The Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston: A lot of people play ball or shoot guns for a hobby ... we just happen to really enjoy writing songs'
The Cadillac Three's frontman Jaren Johnston opens up to Roisin O'Connor about why some of the best country and rock music is currently being written by women
Country rockers The Cadillac Three are proving a hit with UK audiences, finding a new niche for American rock 'n' roll.
“My point ain’t subtle here, I’m a Southern man.” This line in The Cadillac Three’s track ‘The South’ tells you a fair bit of what they’re about as a band.
Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, the trio — friends since high school — released their third album Legacy back in August and recently returned to the UK for a huge show at London’s 02 Forum, supported by the superb Brothers Osborne.
It’s by no means the first time they’ve performed in the UK. They’ve become something of a favourite for British country rock fans, putting on outrageously raucous live shows where it’s impossible to stay still — by the end of the first track the whole venue is sweating. Earlier in summer they came back over for Download Festival as the only country-western band on the billing.
Up the many, many stairs to the Forum dressing room, frontman Jaren Johnston — one of country’s most sought-after songwriters — is trying to explain why they might be so popular ahead of thes sold-out show.
“It’s been crazy,” he says. “We’re excited about the reaction to the album. We come to the UK every year… I think we played Shepherd’s Bush last time.
“I’m pretty good friends with Steven Tyler (Aerosmith’s frontman), they were headlining that night — I don’t know if he had anything to do with us doing Download. But it was us, Airborne, then Aerosmith, it was pretty awesome. What’s weird over here is that the country thing is starting to build up, people are starting to come over. But we kind of came over before other people. I think a lot of people see us as a rock band, some see us as a country band…”
The Cadillac Three may have been introduced to a wider UK audience after appearing in the hit show Nashville, after being asked to feature in the programme by its executive music producer — the legendary T Bone Burnett — and his wife, Nashville’s director/producer Callie Khouri. But Johnston seems a little disgruntled at the attention it brought them in the States.
“We’d get recognised at a gas station or something, people would go, ‘Oh that’s the guy from Nashville’. And I’d be like, ‘I’m a person too’. But it’s a cool show,” he adds with a grin. “The reason we were on there was because T Bone and Callie did a really good job of picking people to be in the show who were actually locals, and we were born and raised there. We were happy to be home — I got a text from him and I felt like a rock star.”
Last time I met up with The Cadillac Three at a London show we ended up joke-apologising to one another for our country’s respective political failings. Since then, country music artists in the US — previously criticised for being relatively quiet on political issues — have become more vocal on topics such as gun control following the Las Vegas shootings.
“You can’t turn a blind eye to it any more, you can’t act like it’s not a huge issue, a huge problem,” Johnston says. “I was talking about this with the guys the other night, how… over there, I grew up shooting guns, it’s just what it was. I had a rifle. But there’s a line there. I’ve got buddies who are huge gun-totin’, first amendment guys.
“And even they’re like, there’s gotta be some kind of leash on this dog. It’s out of hand.
“There’s a huge difference between me having my 4-10 shotgun that my dad gave me, that his dad gave him, and an AR-15 f****** huge machine gun. There needs to be a limit on it. I’m not running for president or anything, but it doesn’t take a genius to know something needs to happen.”
He smiles when I read back a comment by legendary country artist Steve Earle who, earlier this year, grumbled that modern country music was “hip hop for people who are afraid of black people”.
“The best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women, except for Chris Stapleton,” Earle said.
“Country is… big. It’s a big genre,” Johnston shrugs.
“I think there’s room for your more syncopated talking-over-a-beat kind of country — I write some of that because I grew up listening to Rage Against the Machine, Beastie Boys, so I put that kind of thing together naturally. I think it’s cool and fun. That said, you’ve also got Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jnr, Sturgill Simpson, Eric Church. Then there’s a band like us, we kind of do our own thing.
“I love Steve Earle, but he’s got that chip on his shoulder. He said in that same interview, ‘My wife left me for a less talented songwriter’. That tells you something. But I don’t think talking about a genre like that helps anybody.
“Usually, people who talk about a genre like that as a whole are irritated because they’re not getting the ears they think they deserve. It seems like a waste of time.”
The Cadillac Three are pretty much always writing new music. Legacy was released almost a year to the day that their breakthrough second album Bury Me In My Boots came out and they’re already working on a follow-up.
“That’s what’s fun about this band”, he says. “We’re always on the road. A lot of people go play ball, shoot guns, whatever, for a hobby. We just happen to really enjoy writing songs, flexing that creative muscle. I hope we can keep doing this as quickly as possible.
“We hear it every night from the fans — they love the fact we’re putting music out. All my favourite bands did that when I was a kid. If we wanna write more music, we put it out. Nobody’s holding us back.”
Legacy, the latest album by The Cadillac Three, is out now via Big Machine Records — the band head back out on tour in the US from January 25