The lead single from Nashville country-rock trio, the Cadillac Three's, self-titled debut album, "The South," could easily be a brainless ode to Southern cliches. But it isn't. Instead, lead singer Jaren Johnston, multi-instrumentalist Kelby Ray and drummer Neil Mason deliver a swampy, thrashing and fun tribute to their native region, without a single mention of a pickup truck tailgates, bikini tops or catfish. (Of course, the music video does revel in some more cliched partygoing imagery, but stil.)
Much of the Cadillac Three's music is in a similarly smart, fresh vein, which has been instrumental in helping their blend of rock, country and swagger become successful. After "The South" helped attract the attention of several major labels, the band -- then callling themselves the Cadillac Black -- signed with Big Machine Records in 2013. The song even landed on ABC's Nashville. But for Johnston, this isn't his first taste of success: he's written several hit-singles for some of mainstream country music's brightest stars, including Tim McGraw and Keith Urban
However, the cubicle life of a Nashville-based writer isn't for Johnson. We spoke to him from a tour stop in Sacramento about Texas crowds and so-called "Bro-Country," as he and his mates made their way to North Texas for shows in Denton and Fort Worth.
DC9 at Night: In a short period of time, your band has managed to break through and develop a pretty solid fan-base in Texas. Is that a surprise to you?
Johnston: It's been really cool down there for us for the past two years. We used to just go to Austin and play with the bands our friends were in. But every time we'd play, more people would show up than the time before. The first time, there might be 20 kids, then the next time, there would be 50 kids, then the next time, there would be over 100 people, you know? We love being a part of the music scene in Texas, because there's really nothing like it anywhere else in the country.
You're a native of Nashville, so does it surprise you to see there are still musicians and fans here in Texas that are anti-Nashville?
Yeah, I know that those people are against the suits of Nashville and not the city of hard working musicians, but it was still a shock at first for me. I was raised going to the Opry with my dad. That was all I knew. The "Nashville Thing," or whatever, isn't something we've ever thought about, and it's not really something that applies to us. The first couple of times we came to Texas, I'd tell the crowd how we're from Nashville and I'd hear boos come from the crowd, and I'd think to myself, "What the hell did I ever do to them?" But we've always loved playing Texas, and we love having some of the Texas guys come up to Nashville and play with us. Guys like William Clark Green, Josh Abbott and the guys from Whiskey Myers are great. I'm just a music guy, and it's fun to play with people I like, wherever they're from.
Your single, "The South," seems to mention every Southern state except for Texas. What's the deal with that?
Actually, the original cut of that song does have a Texas mention in it, and there's a special radio-edit now where Texas is mentioned, but when we decided to have the guys from Florida Georgia Line sing on the song, I had to put in Florida, since I already had Georgia in there. And then, when Mike Eli [of the Eli Young Band from Denton] came to sing on the song, I just gave up. I finally had to just roll with it. I've had people in Arkansas ask me, "What about us, asshole?"
So, you can't win unless you literally mention half the states in the country, can you?
Right! I mean, there are only so many words you can put into a song, man!
Speaking of Florida Georgia Line, they've become the whipping boys for the bro-country style that's taken over the radio.
I get why people call them bro-country, but we're close to those guys because we've played bars together for a long time before they even had a record out. With them, we've played every shit-hole bar from Nashville to the bottom of Florida. It was tough for those guys for a long time before they hit it big. They've worked their asses off and it's wild for me to see their dreams come true. I get how they may not be some people's cup of tea, but I hope people respect how much it took for them to get to this point.
As a songwriter, and a musician that deals in Southern rock sounds often associated with bro-country, what are your thoughts on the term "bro-country" itself?
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I've been hearing that term for years, of course, but I don't think what we do or what I write is bro-country. The radio landscape changes and goes through facelifts all of the time. It wasn't too long ago when every song on the radio sounded like Shania Twain. And before that, there seemed to be only the good stuff like Keith Whitley and Don Williams. Right now, people want to call any song that mentions a truck tailgate a bro-country song, but there have always been songs with tailgates in them and there always will be.
You've written some pretty big hits for some famous artists. Has the money you've earned from those cuts changed the way the band works at all?
No, man. Our dream is to be in a band together, because the three of us grew up together, first and foremost. It's great to have been blessed and to have the songwriting thing going on because, honestly, the money helps make certain things easier. But being in a band, traveling and meeting new fans is what we love to do and what we're about.