The slogan on Jaren Johnston’s t-shirt says it all for him and his longtime friends Kelby Ray, at left, and Neil Mason. Photo Courtesy of Big Machine Records.

The Cadillac Three Blasts a Unique Brand of Rocking Country.

For a country band, the guys in the Cadillac Three sure do look like rock stars. And they sound like them, too. 

The hard-rocking and hard-partying band from Nashville is made up of three lean and long-haired guys who have known each other since they were in high school and have been playing music together for nearly 15 years. Their first taste of success was as the raucous rock band American Bang, which released a couple of albums on the Warner Brothers subsidiary label Reprise but broke up when their lead guitarist quit in 2010. They picked up the remaining pieces and quickly re-emerged with a swampy sound that manages to fuse outlaw country and Southern rock. 

Cover of the Cadillac Three’s new album Country Fuzz. Photo Courtesy of Big Machine Records.

They get asked this all the time, but here it goes again: are they rock, or are they country? “We’re not really this or that—we’re kind of the other thing,” says Jaren Johnston, the band’s gritty lead singer and swaggering guitarist. “We’re just trying to do our own thing and be who we are.” 

The band’s new album is Country Fuzz, which is a term they are using to describe the high-energy musical mixture that he says, “comes from growing up on Hank Jr., Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.” Another unusual element that gives the band a head-scratching uniqueness is the throbbing low end from lap steel player Kelby Ray. Because they don’t have a bass player, he does double duty by covering the bass parts while also playing more conventional slide parts. “It kind of twists my brain a little bit, though it’s pretty much second nature at this point,” says Ray. “It’s definitely something that no one else is doing.” 

Headlining at the historic Ryman Auditorium in their hometown was an emotional milestone for the band and their fans.
Photo Courtesy of Big Machine Records.

Embracing Country 

In their late thirties now, these talented and ambitious musicians were fairly slow to embrace the country sounds that made their hometown famous. They were just drawn to heavier rock music instead. This was despite the fact that Johnston’s father was (and still is) a house drummer at the Grand Ole Opry, leaving him with a few stories to tell of childhood encounters with legendary stars like Porter Wagoner and Garth Brooks. Eventually, though, it was the storytelling aspect of country music that eventually won them over and set a new course for their career. “I just have a love for the kind of story songwriting that you don’t really hear in modern rock music,” he says. “(With the Cadillac Three,) we have country songwriting with hooks that rock.” 

Though Johnston seems to naturally take on a leadership role with the group, all three are multi-instrumentalists as well as songwriters—for their own band and for others. Their writing credits include hits for Nashville artists like Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, and Miranda Lambert as well as rocker Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. As writers or co-writers, their big scores so far include Urban’s “You Gonna Fly” and McGraw’s “Southern Girl” as well as Jake Owen’s “Days of Gold” (which the Cadillac Three also released).   

Photo Courtesy of Big Machine Records.

Television has been good to them, too. They enjoyed repeated exposure on the TV series Nashville during its run, and their funky “All the Makin’s of a Saturday Night” got some play this past season on college football telecasts on ABC and ESPN. 

The new album of 16 songs is the group’s fourth full-length release on the Big Machine label and was produced by the band itself—much of it was recorded literally on the road in a studio they have in the back of their bus. Lyrically, they continue to celebrate the party lifestyle and Southern culture that they and their fans embrace. Their last single, “Crackin’ a Cold One with the Boys,” is part of the new collection, and other titles include “Bar Round Here,” “Long After Last Call,” “Whiskey and Smoke,” “Back Home,” and “Dirt Road Nights.” Sonically, it covers lots of ground. “It shows a lot of different sides of us,” says drummer Neil Mason. “It’s got the heavier Southern groovy stuff as well as some softer stuff that we haven’t done much of before, and some stuff that’s on the funkier side, plus the heavier riff-y stuff we’re known for.” 

They are small in number but pack a powerful punch, and all of the Cadillac Three contribute creatively as songwriters, too.
Photo Courtesy of Big Machine Records

Shared ambitions 

The band mates realize they are fortunate to count each other as good friends who are so compatible musically as well as personally and have the same goals. And they are certainly enjoying the ride. They’ve played some big shows with some big names and have famous rocker friends like Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. They hope to make plenty more unforgettable memories in the music business. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say we want to be the biggest band in the world,” he says. “The three of us are extremely creative and driven and want to make this happen.” 

Mason agrees, saying, “You don’t want to do something as long as we’ve done it and not want to take it as far as you can take it.” 

The coming year means more months on the road for them for another run of 150 or more shows at clubs, theaters, and festivals around the United States and in Europe, where they are enjoying a growing fan base as the result of repeated visits that have included rowdy high-profile sets at the Download Festival in both England and France. They say they’ve always been blown away by the reception they get overseas. Mason recalls a memorable moment from one of their first European shows a few years back when, from behind the drum kit, he realized that the audience was singing along. “And not just to a song here and there, but to all of the songs,” he says. “That was definitely a moment where I felt like a rock star, even if it was just a small club.”