Jaren Johnston, Top Country Songwriter And Lead Singer Of Country-Rock Band The Cadillac Three, Talks About His Hit Songs And His Band

The Cadillac Three
Jaren Johnston (center) with The Cadillac Three.
(photo credit: Nick Rau)

Singer/songwriter Jaren Johnston of the country-rock group, The Cadillac Three, is the kind of guy that others envy. Not only is he the lead singer of the ACM-nominated Group of the Year, but he is an award-winning songwriter who has penned several number songs for other country artists. Currently, he has two songs on the charts with Tyler Hubbard’s latest single, “5 Foot 9” and Kip Moore’s “Fire on Wheels,” that he also co-produced.

Impressively, Johnston was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Country Song with “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s (Tim McGraw ft. Faith Hill)” and ACM Awards Song of the Year for “Raise ‘Em Up” (Keith Urban ft. Eric Church). That song, which was written with Tom Douglas & Jeffrey Steele, also topped the charts as did Urban’s “You Gonna Fly.”

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Jaren Johnston, who tells how he wrote (with Tom Douglas & Jeffrey Steele) the #1 country hit “Raise ‘Em Up,” for Keith Urban & Eric Church.

In addition, Johnston was the co-writer on Jake Owen’s hits “Days of Gold,” “Beachin’,” and “American Country Love Song.” On top of this, he has landed cuts with Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Meat Loaf, Loverboy, and more. As a producer, he’s worked with Steven Tyler, Sam Williams, Drake White, Chris Shifflett of the Foo Fighters and Darius Rucker.

With The Cadillac Three—which consists of Johnston, Kelby Ray & Neil Mason—the band has released five albums: The Cadillac Three (2012), Bury Me in My Boots (2016), Legacy (2017), Country Fuzz (2020), and Tobasco and Sweet Tea (2020). They are signed with Big Machine Records.

Jaren Johnston Interview

We are pleased to present this new Q&A interview with Jaren Johnston of The Cadillac Three. He talks about the stories behind his big hits, how he got his start as a songwriter, trying to be the “weird” writer in the room, and the latest with his band.

BC: How did you begin as a songwriter?

Here’s the video of Tyler Hubbard’s new hit “5 Foot 9,” which
was co-written by Jaren Johnston.

Jaren Johnston: I grew up in Nashville, and I got brought up in it. My dad was always in the music business, whether it was playing drums at the Grand Ole Opry or he was a songplugger. I was always around it. I remember him coming home one day and saying, “I got a hold! I got a hold!” Which means you pitched a song and somebody said, “I’m going to hold that. Don’t play that for anybody else, and we’ll see what the artist says.” I remember thinking, “It’s crazy to be that excited about something like that and not even have the song be recorded.” Usually, you get a hold but it usually doesn’t get recorded. It’s one of those things. I remember being completely blown away by that and thinking that was so cool.

I jumped into the touring world of playing drums and running around the country like we all do. Then, I got sick of playing drums and dad was like, “Buddy, if you play drums, you can make a living. If you start writing songs, you can do a lot more than that.” I got into that process of figuring out how to do things, and do it the way that I want to do it. It just started happening, man. I got in the right circles.

BC: That can be quite a learning process, getting to know the right circles.

Johnston: I got my first publishing deal in 2005. I remember being so excited that a man name Glenn Middleworth –he’s still one of my best friends— gave me a publishing deal. It was $35,000 a year to write 10 songs. What the hell?! You’re talking to somebody that writes 250 songs a year. I was like…10 songs? This is a job? This is great. That helped me a lot too.

BC: How has your songwriting grown?

Johnston: I’m probably a lot worse than I was (laughs). If you walk in, know your place in the room. Learn from every co-writer you write with whether it’s something to do or not to do. I’m like a sponge sometimes when I’m writing with a Tom Douglas or Tony Lane, or Hillary Lindsey, or Lori McKenna, whoever it is. If I’m lucky enough to be in the room with them, I soak up a lot of what they’re doing. I think that’s helped me out a lot. I guess I’ve probably grown as a songwriter. I’m definitely still very different and left. I tried to get as weird as I possibly can every time I go in there because I get sick of hearing the same thing all the time on the radio.

Here’s the video of Keith Urban & Eric Church’s hit “Raise ‘Em
Up,” which was co-written by Jaren Johnston.

During Covid, we were writing every day. I moved to Florida in this little beach house, and I was on Zooms every day. I knew it was getting weird when I found myself writing girl, truck, dog. That’s the name of the song (laughs). I was like…this is getting out of hand. You have to step away from it sometimes and reboot.

BC: Where do you see your strength as a songwriter? Melody, lyrics?

Johnston: You’d probably have to ask people I write with that one. The reason I think I’ve had the success that I’ve had is I’m kind of a triple threat. Me and Luke Laird, and Craig Wiseman probably are the first “track guys” in Nashville, but all three of us do lyric and melody too. When you put all those things together and you throw the artist thing on top of that too, me being in The Cadillac Three, it’s an interesting thing to look at. I think that’s why I’ve had as much success, because there’s so many irons in the fire as far as the creative process goes.

BC: How do you divide your time between being the artist in The Cadillac Three and writing songs for other artists?

Johnston: I’m not going to lie to you. It’s exhausting (laughs). On the road it’s a lot of hurry up and wait, right? You’re on the bus or wherever, sitting around waiting for whatever the next thing is. If you use a lot of that time to be creative and work on your other stuff, that’s how I do it because we have a little studio in the back of our bus where I can work. The interesting part is when you throw a five-year-old in the mix and a wife and a bunch of houses and all that stuff. That’s when it gets kind of weird.

BC: Have there been times you’ve written songs that you thought were for The Cadillac Three, and it turned into this big hit for someone else?

Johnston: “Raise ‘Em Up” that I did for Keith Urban & Eric Church, I think that’s the one that I’m usually like, ‘Yeah, wish I would have kept that for Cadillac, right? But those songs are like your babies, and you want your babies to go to a great college and have a great life and see things, and you want people to see them and see how good they are with what they do. If I had kept that for Cadillac, I don’t know if that song would have gone to college and gotten as far as it did. I got to go to the Grammys for that damn thing. I’m not sure that would have happened if we kept it. There’s a couple of them you wish you would have kept them, but I’m glad that the people did them. There was this David Nail song that I did with Tom Douglas called “I’m a Fire” that I always liked, and that one didn’t get the life that I think maybe we could have given it. That’s the other side of it.

Here’s the video of The Cadillac Three’s song, “Get After It.”

BC: What is the story behind “Raise ‘Em Up?”

Johnston: (he sings part of the song). I had [part of the song] going and Tom (Douglas) and Jeff (Steele) came in, and Tom completely jumped into the Townes Van Zandt side. I was like “Holy shit, man; this is great!” It took that little bit of my good ol’ boy verses—when he did that, that was a game changer. That’s when we knew we were onto something. I said, “That’s too good, but we can’t repeat those choruses because it needs to keep growing,” because I wasn’t going to change the chord progression. He said, “Alright,” and then he did the patriotic approach for the second one. My publisher at the time, Abby Adams, came over to my little room at EMI. Sony had just bought them. I played it for her. I said I’m going to send it to Keith (Urban) first. She said, “Oh, my gosh! Do it!” I texted Keith—”we just finished this song. Check it out and see what you think.” He hit me back. “Dude, I want it. Thank you for playing it for me first.”

Keith is Australian. The second verse is all America, America, America. I’m driving in Berry Hill one day in Nashville, and Keith called and said, “Come over. I want you to hear this.”  Then I walked in and thought it was just going to be Keith, and Eric’s there, which was amazing. I was like, “What the hell is Eric Church doing here?” The second verse kicks in. I’ve got a single with my two favorite country stars. It was cool.

BC: How did “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” happen?

Johnston: That’s probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever been involved in. That thing was nominated for Song of the Year and for all those country awards too. That thing is so cool. I’m a huge fan of somebody taking the John Prine approach and winning in a world where it’s all about trucks, and dogs, and girls and front porches, blah, blah, blah. I thought nobody in the world is ever going to cut this song. Sure enough, I sent it to (Kenny) Chesney, and he called me back and said, “Dude, I love this man, but I can’t sing it. There’s too many words in the chorus. I can’t breathe.” I was like, “Alright, man, I get it.” And I wasn’t going to change the song so on to the next country star.

Here’s the video of Tim McGraw & Faith Hill’s hit “Meanwhile
Back At Mama’s,” which was co-written by Jaren Johnston.

We were actually ironically at the “Southern Girl” #1 party and taking a picture with Tim McGraw and Scott Borchetta, and the songwriters. McGraw leans over to me and goes, “Hey, “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”, that is a hit. I’m doing it.” He just whispered into my ear. If you see me in that picture from the #1 party, I got a big ol’ shit-eating grin, because I was like, here we go again!

BC: You wrote 2 #1 hits for Jake Owen, “Days of Gold” and “Beachin’”? Can you talk about these songs?

Johnston: I love both of those. My favorite one I did for Jake, though, was “American Country Love Song” (written with Ross Copperman & Ashley Gorley). That song is so cool. Ashley Gorley had that title and didn’t want to write it, and I said, “American Country Love Song”? How do we not at least try to write that because it’s something that everybody can relate to? At one point in your life you kissed a girl or whatever, that song was playing. “Days of Gold” was fun because my whole life I’ve been trying to recreated Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.” I think that was my best job I’ve done on trying to do that.

BC: Now you’re the writer on the latest solo single from Tyler Hubbard (of Florida Georgia Line), called “5 Foot 9.” Tell me about working on that song.

Johnston: Me and Tyler started our bands around the same time, and we all toured together, so we’ve been friends a long time. He lives right down the street from me, so he’d come over and we’d start writing when he was starting his solo thing. At the time, nobody really knew what it was, ‘cause Tyler writes a lot for outside artists. We were trying to write the best song and see what happens.

I think we all knew that day with Chase McGill and him. We got to the end of that chorus and we looked around the room, and there’s this feeling where everybody kind of knows…”We did it!” (laughs) I didn’t even know Tyler had recorded it, and then I get a call one day. He’s like, “Are you at the house? I’m going to come by and play you something.” He pulls up and plays me ‘5 Foot 9” and it’s this huge recording, and it sounds like a hit single. He said, “I think we’re going to start out with that for my solo career to send to the world.” He’s such a great dude, great songwriter, so I couldn’t be happier than to be on that one with him.

Here’s the video of Jake Owen’s hit “American Country Love Song,”
which was co-written by Jaren Johnston.

BC: You’re also the co-producer and writer on Kip Moore’s new single, “Fire On Wheels.”

Johnston: Kip and I’ve been working about a year and a half on that record. We’re almost done. We’ve tracked I think 16 songs, and that’s the first one to come out. If you listen to it, there ain’t nothing on country radio that sounds like that. I think we’re doing some cool stuff with Kip. He’s very prolific. He actually texted me just now while I’m on the zoom with you, and it’s another song idea. Every morning I can set my clock by it.

BC: What’s the latest with The Cadillac Three?

Johnston: We’ve started a new record. We’re about 7 songs in. We just finished the Miranda Lambert/Little Big Town tour, and we’ve got about a week off because I’m down here at the beach. Then we start back up. It’s festival season, and then we’re headlining in the U.K. in August and September. It’s busy, busy. The new record is going to be a little heavier, extremely swampy. We’re having fun with that. The band’s gotten to the point now where we can make the music that we want to make and not chase anything and that’s pretty fun. That’s what it’s supposed to be all about.

Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].

Here’s the link to The Cadillac Three’s site: https://www.thecadillacthree.com/