During this weekend's CMA Music Festival in Nashville, some artists incorporated hard rock and even heavy metal (see Eric Church's epic "That's Damn Rock & Roll" with Halestorm's Lzzy Hale at LP Field) into their sets, but only the Cadillac Three, who performed on Saturday afternoon on the Cumberland River, were an actual rock band.
Even if the band members themselves disagree.
"You don't get story song-telling in rock radio if you listen to it right now. You can call us a rock band or whatever, but I can guarantee you we're the only three dudes playing this damn festival that are actually born and raised here. You can't get much more country than that," singer-guitarist Jaren Johnston told Rolling Stone Country backstage after the trio's CMA Fest performance. "But we're definitely on the left side of things."
That left side Johnston refers to is the one far removed from the country radio mainstream. "Tom Petty said all country music is right now is a terrible college alt-rock band with a fiddle. That's the last thing we want to be," said Johnston, who admits he partially agreed with the rock & roll icon's blunt assessment, but sees country's sound progressing for the better. "I thought he was right on there for a minute. But it's heading into a cool place, with people like [SiriusXM country programmer] John Marks and people branching out. Some of these [program directors] in America are going out on a limb, which it's been a long time since."
Even so, Johnston, along with drummer Neil Mason and steel player Kelby Ray, said they feel no pressure from their label, Big Machine Records, to conform for spins.
"We made our first record ourselves in a basement studio here in Nashville and it got picked up by Big Machine and [label head Scott Borchetta] and they have always supported the way we really sound," Mason said.
"Country music has always had a little rock & roll in it," added Ray. "My first concert was at Starwood [Nashville's defunct amphitheater], seeing Hank Jr. in the mid-Eighties, and that was a rock concert. But that was country music then. We're just a different form of that."
In July, the Cadillac Three will perform at Sonisphere, the U.K. heavy-metal festival headlined by Metallica, and will do so with a new single, "Party Like You." The song is the follow-up to "The South," the band's well-received collaboration with Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line and Mike Eli of Eli Young Band.
"It's faster, a dirty riff. And basically is me finding a reason to call a girl a 'party,'" said Johnston, laughing. "You can take that any way you want to."