EXCLUSIVE: Jaren Johnston and The Cadillac Three Are Ready to Rock the Country Music World
By Emily Krauser
Despite being entrenched in the Nashville music scene, The Cadillac Three aren't a household name -- yet. That should be changing with last week's release of their sophomore album, Bury Me in My Boots.
Greek fans may know the trio from their days as American Bang, when they had a breakout song with the poppy "Wild and Young." Since then, the group has rebooted, melding their love of down-and-dirty Southern rock with their roots in the country world, as evidenced in their first hit, 2014's "The South, which featured Florida Georgia Line, Dierks Bentley and Mike Eli and earned the band an American Country Music Awards nomination. The result has been a series of fantastic tracks, both sonically and lyrically, that put a new, slightly harder spin on country, and has landed them fans as varied as their buddies, FGL, who they toured with years ago and are back on the road with this summer, and Steven Tyler.
If you haven't heard any songs by The Cadillac Three -- made up of singer Jaren Johnston, guitarist Kelby Ray, and drummer Neil Mason -- you've still felt their imprint on some of your favorite tunes, as they've written for many big names in country, including Jake Owen, Frankie Ballard, and Tim McGraw.
When ET spoke with Johnston earlier this summer, he was especially stoked about growing Cadillac's fanbase -- which already includes a loyal group who show up to concerts rocking the band's signature long hair and shades -- and getting back to their roots. Read on to find out what it was like for the 35-year-old singer to tour with FGL and write for some of the biggest names in country, plus the impact that events like June's Orlando LGBTQ club shooting have had on his songwriting.
You guys clearly have the same Southern rock influence in Cadillac Three that you had as the band American Bang, though that was a bit poppier. What brought you back to your country roots? American Bang was more like Southern punk rock. That's how we started. So, when I started writing the first Cadillac record, we got back to writing dirty-a** country like we started out doing, trying to be honest with ourselves and do what we do and see how far we could get doing that by ourselves. We stumbled upon a sound with three of us making noise with no bass player, and it worked. I think people relate to it. The Southern rock crowd, they've reacted more to this band than American Bang, just because American Bang had that pop thing as well.
Growing up in Nashville with a dad who was a drummer and in the business, did you always know you wanted to get into music professionally? Yeah, but believe it or not, I was a pretty intense high school wrestler. That's the thing -- if there's a fight, watch out for little Jaren, he's coming in low and high! Those are the only two things I was passionate about. I was really into music from the get-go. There are pictures of me at two, three years old with huge headphones on and drumsticks sitting behind a kit, playing anything I could get my hands on. It's always been a passion for me.
Did you set out to become a songwriter, specifically? Well, I grew up in Nashville -- all three of us did. I got to see how excited my dad would be when he'd come home from work because somebody said they wanted to hold a song for John Michael Montgomery or whoever. Nashville is such an interesting, weird game of pitching songs and writing songs and hoping somebody hears them and getting them cut and on the radio, and I always thought that was really cool. [Also,] my love of Garth Brooks. The first time I heard "Papa Loved Mama" or "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," I was like, "F**k, man, they put that story to a kickass riff and a great melody, and it actually makes sense." It's not like other genres a lot of times, where you've just got somebody yelling words that aren't really ending with a hook that's set up by the verse. That blew my mind, and I knew I always wanted to do that. I got to the point where I was getting kind of good at it. It's just like anything else -- you try to hone your craft, and I just worked at it real hard.
What's the significance of the title of Cadillac's new album, Bury Me in My Boots?
It's the first song on the record. It seemed like an epic name. I was proud of it because all three of us wrote it together randomly in Austin, Texas, and I know how hard this journey's been on us. So to get this record out, it just seemed like a cool thing to call it. That's one of my favorite ones on the new record, too, because it's like our new "South." I think it's going to fill that void in the set.
How do you think the band grew from your self-titled debut studio album to this new one? Let's just say this record is very true. The first record we did, we never played a show. We just went in there, and I wrote it and we recorded it and put it out. This record, we played a million shows and have written and recorded most of the record on the back of the bus. With everything that's happened in the U.K. in the last two years and everything that's happening in the States, it's 14 songs about life experiences. We built three years of catalog and went through and tried to put together the most glued-together record we could.
Are you influenced more by what you're seeing on the road or personal things happening to you, like your relationship with your wife, Evyn, and friendships? It's different every time. Things kind of hit you. Just like any job, you get moved by what's going on in the world, [like] Orlando and all the shootings. I wrote a song with Lori McKenna about that kind of thing and how we can f**king chill out and love each other. But there are three or four songs on the record about my wife, and there are four or five songs about me and Kelby and Neil and how we grew up together and used to smoke weed and do drugs and date the same women. So it is life experiences, but some are just random songs, like "Drunk Like You." I like writing songs and I drink quite a bit, and I've had that feeling where the girl makes me feel crazier than the whisky did.
You've also written for so many people that I don't know how you have time to write for yourselves. I mean, it's a full-time gig. This isn' a hobby. We've had a good couple of years. It's cool to be in Cadillac and rock that side of things and then write a ballad that McGraw or somebody would sing, because you get to express both of your creative sides.
What's it been like opening for Florida Georgia Line this summer? It's funny, we literally started right about the same time as those guys. We were both broke, trying to get something started, so we did a little tour in the South with them, probably four, maybe five years ago. It was just Cadillac Three and Florida Georgia Line, and we were playing for maybe 20 people every night. It sucked a**. There were two vans, and it was so on the go. FGL's trailer even had Tyler [Hubbard]'s cell phone number on it, because he had a car detailing service. It's pretty cool to see the level that it is now, with the private jets and all that s**t -- it's amazing. Kids are getting there early, and we're getting to play for if not half the crowd, right around there, and by the time FGL goes on, there are literally 30,000 people in there. It's the biggest thing I've seen. It's definitely the biggest thing we've ever been a part of.
Do you hang out with FGL when you're not on the road?
Dude, Tyler's motorcycle is parked in my garage right now! We're all boys. We get along real well -- we all hang out every night afterwards. Cole Swindell's in there, too. We write songs all the time together on the road. That's one of the reasons we all wanted to do this tour: We've been friends for so long, and now we we get to do it on this level and really enjoy ourselves, whereas back on the first tour we did, I had just gotten my first cut, and they were like, "Man, what's that like?!" We've all got wives now. We get to bring the dogs and hang out and be grown-ups that have found some success in this hardest thing you can possibly do.
What's the coolest thing that's happened to you during this tour? We played this golf course party with FGL, like a senior pro thing. We played on the 18th hole with, like, 20,000 people there. We get done and get a message that says, "Hey, John Daly would like to come up and meet you guys. He loved you." He was one of my favorite golfers when I was a kid, and, literally, I get a text message just then from John Daly, and it says, "Hey, Jaren, man, you think we can hang out?" So we brought him up on the bus and we had drinks all night and had a blast. He introduced us to a lot of the old pros. Stuff like that is so cool.
There's another one: We were out six or seven months ago, and J.J. Watt hit us up and said, "Come to the house. I've got a compound here about 20 minutes from the venue." He plays for the Houston Texans. So we went to his house, and we had a push-up contest where he completely destroyed me -- but I held my own, I will say, for the first 20 or 30. But we're just chugging beers, playing ping pong. He's awesome, man. He's gigantic. You've got to see the size of a Budweiser in his hands. It looks like a toy, like a little plastic keychain Budweiser. It's funny, a lot of times the rock stars want to meet the sports guys, but the sports guys want to meet the rock stars even more!