Apart from being the frontman, guitarist and primary songwriter with The Cadillac Three, Jaren Johnston has also written for Nashville big hitters including Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts and Dierks Bentley. He grew up immersed in classic rock and grunge, before “going back to my roots and pulling from those early country artists I heard”.
All of which means he’s perfectly primed to give Classic Rock his tips for the country-rock stars of the future, as well as paying tribute to a couple of overlooked artists of older vintage.
The Cadillac Three's new single This Town Is A Ghost is out now.
Seeing Keith Whitley at the Grand Ole Opry, when I was about eight years old, was a huge thing for me. I always thought he was one of the pioneers of country music. It was totally about the song and the delivery of the lyric on stuff like I Wonder Do You Think Of Me  or Don’t Close Your Eyes . Keith was a straight-up rock star too. He backed it all up, from being married to [country singer] Lorrie Morgan to sinking a bottle of vodka a day, which eventually killed him. He died way too young [aged 34 in 1989].
Tyler moved to Nashville from Texas when he was seventeen, and I was his first co-writer. He hadn’t found his cool yet, but we hit it off and he basically lived at my house for two years, sculpting and writing that first EP [My Radio]. It’s been such a fun thing to watch him flourish. I thought it was cool that he came from that Stevie Ray Vaughan style of playing blues but was so in love with rock. I was like: “As soon as we get him the right fuzz pedal and the right amp, and he grows out his hair, he’s going to be a fuckin’ rock star.”
Hannah’s very special, kind of like Dolly Parton on cocaine. She’s got a super-old soul, and vocals to match. And she’s a pistol, man. I first saw her at a writers’ round in Nashville, just her and five dudes, and she completely destroyed all these guys. When I started up my own publishing company I made sure I signed her up.
He’s such an extraordinary singer-songwriter. His cousin Dave [Cobb, producer] knows how to get those old-school sounds, too. When I listen to Brent, he makes me feel like I’m living in another time, like I’m in Hollywood in the mid-seventies and Jackson Browne’s my neighbour.
Not only does he have one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, he’s writing incredible songs. Austin’s one of those guys that can take over a room with just an acoustic guitar. Everyone just shuts up. He was on the TV show The Voice. I think he made it into the top ten, then he got out before it could ruin his career. That’s the best way to do it. He’s like a mix between a really cool Edwin McCain and John Hiatt.
I think Evan [Felker, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter] is one of the most underrated songwriters in America right now. We opened for them in Texas a few years ago and I fell in love with their record Goodbye Normal Street , particularly the song Gin, Smoke, Lies. It’s just real music and kind of what I needed to hear – because you had a lot of that Mumford & Sons sound going on at the time – but they were putting their own spin on it, making this Americana, almost hillbilly emo music.
Travis is going to make waves. He’s awesome. He put this one record out whose title was the name he once had on a fake ID as a kid [David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs]. It’s just a really well-written song.
Ray Wylie Hubbard
He’s one of my favourite songwriters ever, with this awesome cool vibe. Ray’s in his seventies now – he’s been doing this shit forever – and he’s still not as big as he should be. He should be up there with Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings and all those guys. I think he knows that, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. He’s become a good friend of our band and I rip him off on a daily basis – and he knows it! I hope I still have that fire he’s got when I’m his age.
They’re from Kentucky and are just killer. It’s early stages, but I think they’re really going to do something. Their sound is almost rock, but it’s very earthy and southern. They’ve got Sam Bush on a couple of tracks and it’s just really cool. It it feels a little different. It’s almost like it has a Seasick Steve meets Union Station kind of vibe, with some Lucero in there.
The Davis Brothers
Jordan and Jacob Davis are incredibly talented. Jordan’s had a number one song in America, Singles You Up. Jacob’s got a Keith Urban-ish voice, really smooth, and he’s a great songwriter. Jordan’s got this raspy thing going on. They’re on different halves of the spectrum, and you wouldn’t know that they’re brothers because they never really sing together. They both have record deals on different labels, fighting for the same spot, so it makes for an interesting dynamic.
The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 250, in July 2018.