The Cadillac Three release their third studio album Legacy today. It's a daring title for the Nashville trio, who despite being a popular live act – especially in the U.K. – haven't had much radio success. The irony, of course, is that TC3 singer-guitarist Jaren Johnston has written many of the radio hits for other artists.
But Legacy rings true for Johnston, lap-steel player Kelby Ray and drummer Neil Mason: the members have been friends since high school, write all of their own songs and music, and will headline their hometown's most historic venue, the Ryman Auditorium, on August 31st.
We sat down with the band to talk about the new album and how they're gearing up for their biggest year to date.
Legacy sounds like a more mature Cadillac Three. The band went through some life changes, like kids and marriage.
Jaren Johnston: It accidentally happened. We were making the record and those things happened. So you throw in a song like "Legacy' and it takes over part of what your mindset is.
Kelby Ray: It was natural too. We're on our third record.
Neil Mason: It happened to be a year where a lot happened.
"Legacy" really speaks to the band's longevity, but also has a personal double meaning.
Johnston: It's the first time we've held back a song that normally we would have pitched to somebody else. Because it was special and it fit the timing of our lives. It's a neat thing to see. It means we're changing a little bit. And it also means that we think we can be "that band." We think we can be as big as the people who we're usually giving these songs away to.
How do you decide which songs to keep and which to give away?
Johnston: It's obvious a lot of time, if it's our song.
Mason: I have noticed – not that other artists don't sing songs about their own life but now that we're three records in, we really sing about our own lives. We don't actually sing many songs that…
Johnston: We don't really give a shit about anybody else. Like, why would we sing about Dierks? You know what I mean. [Laughs]
Mason: We're writing all the songs, but I guess there are not a lot of fictitious stories in our songs.
Is that real-life approach what connects you to your fan base?
Ray: The honesty of it for sure.
Johnston: Yeah, they see three guys going against the grain, doing it their way and are blue collar. They're going, "Those guys are doing this, and they've kept it the same way and are not catering to adding a bunch of dudes to the band and playing to tracks and cutting outside songs." You can see that. The real fans are saying, "That's why we love them. That's why we love the Cadillac Three. It's a real band. They're putting out records and they're playing 300 shows a year all over the world. And that's the dream. A lot of our fans grew up wanting to be musicians and they're living that out through us maybe.
Ray: We had a lot of friends in high school that were doing it back in the day and we're the only ones who are still doing it.
Mason: There's a lot of dudes and girls with long hair out there.
What does the album title mean to the band, a group that hasn't had much radio success but has been doing incredibly well on the road?
Johnston: "Legacy" to me is a bold leap for this band, and for me as a singer, where I'm feeling comfortable singing about certain things that may be going on in my life. But this record being called that… Look at our first few records. The first we made in a week, stumbled into a sound and had no idea what we were doing. The second record we spent four years doing, and it was ridiculous. It should never have taken that long. This one, we did in a year and cut it in a week. This record shows a couple different sides to us and still gives the fans what they've always loved from us. It's doing it our way, but growing and not being afraid to take chances or steps.
Ray: We went to high school three blocks away from the Ryman, and now we're headlining there. With all of that coming together, and being friends since then, why not call it Legacy?
Johnston: We're three records deep, headlining the Ryman and playing sold-out shows all over the world – we've earned the right to call it Legacy, whether we're on the radio or not.
The album's lead single "Dang If We Didn't" sounds like a radio hit, but doesn't lose any of the Cadillac Three's edge. Was that intentional?
Johnston: We went in and cut it the rock & roll way or the country & western way, however you want to look at it. When we were listening back to it though, we thought, "Damn, this could be a big radio hit, on accident." That's the best point you want to be in, where you don't change anything you're doing: you're recording the same way, playing the same way, cutting the things you felt strongly about … and it lucks into a situation where this can be damn hit, so let's give it to radio. And honestly, the song is so fun to play live. It's three chords, like ZZ Top and the Stones, when they were doing "Honky Tonk Woman."
Like the cliché goes: you guys are huge overseas. How does that success translate here in the U.S.?
Johnston: When bands get big over there, kids talk over here. It started fueling what happened over here, almost like the States had to start playing catch-up. We headlined our own tour this year and had no idea what to expect and were blown away by the support all over the country. So it's amazing what Europe has done for us.
Ray: We played Download Festival outside of Birmingham, England, this summer, comparable to Bonnaroo. There was 100,000 people there and we played to almost that many. Main stage. Opening for Aerosmith. That's the kind of thing we're doing over there. It's working.
Jaren, you reference Sturgill Simson in the Legacy song "Tennessee." Is he an influence?
Johnston: I was listening to his new album quite a bit and I was like, "Jesus, this is a great record." Our "Tennessee" song is me explaining that when I get home, my wife gets dressed up, we put on music, we get the wine out, the beer, whiskey or whatever and I say, "Put on the Sturgill." He's making great damn records.
I don't just put anybody's name in a song. In [the Legacy track] "Hank and Jesus," we built the story around it. Kelby grew up on Hank and I grew up Southern Baptist. My mom was a very big part of the church, playing the organ and I was front row, singing church hymns. Kelby's first show was Bocephus. So the Sturgill thing, I genuinely dug the shit he was putting out that day. And so I put it in there. You know why? Cause I can, cause I wrote it. [Laughs]