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The Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston on funk, the South, and strange gifts from Billy Gibbons

Cadillac Three
(Image credit: Dylan Rucker)

On one level Cadillac Three frontman Jaren Johnston is a true southern child – all trucker caps, Jack Daniel’s and the most spectacularly country-fried accent in Tennessee. But there are other ‘versions’ of him. There’s the boy who grew up on funk, rock, grunge, southern Baptist music and more. The guy who’ll just as likely listen to Fugazi as Hank Williams Sr. The well-travelled millennial who spoke out in favour of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, losing a few fans in the process. 

Speaking from his home in Florida, where he’s been enjoying some quality time with his wife and three-year-old son, Johnston has been adjusting to life as a homebody. Alongside parenting duties and producing other bands, he used the time to make The Cadillac Three’s second album of 2020, the irresistible, funked up Tabasco & Sweet Tea.

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Tabasco & Sweet Tea is funky as hell. Do you think you’d have made it if it hadn’t been for the pandemic? 

Yeah, I do. It just probably wouldn’t have happened this quick. The original idea I started working on, I guess… When we were in Amsterdam I was singing the vocals for Money Aint Shit, just sitting in a hotel room singing the solo part. So some of the stuff was done in 2019. But then this whole [COVID] thing hit, and I had nothing but time. 

Creatively I think it really helped me get through those first couple of months, not being able to play shows. Cos when you do something for twenty years, and then have it taken away from you without warning, it can do crazy things to your head. 

The Cadillac Three have always had that funky, groovy side to their music, but this is the first time it’s been at the forefront. Who are your funk heroes? 

My dad played a lot of Tower Of Power, and when I was a kid playing drums I was really into funk and groove-oriented stuff. If Tabasco & Sweet Tea had horns all over it, it’d be a hillbilly Tower Of Power record. Then you throw in things that everybody knows, your James Browns, but then you have some country stuff that was funky as hell like Jerry Reed, and a lot of late-90s/early2000s jazz-funk-fusion guys. 

You were predominantly a drummer until your early twenties, weren’t you? 

Yeah, I was making a living doing it in Nashville, I was touring quite a bit. And then I had a couple of band experiences where I was writing a lot of songs and I was noticing that the lead guys in the band were… just not doing it right. I thought maybe I could take a shot at it. 

Did the transition from drummer to frontman come naturally? 

It was weird. I was nervous as hell. You just jump into it and throw a couple of beers down, and the next thing you know you’re Bono [laughs] – or you think you are! It came kinda naturally. It was always fun. 

The new album includes the songs Devil’s Lettuce, Crispy… It’s like ‘country stoner funk’ in places. How baked do you get in the name of your craft? 

Honestly, those songs were more retrospective. They’re more like telling tales about what it used to be like, y’know? Those songs are about pretty close to real-life stories where the characters’ names have been changed. It’s just stuff that we grew up doing. I don’t smoke as much as we used to. I like it, I just don’t do it as much as I used to.

On Chris Shiflett’s podcast you told a story about ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons once giving you a cocaine vial filled with ground up chilli peppers and telling you to “sprinkle this on some chocolate ice cream. Things get really weird”. I love that that’s some wisdom he passed on to you. 

Ha! Yeah, true story. He always had a gift. Every time I walked by his dressing room he’d say: “Jaren, come in here!” I think I got a couple of pocket knives from him, and seashells filled with drawings, and then that cocaine vial… Well it looks like a cocaine vial, and when you get it from Billy Gibbons it makes a better story if you say ‘cocaine’! But it is a true story, and we did it when we got home. It was really good on the ice cream. 

It does sound like something he’d say

Oh yeah. We went to his place one time in Santa Fe, and there was not one piece of furniture in there except for the queen-size mattress in the corner with a sleeping bag on it, and a fax machine. That’s all that was in there, and just cheques, money coming in! He’s an interesting character. I’d love to get back together with him sooner rather than later. 

The Cadillac Three’s lyrics have always painted an evocative, affectionate picture of southern culture. Is it easy to separate the South you love from the problematic side – the political division, the controversy over the Black Lives Matter movement – that’s been in the spotlight in 2020? 

It is for me. I hate that it’s not for other people. Me and my guys and the people that I surround myself with are very open-minded, very clear minded as far as what’s right and what’s wrong. There are people in the South that are really… The people that are on that side aren’t bad people, they’re just looking at the situation differently. 

You guys donated the proceeds from your merchandise store to the NAACP for a week in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death

I do get pretty irritated when some of our more narrow-minded fans jump on the socials and start talking about me and my family or friends. That shit doesn’t fly, because it makes me go: “Okay, you don’t have to listen to my band if my opinion about something’s gonna piss you off enough that it ruins your ability to listen to my music.” 

I’m not preaching anything that’s weird. I’m just trying to say I believe in empathy and I want everybody to get along and… be smart about things. 

The Cadillac Three aside, you’ve also written hits for some of country music’s biggest stars (Keith Urban, Tim McGraw…). How many songs do you think you’ve written at this point? Ballpark figure? Total? 

Let’s see. I got my first publishing deal in 2005, and I probably turn in anywhere between 150 to 250 songs a year, so let’s say 200 songs a year for 15 years… That’s 3,000. That’s an approximate, but there’s a lot of songs.

Didn’t you and Neil Mason [TC3’s drummer] write a song that came out on one of Meat Loaf’s records? 

Yeah, the album was called Hang Cool Teddy Bear. It was an old American Bang [Nashville band featuring all three members of The Cadillac Three] song, I think [If It Rains]. But yeah, I met Meat Loaf in an elevator at Sony in Nashville, and we started talking and he goes: “So you’re Jaren? Man, I literally just heard a song of yours in Troy’s office” – in the president’s office. And I go: “Oh, bitchin!” He goes: “Yeah, I think I’m going to record it.” And I go: “That’s not something I figured I was gonna hear today!” [laughs].

Is there anyone else that you’d still love to write for? 

I always wanted to get in with Tom Petty to write. I’d love to write with Mike Campbell. I used to write a lot with Chris Stapleton, I’d like to do that again. We’re pretty good friends. He’s such an extraordinary singer, and his delivery and everything is amazing. I’ve actually been writing songs with Chris Shiflett, and we’ve been talking about doing a project together.

Is it true that the first band you had in high school was called The Trolls Of Fortune? 

Yes. It was basically really bad Rage Against The Machine. The first song was called I Like My Socks. We were thirteen, y’know. You don’t have a whole bunch to write about at that point in your life. But that was fun. I actually played guitar in that band. There’s some videos or VHS somewhere. I’m about three and a half feet tall. 

When you were growing up your mum played the organ in church. Did you ever get involved in that kind of music? 

I learned to sing a little bit in the choir. I may have played the drums in church a couple of times, but they didn’t really have it [much] because it was a Southern Baptist church – piano on one side, organ on the other side, a choir with, like, eight people in it, two of them so old you think they’re gonna pass away at any moment. But it was pretty much a right-down-the-middle church: “If you don’t believe this you’re going to hell!” That kinda vibe. 

That kind of performance must seep into you, subconsciously if nothing else. 

Oh yeah. I can remember my dad singing Shine Jesus Shine and mum played with him, and I remember it was on page 579 of the hymnal book. Shine Jesus Shine became my favourite song for like ten years because my dad sang it. But yeah, there’s a lot of memories that I probably still look back on every now and again. 

Where do you stand religiously these days? 

I don’t do a lot of church going, if that tells you anything. I guess I believe in something, I just don’t… the world’s so f-ed up at times these days it’s hard to figure out what or why, y’know what I mean? So yeah, I’m in the middle ground, I’m in purgatory. Let’s just say this: I’m waiting for a sign! [laughs]. 

You’re a born and raised Nashville native. Is there anywhere else in the world you could see yourself living? 

I bought a house in Florida. We lived down here probably half of 2020 and it’s amazing. I looked at a house in Montana this morning. I love a lot of parts of Canada too, and I always loved Hawaii. We lived in Hawaii for about two months doing one of the American Bang records. I love Nashville as well, obviously.