen, and his entourage, asking the tough questions, while also giving him credit for taking the fall, and being the bigger person by offering up his wrists to the police during the drug bust. It’s also making sure the police are not overreaching in the situation.

It’s also about creating a community and environment in music where it’s people first, then music, and then money. As a journalist and musician, I’ve been on tour vans and buses, and backstage where all manner of illegal activities are occurring. Short of witnessing behavior harming someone else, it’s not my business to report on it. But as soon as a performer is hauled away in handcuffs, their rights are relinquished to the State, and their freedom is at risk, it’s compulsory for the press to get involved and scrutinize the situation from all angles, and objectively.

Maybe Paul Cauthen or whomever had heroin on his bus has a firm handle on the situation, and any concern about addiction or mental health is unwarranted. But maybe somebody in the crowd at one of Paul Cauthen’s concerts when he’s singing about “Cocaine Country Dancing” doesn’t have a handle on the situation. Or maybe they do, but when they get cocaine laced with fentanyl, they die anyway. It just feels tone deaf in this time and place to take what happened to Paul Cauthen, and wrap it into a marketing plan, and to criticize the press for their persistence on finding and telling the truth.

We know how the families and many of the fans of Justin Townes Earle, Luke Bell, Tom Petty, Prince, and the scores of other musicians who’ve died of drug overdose feel about this situation. After having to write the obituaries for Justin Townes Earle and Luke Bell, I personally took an oath to not look the other way if there was even a small indication that an artist was in trouble. For too long the industry has looked the other way, pushed musicians beyond the breaking point, and failed to prioritize mental health. It’s imperative that we get involved and ask questions or show concern, regardless of how “cool” it might be to some people.

Paul Cauthen stuck up for his bandmates and crew in Isle of Palms. That’s why you’re seeing people sticking up for him, including other musicians. That’s the job of friends—to stick up for each other. But it’s the job of the press to be objective, and if necessary, adversarial to the individuals and industry they cover, regardless of the popularity of these moves. It’s also the job of the press to be an advocate for musicians when necessary. Sometimes this takes the form of praise. Sometimes it takes the form of criticism.

It’s not 1978 when Waylon Jennings released “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.” It’s 2023. Festivals this summer are setting up Narcan kiosks due to the excessive amount of overdoses, as well as offering sober tents. This is not about laying blame or being alarmist. It is about being responsible, and taking care of each other in an increasingly dangerous world, whether it’s from heroin, fentanyl-laced cocaine, overreaching law enforcement, or talented individuals whose ego or greed has gotten ahead of their moral compass, and they refuse to listen to the world when it sends them a clear signal to slow down.

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…your heroes grow unruly, they overdose or just leave
Their lives are fucked up movies, and you’ve studied every one.
But who are you gonna become if all of your heroes are gone.
Who are you gonna become when all of your heroes died young?

–Anna Tivel, “Heroes

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