Cadillac Three: Doing What They’ve Always Wanted To Do
Back in 2005, singer-guitarist Jaren Johnston, steel guitarist Kelby Ray and drummer Neil Mason all played together in Bang Bang Bang, a Nashville country rock act that they’d rechristen American Bang after signing a record deal with Warner Bros. The band toured heavily and released one solid studio album. But the band stalled and would split up. In the wake of its dissolution, the trio reconvened to form Cadillac Black, a Nashville country rock act that they’d then rechristen the Cadillac Three when they signed with Big Machine Records. The group issued its self-titled debut in 2012 and followed it up with last year’s Bury Me in My Boots, an album that shows off Johnston’s songwriting chops. The group garnered an American Country Music Event of the Year nomination and Johnston has recently earned Grammy nods for songs he wrote for Dierks Bentley and Tim McGraw. Ray recently phoned us as he ran errands with his fiancée. “We just went to the dog park,” he says before talking to us about the band’s recent success.
You all knew each other in high school. How’d you become friends?
We met in high school and were hanging around the same groups. We all played music since middle school. We started playing together with different bands. About 10 or 15 or 30 years ago, we started playing together in the same band.
Do you draw from the same influences?
We all pretty much did. When I was a kid, I was growing up on ’80s country and then got into classic rock and metal stuff. Jaren is the same way. He grew up on ‘90s country and loved Metallica and Rage Against the Machine and Skynyrd and all that stuff. Neil too. We like the same influences growing up like that.
How “rowdy” were those high school days?
Um, you know your typical hanging out and getting into stuff you shouldn’t have gotten into to.
American Bang had a good run. Talk about that experience.
That was the first incarnation of what we’ve turned into. It was a good learning experience. It was five to six years of going through our first record deal and touring in a van and really getting out there. We were changing tires and replacing transmissions and as far as the record label stuff goes, we had to learn to stand up for ourselves. During that time period, people were pulling us in different directions. They were telling us to write songs like this or that. When it ended, it was a mutual thing. Politics is why we left the record label. We learned a lot and just started over. Big Machine couldn’t be more on our side. They let us be who we are and do what we want to do. Now, we’re on a tour bus, which is better than the van. We rebranded it and now we’re doing what we’ve wanted to do since the beginning. I guess it’s working. Now we’ve been doing the Cadillac thing for as long as we did the Bang thing. We played Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo and now we have just moved on in our own direction.
Jaren has become a sought-after songwriter. What do you think stands out about his writing?
He has a unique voice and has learned how to craft a song in his own way. It’s turned into something that people in Nashville want to be a part of. I told him when he first started learning to be a songwriter and he was knocking on everyone’s doors trying to write a song with them that eventually he’d be the guy and everyone would be trying to knock his door down. That’s exactly what happened. It’s practice. He and Neil do a lot of songwriting on their own and we do a lot together. Those guys grind it out everyday. They’ve learned how to craft a song. It’s not as easy as you think it would be. He just developed his own style. It’s definitely cool and different.
When the Cadillac Three started out, did you intend to embrace Southern rock as well as country?
We just decided we would do what we wanted to do. If one song sounds more Southern rock, that’s cool. If one has a Metallica riff, that’s cool. If one sounds like an old country song, that’s cool. I think that’s why we have such a wide fan base and why people keep coming back. Our live show has grown. We have a new stage setup and lights and we keep everyone wanting more. We have people who are 17 to 70. We have the ZZ Top and Skynyrd fans and the people who saw us on tour with the Florida Georgia Line. [Our fans] are all over the place.
Talk about how Bury Me in My Boots differs from your self-titled debut.
The biggest thing was that we recorded the first album in a week before we had toured yet as the Cadillac Black. It was right after we lost our record deal with American Bang. We just wanted to record some new stuff and that’s what that first album turned into. The new album is everything we’ve done in the last three years since then. A lot of the songs on that come from experiences on the tour bus and doing the next level of rock ’n’ roll. It’s about growing up and getting a little bit older. Some of the songs are a little bit more mature. Those guys have learned so much about crafting songs. If you look at songs like “This Accent” and “White Lightning,” they’re different songs. And yet, there are still party songs like “Party Like You” to keep the core fans happy.
Where’d you go to record and what was that experience like?
We did it in parts. We started with “The South” and “White Lightning,” which were the singles. About half of it we did with Dan Huff, who’s a super cool guy. He’s a chilled out guy and a great guitar player too. It was him and Justin Niebank, who engineered and mixed it. We also did half by ourselves with an engineer who just pressed the buttons. It was cool to do a little bit of both. That’s how we did the first album. We went into the studio by ourselves with an engineer and just hit record. We pieced it all together over a few years. We didn’t go in and do it all in one big chunk. We did it a little bit at a time.
How many of the songs are about drinking?
Um, 90 percent. If you like to have a good time, come see us. That’s our motto. If you drink it helps. We sound a lot better that way.
“Buzzin’” has a real eerie feel to it. What’s the story behind that song?
I can’t remember who Jaren wrote it with. He brought it in the studio one day. We listen to the demo and do our own take on it. I think we did that one with Dan Huff. It was a cool, vibey thing. We wanted it to sound like Damn the Torpedoes, or at least like a really old cool Petty song. That’s the inspiration behind the sound of that one. That one is fun to play live. It’s a drinking song but it’s a love song too.
Talk about “The South.” What was it like to cut that track with Florida Georgia Line, Dierks Bentley and Mike Eli?
That was a lot of fun. That was one of the first ones we did with Dan Huff. We started throwing around ideas and we thought it would be cool if we got a couple of people on it. We shot some text messages out. Mike Eli happened to be next door in the next studio. He came by. We’ve been friends with the FGL guys since they became a band too. Thomas Rhett wanted to be on it but he was out of town that day and it was the only day we could do it. He was very upset he couldn’t do it. It was a lot of fun. They showed up at the studio and we opened up a bottle of tequila and did some shots. It was a fun day and was just a funny idea but the stars were aligned that day. We close with that song each night. It’s a huge sing-a-long and everyone in the crowd sings it.
Have you given the next record any thought?
We’re constantly writing songs and trying to get in the studio when we can. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel as far as new material goes, but I don’t know when it’ll be out.
American Bang had so much promise; it’s good to see it realized in Cadillac Three.
Yeah. It’s kind of like our second marriage with the same dude for lack of a better way of explaining it.
Photo: Courtesy of Big Machine Records (David McClister)