There’s a Bruce Springsteen story (and I’m pretty sure this one is actually true): It’s 1979 and the Boss introduces himself to punk pioneers the Ramones. Stunned at Springsteen’s profession of fandom, they nervously ask him to pen them a song.
Bruce gets to work and soon after plays his manager Jon Landau what he’s come up with. Hearing the tune, Landau lays down the law – no more giving away hit songs to other artists. The Pointer Sisters, Manfred Mann and Patti Smith had been the beneficiaries in the recent past. Springsteen kept the song, and a year later, ‘Hungry Heart’ became his biggest single to date.
I’m reminded of the story when Cadillac Three frontman Jaren Johnston tells me about the calls he’s been getting from their “label guy” – industry mogul and sometime American Idol co-star Scott Borchetta. A key figure in Taylor Swift’s rise, Borchetta now commands a roster of labels that now includes stars from Tim McGraw to Florida Georgia Line.
“He’ll hear something on the radio that we wrote,” says Jaren. “He’ll call me up and go ‘Jaren? It’s Scott. Um… I just heard this song on the radio and… why didn’t I hear it before?'”
The song on the radio might have been recordings by Kenny Chesney, Jake Owen, Sara Evans or Dierks Bentley. Or even our own Keith Urban, whose hit duet with Eric Church, ‘Raise ‘Em Up’, was co-written by Jaren.
“That’s something we’ve become more cautious of, I think,” Jaren explains of his habit of letting his most commercial songs end up on other people’s records. “Earlier in the band, we were just giving away whatever, because there was one topic that we sing about - and that was whiskey and fighting and stuff like that.
Raise Em Up is a good example, the Keith Urban and Eric Church song. Two years ago when I wrote that, I gave it to Keith immediately because I didn’t think that it was something I would sing. I didn’t feel comfortable with it, and I didn’t think we were that band yet. Now looking back, I wish we’d kept that, because it would’ve been a hit on this new record. We are that band now, we could do that.”
It’s emblematic of the evolution of the trio to a less narrow focus, both musically and lyrically. Jaren, drummer Neil Mason and multi-instrumentalist Kelby Ray (“I play everything else”) were childhood friends who grew up on Nirvana, Tom Petty and ZZ Top, as well as a steady diet of Nashville country - they are one of the few Music City artists who actually grew up there). Their catalogue has been dominated by screaming guitars and rowdy tales of southern living.
“Now we definitely run songs, when any of us write them, through our filter to be like 'Are we sure we don’t want to cut this?’ and we’ve ended up getting some great songs out of that.
White Lightning is a song I played for Neil, probably three years ago now. I thought it was really too soft for us. At the time our stuff was all riffs and 'Yeah!’ and trying to be that band and keep our 'cool’. So I played White Lightning for Neil and was going 'Is this too far this way, or too far that way?’ and he was like 'Dude, I love that. Don’t give that one away’.
The Band Perry had put it on hold and they were going to do it, but they wanted me to write a chorus for it. I told them I didn’t want to rewrite it. So we ended up doing it as a band. When we did that, we opened a door within ourselves to be like hey, we don’t need to pigeonhole ourselves into this heavy, riffy thing. Let’s just be the best band and cut the best songs we come up with.
I think that was a time when we really realised we could be that band.”
The band credits ‘White Lightning’ as the key to shifting them in a more diverse direction for their new album, and getting them over their hangups about maintaining the purity of their sound.
“We want to be that band, we want to have hits. So it’s definitely something we’re thinking about more than we used to.”
The three-piece seem to be handling well the balance of clear-eyed consideration of commercial realities with the free-wheeling whiskey-fuelled camaraderie that makes them so appealing.
Kelby throws a dig in at Jaren’s status as the only beardless member of the band.
“Well I met this girl on the side of the road this morning. His name was Jaren…”
For most of the international stars at this year’s CMC Rocks QLD festival, getting to perform to new fans on the opposite side of the world was the biggest milestone they achieved down under. But for Kelby, the most memorable part of the trip is likely to be getting engaged the morning before their main stage set.
“I kind of had a plan to do it while I was down here, and kind of just stumbled into it this morning. Figured Australia was the place to do it, so Queensland, yeah! It’s going to be a fun rest of the trip.”
I suggest that they’ll have to come back next year, for an Aussie wedding.
“Sounds great, let’s do it.”
Now that he’ll be keeping all the hits for the band, I ask Jaren about his songwriting techniques – maybe I could pick up some pointers and take his place as the writer who gives his #1s away.
“Naming states and bringing Tom Petty or Billy Gibbons into [the lyrics] is my trick. There you go kids, you want to know how to do it, do that.”
Sounds simple enough. Look out for my hit song ‘Petty-sylvania’ on Dierks Bentley’s new record later this year.