The Evolution of the Cadillac Three

From the Nashville Underground to the World Stage

It’s almost quitting time for the Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston, Kelby Ray and Neil Mason as they settle into some beers at downtown Nashville’s new hip destination for authentic Mexican street food, Bakersfield.

They are in town on business between dates on Florida Georgia Line’s Dig Your Roots tour. (The week before, they were working in London.) Shortly after our interview in Nashville, they headed to a meet-and-greet with fans to celebrate the release of their sophomore album, Bury Me in My Boots.

All around the surrounding block, construction is changing the skyline of their hometown. Some of the iconic local indie rock venues that raised them as young musicians are long gone. The all-ages Lucy’s Record Shop on Church Street closed its doors in 1998. The seedy club the Muse on Fourth Avenue South shuttered in 2012 and is now a Domino’s. Up the street, the site of the 328 Performance Hall that was razed in 2002 is now a Hampton Inn.

Since the Cadillac Three started just over a decade ago, there have been other music venue casualties. City Hall closed in 2008 and is now an Urban Outfitters, the first one to open in the Volunteer state. The Rutledge shuttered in 2014 and is now a Martin’s Bar-B-Que.

It’s a sad reality that would bum out any fan of Nashville’s riotous underground because nobody wants to take a Music City tour where the guide says, “See that Hampton Inn, folks? That’s where Elliott Smith once headlined one of the more memorable shows in Nashville rock history. On May 9, 2000, the power went out at 328 Performance Hall, and he performed his entire set unplugged by candlelight.”

And thanks to Nashville’s growing population and prevalent construction, getting anywhere in town can be a real bitch, too. In May, The Tennessean newspaper reported that that approximately 71 people move to Music City every day.

“People ask us all over the country,” Mason said, “‘What’s it like to live in Nashville?’

“It’s the best city in the world because it feels like a town. I still have that feeling here. But there are times in the day when you’re trying to get somewhere … and it’s not going to feel like that anymore.”

Johnston admitted that sometimes coming home feels like returning to a kid sister going through an awkward growth spurt.

But Music City will always be home. When the traffic hits just right coasting on the Interstate 40 loop, the city spins like a record with the AT&T “Batman” building rotating at its center.

Other local venues that the band grew up loving — like the Basement, the End, the Exit/In, the Five Spot and the campus of venues on Cannery Row — are more popular than ever. The Basement just celebrated the first anniversary of its new East Nashville addition and the original Eighth Avenue location hosted the band’s pop-up show in May to announce the release of Bury Me in My Boots. The Exit/In threw a day-long street fest in July to celebrate its 45th anniversary.

Recalling a New Year’s Eve show they played in either 2005 or 2006 at the End with local rockers Be Your Own Pet and the Pink Spiders still makes Johnston smile.

“It was insane,” he recalls. “I was still learning how to play guitar.”

The Cadillac Three’s brand of Southern rock has been a part of local indie rock scene since they started when they first formed as Bang Bang Bang just over a decade ago. The local music blog the Nashville Cream describes their class of musicians at the time as “full of incredibly talented but unsigned bands that no one gave a shit about” working hard to get Nashville noticed outside of Nashville. And all were worth covering every single day. Still are. Among them are punk and indie rockers De Novo Dahl, the Pink Spiders, Be Your Own Pet, Autovaughn, the Clutters and Glossary.

And the guys knew they were on to something since the days they started making noise in the basement at Mason’s mom’s place. At the time Johnston and Ray were students at Hume-Fogg High School while Mason went to Hillsboro in Green Hills. To make extra cash, Mason slung smoothies at a local Smoothie King while Johnston was on staff at Calypso Café locations in Belle Meade and Cool Springs.

“Neither one is there now,” Johnston adds. “That should tell you something.”

They spent years touring the country in a white passenger van to build a loyal following one town at a time. Just the sight of a white van still nauseates Johnston. Then their first break happened when some American Bang material scored Johnston his first publishing deal. Meat Loaf recorded the song, “If It Rains,” for his 2010 album Hang Cool Teddy Bear, marking the first major cut for the guys.

“We were like, ‘We’re gonna make some money,’” Johnston recalls. “I think I made like 15 cents off of that. I ran into Meat Loaf in an elevator at Sony, and he goes, ‘You know, we sold 500,000 in Denmark.’ And I go, ‘Sweet.’ I never saw a bit of that money. … Are there 500,000 people in Denmark?”

They continued to write between opening national tours with Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top and headlining their own. Eric Church, Dierks Bentley and Lee Brice were some of the the first mainstream country headliners to take them on the road. Church is the only one to tour with the band when they called themselves American Bang.

“They stepped out in a genre where it’s not very safe to take out a band that’s not well known,” Johnston says. “They brought us out on the road as left and as crazy as we were. I think that was really cool. The rest of it was we totally went out — the three of us in a van — and built it ourselves. We made it to where the Nashville labels all came to us.

“When we signed with Big Machine, we probably could have signed with anybody. It’s pretty neat for three long-hairs who are obviously playing their own game to sign with a major label in Nashville and still do it their own way. I don’t think we were easily embraced at the beginning, but we definitely worked for it. There were a few key figures along the way, though.”

Other cuts and hits would follow. Johnston just scored his eighth No. 1 as a songwriter with Jake Owen’s “American Country Love Song,” while Mason is a hit-maker behind Rascal Flatts’ “Payback” and “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial” for A Thousand Horses, plus songs on Miranda Lambert’s Platinum, Jon Pardi’s California Sunrise and Aubrie SellersNew City Blues.

“If the records are starting to sound like something you’re doing on your own, then you’re doing something right,” Johnston says. “That means it’s gravitating towards what you do.”

Completed in early 2015, their sophomore album Bury Me in My Boots shows they are way ahead of their time. The 14-song collection is a southern rock masterpiece that’s whiskey-drenched in grit. The three guys wrote the opening title anthem on the road in Austin, Texas, inspired by the thought of a guy who lives like there’s no tomorrow.

At the time, Johnston was mesmerized by the line, “If I’m going out, I want to go out in style. Baby don’t you cry, just bury me in my boots.” By the time his soul gets to heaven, he hopes to look down at one helluva party down South with all his rowdy friends celebrating a life lived with no regrets.

“I was just trying to put a story of a dude who chose that path,” he says.” “Whether it’s a Western thing or a drug dealer or whatever it is, you live by the gun, you die by the gun. You live by the bottle, you’ll probably die by the bottle. We wanted to come out swinging, and that was one of the first songs we wanted to cut for the album. It was a big step.”

It’s a realness that has captivated audiences nationwide and around the world in Europe, Australia and the U.K., the latter of which has pretty much become a second home after headlining sell-outs there every trip for the last three years. Their new overseas trek through the U.K., Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain starts Nov. 5 in Manchester, England, with Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown.

“I feel like it comes across onstage that we’re just having a good time,” Ray says. “We don’t write set lists like a lot of the bands do where everything is all calculated and perfect. We get up there and if we screw something up, we’re having fun, engaging with the crowd. I think a lot times people get up there and they just play. They rely too much on the lights and smoke. We don’t need that.”

“I think the Bang years and the Cadillac years have a similar feel because every time we play a show, it feels like something that only we can do,” Mason adds. “We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t still exciting and it didn’t still feel cool.”

“It’s pretty obvious we’re doing our own thing,” Johnston says. “As Tom Petty said, ‘We’re not joining anybody else’s club.’ We’re leading the pack rather than following the pack. And I think that’s important for people to know about us whether you’re looking at us back then or looking at us right now.

“There’s a lot of people in the country genre doing the same thing. To me, it’s very refreshing to see a group of guys who weren’t put together, who write their own songs, who all grew up together and are still chasing that same dream that they had when they were kids. I think that’s a legacy.”

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.