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“This is where I was born and this is where I’ll die.”
With that passionate battle cry, the centerpiece lyric of their anthem “The South,” The Cadillac Three have launched a movement in country music, forging a bond with fans both in the U.S. and overseas in a way not seen since Garth Brooks. Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, the trio of singer-guitarist Jaren Johnston, lap-steel player Kelby Ray and drummer Neil Mason are brothers in “hell yeah!” spirit and in music. They are effortlessly cool, as real as they come and arguably the most vital addition to the country-music landscape this decade.
The proof lies in both their hard-rocking live shows and their blistering new album Bury Me in My Boots, their first recorded for Big Machine Records. Onstage, the group possesses a sonic power that other touring bands couldn’t match with double the players. Johnston sings and shreds with a room-filling “kiss my ass” attitude, Ray delivers slippery riffs and a phantom bass line on his steel, and Mason pulverizes the kit with the force of Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Remarkably, they’ve harnessed that same crackling energy on Bury Me in My Boots, a collection of 14 songs that were hatched the old-fashioned way: written on the road and tested live in front of an audience.
“I’ve never seen any other band in Nashville say, ‘Yeah, man, we like to try out a song live for a long time just to make sure it goes over well, before we put it on a record,'” says Johnston. “Most Nashville bands, they get a demo, they like it, they cut it, and it’s on the record and sometimes the radio the next week.”
Produced by The Cadillac Three with Dann Huff and Justin Niebank, Bury Me in My Boots is the follow-up to their self-titled 2012 independent debut, which Big Machine re-released after signing the band. But there’s more than just years separating the projects.
“We drove thousands of miles in a van and a bus between these two records. We played hundreds of shows in the past five years and have been through so much,” says Ray.
Indeed, The Cadillac Three have toured relentlessly in the U.K., where they’ve garnered a rabid fan base, opened U.S. tours for Eric Church and Dierks Bentley, and are currently on the road with Florida Georgia Line.
“We’re still writing songs about where we’re from because it’s our favorite place in the damn world,” says Mason, “but at the same time, we have all these other experiences to draw on. We’ve been all around the world. This record is everything that has happened since.”
The constant, however, is authenticity. More than any other act in country music today, The Cadillac Three paint the sharpest picture of small-town life — all three members have a hand in writing the songs on Bury Me in My Boots.
Led by Johnston, who has penned monster hits like Tim McGraw’s “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” Jake Owen’s “Beachin'” and Keith Urban’s “Raise ‘Em Up,” the trio compose in an organic and spontaneous way.
“It’s like in the movie Almost Famous. We’re riding on the bus, somebody’s got a guitar, somebody’s drinking a beer. That’s the idea,” says Johnston. “And we all have one goal in mind: making an album that is better than the first one.”
While that debut record broke ground for the group with its rebellious swamp-rock vibe, Bury Me in My Boots finds The Cadillac Three writing, recording and performing at a more assured, bolder level. It is the sound of a band fully aware of its power, one ready to decimate arenas.
In the stomping title track, they flip the popular carpe-diem theme on its head, looking not at how the guys live life, but how they hope to exit it — in their boots, the very ones that grace the album’s cover.
“Lyrically, it goes to a place that can be sad and dark. This guy is talking about the pine-box clock,” says Johnston. “But he says, ‘If I’m going down, I want to go down in style!'”
It’s the type of bravado at which the band excels, whether they’re singing about coming face-to-face with the Reaper, or a hot girl at the bar. The single “Drunk Like You,” the “Black Betty” homage “Slide” and the woozy “Buzzin'” all resonate with a certain swagger, while the beachy get-wasted jam “Ship Faced” is laugh-out-loud funny.
“All of those are examples of us growing and expanding our sound,” says Johnston.
But despite a tough exterior, The Cadillac Three maintain a country boy’s heart. The ballads “White Lightning,” written by Johnston for his wife, and the album closer “Runnin’ Red Lights” both reveal a vulnerability, as Johnston sings about the loneliness and longing that come with being a band on the run.
“You’re out there doing meet-and-greets, shaking hands and kissing babies,” he says, “but at the same time, you’re thinking about where you wanna be. And that’s trying to get home as fast as you can.”
For The Cadillac Three, home remains the American South that they praise in their signature song. To hear Johnston lead the call-and-response chorus of “The South” — which he’s done everywhere from honky-tonks to cruise ships — is to experience the essence of the artist-fan connection. The song has become a credo for band and audience, a commitment to honoring your roots, be they in Nashville or Atlanta, New York or Boston.
“Our show is based around who we are and where we’re from,” says Mason, “and that song really encompasses that.”
As does the surprisingly elegant and poignant “This Accent,” an epilogue to “The South.” Written by Johnston and Mason with frequent collaborator Jimmy Robbins, “This Accent” is the emotional center of Bury Me in My Boots. It all comes back to the idea of being “real,” that most coveted buzzword in country music. While some country-radio stars sing with a thick drawl, only to speak in interviews as if they’re Connecticut blue bloods, Johnston, Ray and Mason walk it, as the saying goes, like they talk it.
“You can take a lot of things from a man / leave him beat, brokenhearted and bent / but you ain’t never gonna take this accent,” Johnston delivers, defiantly.
And therein lies the magic of The Cadillac Three, the secret that all but guarantees them mega-success: their willingness to not only embrace but celebrate the traits and quirks that define them. Whether it’s the way they talk, where they live or how many beers they drank the night before, they are unapologetically themselves.
“The Cadillac Three are a force,” drawls Johnston. “We are three dudes who grew up together, ready to take on the world. And we don’t give a shit. Kids everywhere can see the realness in that.”