For 15 years, the Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston, Kelby Ray and Neil Mason have been making music together. The Tennessee natives’ distinct brand of country combines the genre’s vivid storytelling (“Back Home,” “Labels”) with ear-grabbing rock riffs (“The Jam,” “Hard Out Here For a Country Boy”) and unmistakable soul (“Slow Rollin’,” “Dirt Road Nights”).
Fittingly, the trio dub their genre-spanning music “country fuzz” — which also happens to be the title of their fourth studio album, out today (Feb. 7), Big Machine Records.
“We got sick of being called Southern rock or too rock for country,” frontman Johnston tells Billboard of the labels the band has been given in the past. “So, we gave everybody something to call us that we actually thought was cool and made sense.”
Johnston is seated on a stool at a high-top table alongside his bandmates at the dimly lit Nashville dive bar Mickey’s Tavern. Over beers, TC3 detail how these often preconceived labels have hurt their band and others. This concept is discussed throughout Country Fuzz’s standout track “Labels,” which explains the detriments labels can have for individuals as well as those in relationships.
“Labels” was penned by TC3 drummer Neil Mason, Corey Crowder (Chris Young’s “I’m Comin’ Over,” “Think of You”) and Luke Dick (Miranda Lambert’s “Bluebird,” Dierks Bentley’s “Burning Man”). Johnston says he was blown away when his bandmate first played the song for him on the back of the bus one night. He adds that the tune’s message helped the band with the decision to name the album Country Fuzz.
“There's moments where you don't necessarily feel like you fit in or you feel like you're being pegged to something that you're not,” Mason says of the track, which he wrote three years ago. “It's the idea that if there's going to be a label, let it be something you would call yourself. Let it be your own unique thing. Let it be your vibe, your brand, your cool. That's what Luke is, that's what me and Corey are trying to be in our own lives. It's what the band is trying to be.
“I think at the core of that song, the thought is even though you might be influenced by that, or you might do this, or you might do that — everybody's different. Everybody's unique and that's OK. We just tried to come up with scenarios, visual images, in those verses that spoke to that.”
A bold story song, “Labels” has the Cadillac Three shining a light on characters not often portrayed in today’s country music: a loner, a stoner, a high school boy hiding his sexuality. In the second verse, they sing, “Prom queen’s got a nine month secret/ He’s got a boyfriend, but he prays to Jesus/ It’s gettin’ harder to hide so they hit the lights/ So nobody can see ’em.”
It’s a verse Mason is especially proud of, and says he and his collaborators had a specific discussion about when making the decision that this was a topic they were going to write about. “True thing, ain’t nobody going to cut that,” Johnston says, asserting that country radio won’t play the song because of the subject matter. “They don’t play any of our songs either… You’re making a decision there. It’s either going to be us or Brothers Osborne singing ‘Labels’].”
For the Cadillac Three, radio success has been elusive. Their first three singles in the U.S. — “The South,” “Party Like You” and “White Lighting” — saw moderate airplay, peaking at No. 33, 43 and 38 respectively on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in 2013, 2014 and 2015. In Europe, however, the trio receive more recognition, often with six or seven songs from each album making their way to airwaves. Carving their own lane when it comes to country music overseas, TC3’s international audience is often double that of their U.S gigs. While stateside they average 1,000-capacity venues, when international they play for typically 2,000+ rooms.
“Radio overseas, they go through a lot more songs, so you're not stuck on just one single,” lap steel player Kelby Ray says. “The last couple of albums we've put out, they've played a handful of songs off the album on the radio. So it’s cool to not have to worry about that over there. Here, we're just going to release] what we think is the best song].”
Adds Mason, “Being on a fourth album, people know what the Cadillac Three is. At some point, as we continue to grow, radio will either embrace that or they won’t. And if they don't, we're doing all right. And if they do, we will or won't be doing all right.”
The Cadillac Three have averaged four trips overseas a year for the past five years, and the trio were recognized for promoting country music outside of the U.S. by the Country Music Association in 2019 when nominated for the international artist achievement award. While they lost the prize to Kacey Musgraves, TC3 says they appreciated the acknowledgement.
“At our core, we're a touring band,” Mason says. “Getting recognized on that level is a special thing, because we really do put in the hours. To get acknowledged — especially on the international side — says that somebody is taking notice that the thing has grown, and it is building. And that's something that we're really proud of. The thing that makes us feel whole, is when] the music and the band is connecting with people.”
The Cadillac Three say their overseas audience listens intently to the entire album of work they put out and always know the deep cuts. Their fervor for the band’s music pushes TC3 to show up and give the same energy to the audience that they feel from them on the stage.
“They're appreciating the fact that we're making the journey over there and we're putting in the time and the effort and, like Kelby said, we're able to get radio over there, it moves quicker,” Mason says. “So they're also becoming more familiar with songs on the record in a quicker manner than what would happen over here if we had radio.”
TC3 rely on touring more than airplay in the U.S. to get their music out to fans, and they continue to make the type of music that challenges themselves as a band. By creating music that they can stand behind, in return they hope that their U.S. fans will also get behind Country Fuzz. “When you think about songs that you love, you think, ‘Will other people love them too?’ We're our harshest critics when it comes to songs. It took us two-and-a-half years to make this record. We were really challenging each other,” Johnston says.
Country Fuzz includes the first outside song the Cadillac Three have ever recorded. “Back Home,” written by James McNair, Chris Tompkins and Craig Wiseman, is a song that Johnston instantly connected with the first time McNair played it for him. “The lyric was perfect,” he says. “It sounds like somebody wrote this for me, but I didn't have to write it.”
The only challenge was recording the track to make it sound like a song they wrote in the studio since they didn’t create the demo themselves. Country Fuzz includes 15 additional tracks of the band’s own writing catalog with heartfelt album closer “Long After Last Call,” which Johnston wrote by himself six years ago. Album highlights include feel-good barnburner “Hard Out Here For a Country Boy,” featuring Chris Janson and Travis Tritt, and rollicking arena anthem “The Jam,” which was almost cut by Lady Antebellum and Florida Georgia Line.
Johnston wrote the latter with Crowder, McNair and FGL’s Brian Kelley, and laughs as he recalls the co-write. “I like to think in my mind Brian Kelley, James McNair and Corey Crowder were all sitting there and going, ‘We’re writing this one for Cadillac,’" he says. "But I have a feeling it didn’t go that way.’”
While music fans overseas have latched onto the Cadillac Three, with the trio swiftly learning that they’re becoming the favorite band to many during their sold-out shows, they say they’re beginning to see a swift change in their U.S. shows.
“We've also started to see it happen here, too — I think it's a word of mouth thing obviously,” Johnston says. “We're making music, we're making records and we're touring and we're doing all this to be somebody's favorite band. And I feel like we're doing a really good job at that. Whatever the level is, wherever we are, there's always people there that we’re their favorite band.
“Growing up as a kid wanting to do this, that's pretty much all you can ask for. You just want that thing to get as big as it can possibly get. You want to be everybody's favorite band. We're seeing it happen in the States as well as over there too now — and it's pretty fun because we've been working at it for a long time.”
Listen to Country Fuzz below.