A band like The Cadillac Three is a rare breed in today’s music.
Front man Jaren Johnston had no clue that when he first connected with instrumentalist Kelby Ray Caldwell and drummer Neil Mason in high school that he was meeting his creative partners for life.
It wasn’t until later in life when Johnston realized that Caldwell and Mason were his Keith Richards to his Mick Jagger, his Paul McCartney to his John Lennon and his Bernard Edwards to his Nile Rodgers.
No record deal lost (they signed with Big Machine after getting dropped by Warner Brothers in 2010), no band name change (they’ve gone through at least four), no playing to empty rooms when they were first starting out and no miles of touring across the country in a cramped white passenger van could ever tear them apart.
At the time when Johnston first met Caldwell, Johnston was a freshman at Nashville’s Hume-Fogg High and drumming in the high school’s performance ensembles. He knew that Caldwell was his kind of guy when they first met based on Caldwell’s tie-dyed Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and his massive curly head of hair. Mason was a student at Hillsboro High in Nashville’s nearby Green Hills neighborhood and was playing in their best friends’ band, the Dahlia Llamas.
“I started writing these songs and I took them over to Neil,” Johnston recalled over a Skype call while on tour from Spokane, Washington. “He was working at Smoothie King on Elliston. I said, ’You want to start writing or maybe start a band?’ Because he had just quit Llama and he was like, ’Hell yeah. Let’s do it.’ We started jamming and the next thing you know, 10 years later, we’re doing this all over the world.”
Johnston, Mason and Caldwell are each prolific songwriters. While building a following together as a band, they were writing hits that saw success at country radio. Urban’s “You Gonna Fly,” co-written with Locash’s Preston Brust and Chris Lucas, was Johnston’s first No. 1 hit as a songwriter. Other hits would follow including Urban’s Grammy-nominated “Raise ’Em Up” with Eric Church and Tim McGraw’s “Meanwhile Back at Mamas” with Faith Hill. Mason has contributed songs on albums by Frankie Ballard, Miranda Lambert, Justin Moore, Jon Pardi, A Thousand Horses and many more.
When asked what he thinks of the timing of The Cadillac Three and the success of their music, Johnston said it’s well deserved.
“It’s extremely exciting to have three best friends from Nashville still doing it and having success after all the time we put in because a bunch of our friends, they kind of gave it up. They’re doing other things.
“Cage the Elephant and Kings of Leon are great examples of guys who are all out here still doing it. And it’s neat to be doing it in the country-western world. I grew up on that and so did Kelby. His first concert was Bocephus at Starwood in ’85. My first concert was Garth Brooks. It’s really cool to take what we’ve built and have it in our own little world of the genre that Nashville created.”
Last September, when CMT.com sat down with Caldwell, Johnston and Mason to discuss Bury Me In My Boots, they promised it wouldn’t be long before they released another album.
A little more than a year following the release of that collection, they have delivered Legacy — the band’s most mature and intrinsically musical album to date.
The 11-song collection of originals has the three Nashville natives exploring perennial themes in country music like home and love in ways they have never done before as a band.
“American Slang,” co-written with the ACM’s reigning Songwriter of the Year Lori McKenna, offers tattoo-ready lines like, “We see things in how we’re gonna save the freedom of our age.” In the James Slater-co-written “Ain’t That Country,” they revisit what it means to be country people: “It ain’t always pretty/Sometimes you gotta get your hands dirty.”
In the anthemic “Tennessee,” a solo write by Johnston, he sings of what makes him feel at home – his wife Evyn’s love, cold beer, whiskey and Sturgill Simpson on vinyl. On the closing title track, co-written with Ben Burgess and Laura Veltz, Johnston sings of the life he wants to be remembered for long after he’s gone.
In the chorus, he sings, “When I’m gone, my name carved in stone/Over husband, friend and father/Survived by son, wife and daughter/It won’t be the songs that keep me livin’ on/Girl, as hall of fame as I wanna be/It’s a lot of love and a little family tree.”
“This record is a little bit more grown up and the fact that we have experienced more and there is more to life,” Johnston said. “Nashville, the South and family is very important to me and the guys. Titling the album Legacy kind of felt really good. We were really proud of that song and it grouped together the whole feeling of the band. Kelby just got married and I just had a son, it just started a new chapter.
“But it also tells exactly where we’ve been and where we’re going. And giving away songs like ’Raise ’Em Up’ and ’Meanwhile Back At Mamas,’ I probably wasn’t ready to sing those lyrics with this band yet, and maybe the band wasn’t at that point yet. I think the reason we didn’t give ’Legacy’ away, songs like that, was because we felt like we could be that band now.”
Of course, fans can expect the raucous country fuzz they’ve pioneered with their sound.
“I think the three of us just play for the three of us,” Johnston said. “It’s kind of all for us and if other people like it, then that’s great. But how you keep yourself honest and accountable is you just do what you want to do because the moment you start doing something that somebody else thinks is a good idea, you’re chasing something that’s not your passion.”
The Cadillac Three will make their headlining debut at Nashville historic Ryman Auditorium on Thursday (Aug. 31) with Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Their tour continues through November. An international run through Canada, Europe and the U.K. starts Oct. 16 in Owen Sound, Ontario.