Songwriter Spotlight: Jaren Johnston

The Cadillac Three frontman tells stories behind hits for Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts and his own band

Jaren Johnston
Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for GolinHarris
Jaren Johnston performs at the Outnumber Hunger Live! concert.
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Some country songwriters prefer to remain behind the scenes. Others, like Jaren Johnston, are working musicians who front their own bands. As the driving force behind the Cadillac Three (recently named one of Rolling Stone Country's "10 New Artists You Need To Know"), Johnston has toured with Lynyrd Skynyrd, cracked the Top 40 with his group's flagship single, "The South," and landed a record deal with the same label that represents Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw. Meanwhile, as a songwriter for artists such as Keith Urban, he's topped the country charts three times.

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Everything started at the Grand Ole Opry, where his father landed a gig as the show's house drummer when Johnston was 8 years old. Since his mother attended night school on the weekends, the future country star usually went to work with his dad, spending his Friday and Saturday nights wandering the Opry's backstage area.

"It was crazy to be there as a kid, walking around and stumbling into Porter Wagoner's dressing room," he remembers. "I saw Garth [Brooks] the first time he played the Opry. I saw Keith Whitley and Don Williams and Clint Black. I saw everyone. It was so cool."

When Johnston turned 13, his father bought him a pair of guitars for Christmas. One was a classical Epiphone guitar; the other was a Kramer electric. Those two guitars appealed to both sides of Johnston's musical tastes, allowing him to strum along to country records like Garth Brooks' Ropin' the Wind before picking up the Kramer and palm-muting the power chords to Nirvana's Nevermind. Years later, Johnston boiled down those influences into a singular form of stomping, swaggering Southern rock — first with the Warner Bros. band American Bang, and later with the Cadillac Three.

After landing a publishing deal during American Bang's early days, Johnston began co-writing with other songwriters in Nashville — including plenty of country hitmakers. It was foreign at first. He eventually struck gold with "You Gonna Fly," a Number One hit for Keith Urban in early 2011, and followed its success with a string of Top 40 singles during the following years. These days, he's the go-to man for country tunes that rock as hard as they twang — and he's still performing with the Cadillac Three, even sharing a festival bill with Metallica earlier this summer.

We tracked down Johnston during a break in his touring schedule to get the stories behind some of his biggest hits.

Keith Urban, "You Gonna Fly" (Johnston, Preston Brust, Chris Lucas)
I wrote it with these guys in the band LoCash Cowboys. At that time, I was trying to get a cut on their record. And meanwhile, they were trying to get a cut on the American Bang record, because we were in the middle of doing our record for Warner Bros. It was kinda funny. My original demo is a perfect mix of LoCash and American Bang, split right down the middle. Originally, Jimmy Wayne was gonna cut that. Then Keith texted me randomly one day and said he was gonna cut it… so we took it from Jimmy Wayne.

I wrote some of the chorus before those guys came over. I'm a big fan of putting states and cities in the choruses. I found a good cadence for that one. There's something about singing the words "New Orleans" in there that just feels really good, then Preston came in and started rapping during the verse, and it just fit.

Tim McGraw, "Southern Girl" (Johnston, Rodney Clawson, Lee Thomas Miller)
Lee Miller, Rodney Clawson and I wrote that one across the street from my house at [music publishing company] Big Loud Shirt. Right before we started writing it, my publisher, Abby Adams, called me and said, "Hey, I just wanted to let you know, before you write, that you got the next Keith Urban single, 'You Gonna Fly.'" So I found that out right before we wrote "Southern Girl." It definitely put us all in a good mood. We might've started drinking early that day, because I don't remember much of it.

Lee Miller is a lyrical genius, and Rodney has, like, 50 songs on the chart right now. I started playing that little riff, and we started spilling out words. When I got home that night and started doing the demo, I felt like it needed something more. It felt like a hit but it didn't turn the knife, you know? So I added that little Auto Tune thing and sent it to the guys, and they loved it. They laughed their asses off. It was originally supposed to be "Daisy Dukes" or something, instead of "Hazel eyes and golden curls." When Tim McGraw heard the song, though, he liked everything except for the daisy dukes part, because he felt like it was something he didn't want to say. He asked us to change it. So I looked up what color eyes Faith Hill has, and I saw she had hazel eyes, and I added that. And it worked.

Jake Owen, "Days of Gold" (Johnston, Neil Mason)
I have this old '76 Ford truck [with] no air conditioning. I was driving home and it was hot as hell, and I was like, "Man, we should try to write something for Cadillac Black [Cadillac Three's previous name] that's a Ram Jam 'Black Betty'-type thing, you know?" So I started singing this line: "Southern summer, whiskey's in the air, dogs on the burner." I thought that was funny. I called Neil [Mason, Cadillac Three's drummer] and told him to come over to the house, and he did, and we finished it in 30 minutes. It was on our first record. Jake liked it, too, so he took it.

Rascal Flatts, "The Mechanic" (Johnston, Tony Lane)
One of my favorite writers of all time is Tony Lane. When I signed my first [publishing] deal, we met each other, but we never wrote together until I really pushed my publishers to make it happen. He came over one day, and I was trying to write a song like he would do, like [Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's] "I Need You." He came over and I had this vibe in mind. The way we originally wrote "The Mechanic" was slower, like Townes Van Zandt or John Prine. I basically wrote that song to steal moves from Tony, to learn how to write like him. I remember saying, "Hey, let me just play this, and you sing it, so I can see what you would do." He kicked into it and I was like, "Oh man, that's it!" We wrangled it, and Flatts did a great job cutting it.

The Cadillac Three, "The South" (Johnston)
I was listening to a lot of Zeppelin at the time. I wanted something for our live show that was epic. Do you remember the first time you heard "Sweet Home Alabama?" I'm not from Alabama, but the first time I heard that song, I wished I was. I wanted something that could hit kids that same way. I wanted to write something that embraced that whole mentality of kicking back and living in the South.

With the guitars, I was trying to make the song as epic as possible, to channel a little of Zeppelin's "Kashmir" in that big riff. And with the lyrics, all those states sort of came together. I remember calling my dad and singing the chorus to him, and he said, "You almost fit them all in there, buddy, didn't you?"