Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason and Kelby Ray Caldwell are three of the most badass musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing live. With their gritty, southern rock attitudes and down home, swampy twang, The Cadillac Three are giving country music a nice, swift kick in the ass thanks to the sheer raw talent they possess, as well as the distinct sound they’ve brought with them. Not only do all three TC3 members know how to play the hell out of their instruments and aren’t afraid to crank things up a little louder than everyone else, but their knack for songwriting is some of the strongest in the genre. While all three members contributed to the songwriting on their new album that was released in 2016, both Johnston and Mason have penned numerous hits for their fellow country peers and have had many songs appear in various TV shows and movies. Their talent knows no boundaries, but more importantly it’s the way they take their love for their craft and where they come from and just own the shit out of it in a way that no other artists are doing right now that makes them unique.
The Cadillac Three continue to prove that as an artist you don’t need radio play and number one hits in order to be successful or relevant in the music industry. In the short amount of time they’ve been together, Johnston, Caldwell, and Mason have built a powerful fan base that consistently shows up and supports them at every show for every tour. Not only do the fans show up, they’re singing the lyrics to every song as loud as they can. Recently the Nashville bred trio embarked on their own headlining tour and they are just killing it every time they take a stage. In an email interview with Neil Mason, the drummer explained what they were excited for on their Black Roses tour, and what fans can expect this time around. “We’ve got a new stage design with a new light show that we’ve been working on for the last few months. We are really excited about moving the three of us around on stage more. It’s going to be pretty badass.”
I was fortunate enough to catch The Black Roses Tour when it rolled through Chicago in January. To say those guys brought the house down at Joe’s Bar on Weed Street would be an understatement. TC3 took the crowd at Joe’s on a non-stop thrill ride with a set list that included most of their new album, as well as a few songs from their 2012 self-titled album. The new album, entitled Bury Me in My Boots, is an excellent representation of exactly the kind of band The Cadillac Three are. Really, it’s a 14-track tribute to where they come from, what they stand for, and what they’re about, and it kicks some serious country ass.
“It was the first album we wrote almost entirely on the road. We spent a couple years writing on the back of the bus and bringing friends from Nashville out with us. We probably wrote 75 songs and had to get it down to the 14 that ended up on the album. I think we grew a lot in those couple years as songwriters and just as people,” Neil explained. The follow-up album to the trio’s self-titled 2012 debut is country rock at its absolute best and is like nothing else you’ll hear in the genre today. While songs like “Party Like You” and “Slide” hit hard with their foot-stomping, party anthem beats and smooth guitar licks, other tracks like “Buzzin,” “Drunk Like You,” and “Ship Faced” slow things down just a bit with their chill, laid-back vibes. Radio friendly songs like “Graffiti” and “This Accent” add a more sentimental tone to the new album with their storyteller lyrics. That TC3 signature sound, though, is heard most on tracks like “Soundtrack to a Six Pack” and “Peace Love & Dixie,” where Johnston, Mason and Caldwell aren’t afraid to wave their southern pride high and loud.
Other standout tracks include fan favorite, “The South,” which features guest vocals from Florida Georgia Line, Dierks Bentley, and Mike Eli of the Eli Young Band. “It was just a cool organic thing the way it all came together. It started when Jaren mentioned it to FGL and then we ran into Dierks a day or two before the session, and he was into it too. Mike Eli was next door recording that day anyway, so we pulled him in,” Mason explained to me in our email interview. The popular anthem was the first single from Bury Me in My Boots that was actually released in 2013 and has become a crowd sing along at concerts. Of course, even gritty southern rockers like The Cadillac Three know how to write a good country love song, and they demonstrate this twice on their new album with “White Lightning” and “Runnin’ Red Lights.” Johnston wrote “White Lightning” about his wife, as he describes that feeling of what love is supposed to feel like, while “Runnin’ Red Lights” tugs at the heartstrings with lyrics that tell of the struggle musicians face while they’re on the road, just trying to get home to their loved ones. The emotion Johnston pours into each of these two songs is both commendable and inspiring, as he paints a beautiful picture of what love and family mean to him and his bandmates.
When it comes to songwriting, though, Johnston and Mason are no strangers to success. Both TC3 members are credited as the brilliance behind some of today’s country hits. Between the two of them, Johnston and Mason are responsible for songs like “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” and “Southern Girl,” both by Tim McGraw; Jake Owen’s “Beachin’” and “Days of Gold;” Keith Urban’s “Raise ‘em Up,” and Rascal Flatts’ “Payback.” When I asked Neil Mason about the difference when writing songs alone versus writing songs for The Cadillac Three, he replied that, “Every song is different in their own way. Sometimes you start with a guitar riff, and sometimes it’s with a title or a lyric. It really just depends on the day and where the inspiration comes from in that moment.” Needless to say, Johnston and Mason have had quite a few inspiring moments.
Even though it might be hard to imagine any of the songs I mentioned above being done by The Cadillac Three, there’s no question that ONLY TC3 could do any of the songs on Bury Me in My Boots. The album as a whole truly showcases the brilliance of all three members as musicians and songwriters, and therefore was one of the best albums released in 2016. TC3 have successfully brought southern rock back to country music with their impressive use of the lap-steel guitar and lyrics that bleed more authenticity and passion for southern pride than anything else in country music right now. Johnston, Mason and Caldwell have an unmatchable sound that is no doubt from their ability to dig deep into their southern roots their so proud of. In an age in music where so many artists try to mimic the sound that other artists have created in order to be successful, it’s refreshing to hear a group like The Cadillac Three that have created their own niche and stuck with it. “Our sound happened very naturally. What you hear is what you get with us!” Mason exclaimed during our interview.
In case you can’t tell just from listening to their music, Mason confirmed who he, Johnston and Caldwell are influenced by musically.
“We love so many different bands and artists. Everyone from Metallica to Hank Williams Jr, Lynard Skynyrd, Tom Petty, Garth Brooks and ZZ Top. I think there’s a little of everyone’s style and swagger mixed into what we do.” It came as no surprise then when Mason sited Tom Petty as an artist the trio would like to collaborate with if ever given the chance for a CMT Crossroads with someone of their choice.
While growing up and watching all the remarkable talent that has come out of Music City might be intimidating to some aspiring artists, Neil Mason used it more positively to stay motivated. As the drummer and songwriter stated, “I think we’ve been really lucky to be surrounded by some of the best songs and songwriters in the world since we were born. You don’t realize it when you are younger, but as you begin to write songs yourself it becomes clear quickly that you’ve gotta be really good around here to stand out!”
The Cadillac Three are the perfect example of not having to conform to what others want you to be for the sake of success, and how staying true to who you are is more important than molding yourself into what you think you should be. Here’s a band who hardly get any mainstream radio play, but still manage to sell out venues across the country, including cities like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York City. Fans have taken a band that may come across as a little rough around the edges and embraced them, and because of that TC3’s fan base only continues to grow, making for an even bigger party every time the trio takes a stage.
On February 11th after playing to another sold out crowd the night before, the TC3 boys posted on their Facebook page, “This little band that started in a basement and found its sound by accident when we plugged a lap steel into a bass amp and then played “I’m Southern” for the first time has found an audience that appreciates the imperfections and the rated R stage banter and the lack of knowing what song is coming next, the heavy metal riffs and the quiet country sing-alongs…That right there is what is so great. Thanks to y’all, we have created our own little world and sometimes people see it for the first time and are so confused and amazed by it that they want to be a part of it too, and you all have proven that anyone is welcome at a TC3 show as long as you are looking for a good time.”
I think it’s fair to say we can all learn a little something from the guys in The Cadillac Three, don’t you?