Beer Drinkers & Hellraisers: Meet The Cadillac Three

The members of the band The Cadillac Three drinking beer in a bar
(Image credit: Joseph Llanes)

It’s a muggy June afternoon on Nashville’s 16th Ave., the main drag of the city’s famous Music Row. But inside Big Machine Records, aka the house that Taylor Swift built, it feels like one of those overly air-conditioned Camelot-themed steak restaurants from the 1970s: lots of dark leather, textured walls and chainmail ironwork fixtures. The walls pop with huge portraits of the label’s round table, including country titans Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts and, pointing in a recent classic rockier direction, Steven Tyler and Cheap Trick.

Enter the newest knights, Jaren Johnston, Kelby Ray and Neil Mason, better known as The Cadillac Three. Three dudes in trucker hats, tees and tattoos whose affable manner is a marked contrast to the rip-roaring swagger of the live shows wowing fans in the US and the UK. Vocalist/guitarist Johnston, the trio’s funny, f-word-spouting frontman, is grinning because they’ve just seen the initial vinyl pressings of their all-important second album Bury Me In My Boots.

The second record is always tough,” he says. “I think a lot of our favourite bands, with that second one, it’s either fucking awesome or, ‘Oh, man, they couldn’t do it again.’ Our thing was the first record [2012’s The Cadillac Three] we made really quickly in a little basement studio, right up the street from here. We wrote the songs in a two or three-week period. It was all really fast. There wasn’t three or four years of building experiences to write about.”

“We also hadn’t even played live as Cadillac Three before we made that first record,” adds steel guitar/Dobro player Kelby Ray. “We were still finding our sound in the studio. This time, we had a thousand gigs behind us, literally.”

“And two years in on the first album, we signed with Big Machine,” continues Johnston. “They gave the record a new life. A lot of people hadn’t heard it. At that point, it was just the three of us slinging it on the road, stamping copies and selling them out of the back of the van. We gave it extra time to let the label do what they do. So we started writing seriously for this new record about two years ago. We realised there was a bunch of stuff we need in our live show – tempos, grooves – that wasn’t there yet. The road is a great laboratory to decide what works and what doesn’t.”

American Bang: the pre-Cadillac Three

American Bang: the pre-Cadillac Three (Image credit: Alamy)

It sounds likes The Cadillac Three mobile lab has produced positive results. Raucous lead tracks such as White Lightning, The South and Drunk Like You are already generating high numbers at US country and Americana radio, while Buzzin’ and Graffiti bring more of the grit. The trio’s sound continues to grow: a blend of beguiling, swampy Delta blues and 90s alt.rock attitude punctuated by big, arena-friendly choruses that celebrate what the guys know and love best – southern life.

“Tom Petty was a big touchstone for us this time,” says Johnston. “But also Garth Brooks. That 90s-era country is always part of my vocabulary. We wanted to show people that we are ready to take that next step, and every song’s not just about fighting and drinking whiskey. It’s more life experiences. Our songwriting has gotten better, more focused. Like I said, we had no idea what we were doing when we cut that first record. We just got lucky, hit on a sound, then developed it in our live shows. This album is 14 songs recorded over the last two years. And they all fit together, luckily, which is hard to do.”

Strangely, for an album that sounds so polished and cohesive, it was recorded in a modest place – quite literally on the go.

“Most of it was written, sung and cut on the back of our tour bus,” explains drummer Neil Mason, the thoughtful, ‘quiet one’ in the band. “We could’ve done the whole record on the bus, except for drums, if we’d needed to. It was just a lack of time. We were touring constantly.”

“Sometimes we’d try to recut the tracks in a more polished studio in Nashville, and we’d think, ‘This just isn’t as good,’ admits Johnston. “We’d end up using my first vocals, because they sounded real. We’re always thinking about how far we can take this three-piece approach. We didn’t want to cut anything we couldn’t perform live.”

One of the most potent secret weapons in the three-piece approach has been Kelby Ray’s Dobro. The resonator guitar, first made in 1928, takes its name from a Slavic word meaning ‘goodness’. Long associated with acoustic blues and bluegrass, The Cadillac Three have manipulated its down-home goodness into full-on rock glory, but with echoes of Muddy Waters and Duane Allman on the new songs Slide and Soundtrack To A Six Pack.

Ray, the trio’s resident nerdy muso, explains his fascination. “It was [Nashville session ace and solo artist] Jerry Douglas who got me into playing the Dobro. He’s just a monster player. I bought a Dobro because I thought, ‘Oh man, I really like the way Jerry plays. Maybe I can do that.’ And it was really hard, so I set it down for six months, picked it up again, and it was easier.”

Receiving their Best New Band award at the 2014 Classic Rock Roll Of Honour

Receiving their Best New Band award at the 2014 Classic Rock Roll Of Honour

TC3’s mature self-awareness and perspective comes from lessons learned during a 12-year roller‑coaster ride through Nashville’s ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ music biz. Schoolfriends who grew up together – playing in bands, bonding over everything from the Beastie Boys to Alabama – Johnston, Ray and Mason entered the professional fray as part of a quartet called American Bang. The experience nearly broke them.

“I still get so mad thinking about the American Bang situation,” says Johnston. “We got pulled in such different ways with the major label that we didn’t even know what the fuck we were doing. Thank God it happened – but it was painful. That whole thing pissed us off enough to give it one more try and start something from the ground up.

“Bands are supposed to go out and be bands,” he continues. “When we started The Cadillac Three, we went out as just three of us in a van, drinking booze, smoking weed, touring and selling our records ourselves. It was one of the most fun times of my life, just because after American Bang, it was, ‘Wow! This is what it feels like, and how it felt when we started when we were kids.’ It’s a shame that some labels at that time were doing that to people. Long story short – fuck those guys.”

Mason sums it up best: “We learned a lot about what not to do before we had a chance to do what we wanted to do.”

Even though that indie road brought them back to a major label, the relationship is now more collaborative. For example, when the band picked White Lightning as the new album’s first single, Big Machine balked. “There were a couple of other songs in the running,” Johnston says. “Maybe more obvious ones. We fought for it. We’re the ones out here on the frontlines and we were seeing what was happening, how people were responding to it, before the release. It’s funny, I wrote that song almost as an accident – drinking too much wine, trying to talk to my wife. Everybody wants to have that feeling of love at first sight, which is what it’s about. The song is very real, from the heart. And I think it was the right song to put out first.”

Though Johnston is the only married member of the group (he proposed on stage in NYC four years ago), Ray is engaged and Mason has a steady girlfriend. “We’re not home much,” Mason says, “so it’s tough. But when you do get home, you plug back in and we’re always glad to be back in Nashville with family and friends.”

These days, Tennessee’s capital city is fast embracing the idea of itself as a booming metropolis, with 83 new transplants daily, tower cranes, tear-downs and traffic tie-ups everywhere (“One, two, three, y’all go home, there’s no more room!” Johnston says, with a rueful laugh. “It needs to level out soon”). But when they were growing up, Music City lived up to its name, especially for Johnston, whose dad was a drummer on the Grand Ole Opry.

(Image credit: Joseph Llanes)

“Around 1986 to 1994, I was really tossed in to that scene because dad would play drums on the show on weekends,” he recalls. “Mom was doing night school at Lipscomb College. They didn’t get a babysitter, so I’d just hang with dad. There are worse things than going to the Opry and seeing Garth Brooks. In the early 90s, that was a great time – Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Keith Whitley, Sammy Kershaw… It was huge. Living here, you were right in the middle of all of it. And then grunge hit when I was about 13. And that’s about the time I met Kelby and Neil. Then I’m getting into Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., but also Metallica and Skynyrd’s greatest hits. You’re finding all these old things. That’s when I was learning to play, teaching myself guitar by ear.”

Johnston’s love of arena country has translated into a lucrative side gig, writing hits for Tim McGraw (Southern Girl), Keith Urban (You Gonna Fly) and Rascal Flatts (The Mechanic). Neil Mason has also written for Flatts (Payback), fellow country act Jake Owen and others.

“I’m always going to write for other artists, because I love it,” says Johnston. “And early on, we did have a moment of considering doing something more mainstream, like the Jaren Johnston Band. But Neil said, ‘Dude, you’re never gonna wanna play these fucking slow songs every night. You’ll end up hating it.’ And he was right. We knew we were going to do something cool, more rock. I love the creative sides of all kinds of music, so I think I’ll stay involved in that. I might lighten up at some point, because life does that to you. You can only tour so much before you get to a certain point and want to get off the road.”

Those country connections have also helped the band land its regular appearances on the hit TV show Nashville, recently renewed for a fifth season. “It’s a prime-time drama, so it’s written that way, like a soap opera,” says Mason. “But I think they’ve done a really good job of trying to represent Nashville in an honest way. I also thought it was cool that they used not just us but a lot of artists and bands from outside the mainstream. I know it was really great for the city in general.”

As The Cadillac Three gear up to leave Nashville for a lengthy tour of America this summer, opening for longtime friends, the multi-platinum-selling country duo Florida Georgia Line, they’re aware of how far they’ve come; trading bars for arenas, “shitty little vans” for shiny tour buses.

“And their [FGL’s] van even had Tyler, the lead singer’s cell phone number on the back of it – Tyler Hubbard Details Company,” laughs Johnston. “They’re good dudes, FGL. It’s so neat to be on their show, to see how far we’ve both come. The other night we were in front of 27,000 people. That was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen.”

On the challenge of being the openers for a platinum-selling band, Ray adds with a smile, “Well, you are there to steal their crowd. We’ve been lucky because we’re naturally a high-energy band. That’s important when you’re an opener.

“You get so excited about playing the show,” he continues, “because you’re sharing a bill with ZZ Top or The Pretenders, and it’s in some theatre that you’ve always dreamed of playing, and there might be five people in the front row who think Chrissie Hynde is going to walk out. But we’ve been really lucky because all the bands that have taken us out have ended up being fans, so they’ve been very cool, and gave us a lot of name recognition, and taught us a lot. One of the reasons I think we gravitated towards being a three-piece in the first place is that we’d already done shows with ZZ Top and it was like, ‘If ZZ Top can do it, why can’t we?’”

“I think having that three-piece look and approach sets us apart,” adds Jaren Johnston. “And we’re incredibly loud for three guys. So the audience have to pay attention. But like Kelby says, the first big theatre show we ever played was with ZZ Top. I used a Fender Bassman, turned it up with all the bass cranked. And Kelby did too. Billy Gibbons saw us that night playing and said, ‘Fuck yeah, that’s badass!’ That was like a blessing to keep doing what we were doing.”

This autumn, The Cadillac Three return to the UK. Like fellow southern rockers Blackberry Smoke and Black Stone Cherry, they’ve found an even more enthusiastic audience abroad. “We’ve been doing the States a lot longer, but the UK thing has happened so fast,” Johnston says. “We’ve been there eight or nine times and it’s grown exponentially. When we do clubs in the States, it gets pretty packed. But over there, everything’s been sold out. It’s exciting. Also, everybody’s singing every word along with the songs, and you feel like, ‘Shit, it’s like we live here.’”

“The US and UK audiences are both crazy in their own way,” adds Ray . “But in England, they look at you more like, ‘What is this? What is happening?’ I think they’re enthralled with the
way we talk and walk, and the way we do our thing, ’cause it’s a different kind of swagger than they have over there.

“I guess that’s why English audiences have been drawn to Blackberry Smoke and bands like us,” he says, “because it’s a different thing they haven’t seen since the days of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Shit, ZZ Top is still one of the biggest bands over there.”

And taking a lyrical cue from one of their mentors’ classic hits, Johnston says, “I think we’re hoping that this record is a step in the direction of how the shows have gotten bigger. Now it’s not just singing about the south. It’s worldwide.”

Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.