“My point ain’t subtle here,” sings Jaren Johnston on “The South,” the Cadillac Three’s 2013 debut single. He spends the next four-and-a-half minutes proving that particular point. “I’m a southern man/Where the beer seems cooler and the women seem hotter/Where the world don’t seem so damn modern,” the song continues, enlisting the help of Florida Georgia Line as they lyrically roll-call Southern states and stereotypes to a tune that has undoubtably soundtracked many a shotgunned Natty light. The song was released in 2013, and while it’s still their biggest seller to date, the South in “The South” isn’t necessarily one that defines Johnston and the Cadillac Three. The more apt introduction, both to the band’s catalog and the steady incline of their career, is “White Lighting,” a steady, strong number as rife with Southern euphemisms (and a Dukes of Hazzard reference) as it is substance as Johnston chronicles falling hard for a lover.
“We wrote that two and a half years ago,” says Johnston. “I played it for Neil [Mason, drummer], and I asked him, ‘Is this too much on the soft side? Do you think we can get away with it?’”
If there were any hesitations with releasing the single initially, they quickly vanished. “White Lightning” has become the band’s flagship anthem, giving weight to their catalogs whiskey-swigging lighter fare and solidifying their range and versatility on the stage and in the studio—environments with which Johnston and the band of Nashville natives have spent over a decade acquainting themselves. They’d all been playing in bands in one form or another for years before getting together and forming a group called American Bang, gradually evolving to the Southern rock trio they are now. But it’s not just their own material that’s making waves for the band, and Johnston in particular has taken a lifetime in and out of Nashville’s major labels and writing rooms to heart.
“Dad was a song plugger and a drummer, and so I came up seeing how important and how hard it was to get songs cut,” Johnston says.
Johnston has had the unique privilege of rising as a performer with the Cadillac Three while simultaneously moving records as a songwriter. By the time the Cadillac Three signed with Big Machine Label Group — which counts Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire and Tim McGraw on its roster — in 2013, Johnston had already earned his first Number One hit as a cowriter on Keith Urban’s “You Gonna Fly” in 2010. But the five chart-toppers that would follow — including earworms cut by Tim McGraw and Jake Owen along with a doozy of a duet recorded by Urban and Eric Church — solidified Johnston as a songwriting talent as he simultaneously toiled away on the road with TC3. The singles cut by the Cadillac Three weren’t close to hitting the sale numbers of those Johnston wrote for and with other artists, but they were building a different kind of success, one that found its footing on the stage rather than the airwaves.
“There’s not a lot of rock ‘n roll situations left anymore, as far as radio and things of that nature go. A lot of bands are dying because of it,” he says. As pop-country acts take on the roles of modern-day rock stars, filling stadiums and continuing to defy industry-wide trends with physical album sales, Johnston and the Cadillac Three have tapped into the down-home genre’s loyal audience without leaving behind the edgier sound they started with. “We can go out with Jake Owen, do a whole year with him and really relate to his crowd and benefit from his crowd, but then turn around and go out with ZZ [Top] or [Lynyrd] Skynyrd or [Eric] Church or Brantley [Gilbert], the heavier side of things, and fit in, too. We play the same set no matter what — we don’t alter it. No ‘Let’s not be too heavy tonight.’ We don’t do that shit.”
That’s not to say that the songs Johnston writes can’t be altered for a more accessible tone. The band’s 2013 self-titled debut includes “Days of Gold,” an up-tempo barn-burner that feels its most natural when presented via Johnston’s gritty drawl. That track wasn’t even released to radio for TC3, but it charted in the Top 20 when Owen cut it with a poppier spin. Johnston isn’t jaded over filling opener slots in arenas where the headliner is singing his lyrics, but he does seem focused on taking the Cadillac Three to that level.
“I think every band wants to grow, and so these days we’re having to be a little bit more conscious of songs that we give away and songs that we keep,” says Johnston. “We wanna be in that arena, too. And we’re not gonna get there if we give away all the fuckin’ huge songs, you know?”
The Cadillac Three play Terminal 5 on November 20. For ticket information, click here.