The Cadillac Three have just played another sweaty set of their brand of country meets Southern grunge at Fort Lauderdale’s Tortuga Music Festival and are chilling out on their bus. Gone are the requisite boots and jeans that make up their stage wear, replaced by basketball shorts and sneakers. Singer-guitarist and hit songwriter Jaren Johnston dances over to the stereo and presses play on the trio’s new single “White Lightning.” Released to iTunes today, it’s a smoldering ballad, written by Johnston about how quickly he fell for his wife.
But “White Lightning” is no sappy love song. With lyrics like “faster than the Duke boys jumping that hillside” and “faster than Number Three breaking every record,” it’s an unflinching look at love through the eyes of a Southern boy. And audiences at the Cadillac Three’s shows have been eating it up.
“We’ve been playing it live for two and a half years,” says Johnston. “It’s the most real response that we get from crowds. For a song that wasn’t [available] to buy, every kid sings every word in the clubs.”
Even overseas. Earlier this spring, the Cadillac Three played a week of sold-out shows in the U.K. “Doesn’t matter where we are. That’s one of the reasons we’re releasing it,” says lap-steel player Kelby Ray, who with drummer Neil Mason round out the band. As such, anticipation for the song is high, even if a ballad may be an unconventional choice for the hard-rocking, long-haired TC3, a group that draws as much from Mötley Crüe as they do from Waylon Jennings.
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“We’ve heard that putting out ballads in the summer is a really successful enterprise, so we figured we’d give that a shot,” deadpans Mason.
Says Johnston: “We’re trying to go against the grain here, buddy.”
“As per usual for us,” adds Ray.
“We try to take the high road on that one and do what we do,” continues Johnston on the song’s chances at radio. “If they play it, they play it. If not, what are you going to do? You can’t force that hand. But I think eventually country radio will come.”
“White Lightning” may be more capable of striking at radio than Johnston gives it credit. At a format-friendly two minutes and 56 seconds and a guitar break that just screams summer, it’s a compact bit of ear candy. And it’ll anchor the band’s set when they hit the road on their summer tour.
Still, “White Lightning” wasn’t the first choice of their label, Big Machine Records. “There were a couple other songs in the running. We kind of fought for it. But we’re the ones out here on the front lines and we were seeing what was happening,” says Johnston, who believes fans have been connecting with the tune live because of its straightforward imagery-rich lyrics.
“I sat down and wrote a real song, kind of on accident, drinking too much wine, trying to talk about my wife. Everybody wants to feel that, have that feeling, where it happens so fast. It’s the old saying of love at first sight,” he says. “These days, it’s so easy to fake it. And kids see through that. This song is very real and from the heart.”
Despite Johnston’s track record of writing ubiquitous hits like Jake Owen’s “Beachin'” and Keith Urban’s “Raise ‘Em Up,” his own band’s sound is more in-your-face. But he, Mason and Ray believe country fans are ready to dig deeper and accept the format’s sub-genres.
“Country music is bigger than just four dudes. It’s bigger than Luke and Jason and FGL,” says Johnston of his contemporaries Bryan, Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. “I don’t mean that as any disrespect to them. I love those guys, they’re all friends of ours and that’s great shit. I’m just saying the genre has always been bigger than that.”
Currently wrapping up their new album, the Cadillac Three will perform tomorrow night in Arkansas with Lee Brice before heading to California for this weekend’s Stagecoach Music Festival.