It seemed almost predestined Jaren Johnston, singer and guitarist for Nashville trio The Cadillac Three, would one day pursue a career in country music.

It seemed almost predestined Jaren Johnston, singer and guitarist for Nashville trio The Cadillac Three, would one day pursue a career in country music.

Growing up, the musician had free reign of the Grand Ole Opry (his father, drummer Jerry Ray Johnston, was a fixture on the series), and his childhood memories include exchanges with everyone from old timers like Don Williams to then up-and-comers like Garth Brooks, who once greeted the youngster by signing his autograph book post-show, a headset microphone still affixed to his dome.

“Then there was the time when I got kicked out of Porter Wagoner's dressing room,” said Johnston, who joins bandmates Neil Mason (drums) and Kelby Ray (bass) for a Bluestone concert on Thursday, Feb. 12, reached at home in Nashville in late January. “I was just a kid, so my dad would be like, ‘Hey, hang back in here.’ I was sitting in the dressing room and Porter got pissed and said, ‘Who the hell are you? Get the hell out of here!’ After the show dad went and chewed Porter's ass pretty good because he was so mad he did that to me.”

As a teenager, however, Johnston kept the music of his youth at arm’s length, instead gravitating toward the loud, abrasive guitar-rock championed by artists like Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine and Dead Kennedys, explaining, “I was a young kid trying to figure out who he was.” On his 13th birthday, the singer received a pair of guitars: an acoustic Ephiphone and a pink Kramer electric. And while he learned how to play on the former, there was never a doubt the latter was nearer and dearer to his teenage heart.

The frontman’s earliest bands, in turn, tended to blur the lines between the country he absorbed as a child and the rowdier music he favored as a teen, resulting in a sound he termed “hillbilly indie-punk.” By the time he launched Bang Bang Bang (later renamed American Bang after inking a deal with Warner Bros. in 2006), a quartet that counted current bandmates Mason and Ray among its ranks, he’d moved closer to a more straightforward Southern rock sound that owed a heavy debt to Lynyrd Skynrd and its ilk.

With Cadillac Three, which rose from the ashes of American Bang in early 2011, Johnston has returned closer to his countrified roots, much like the prodigal son of biblical times. A bulk of the trio’s ever-expanding catalog would sound comfortably at home on modern country radio (regional pride anthem “The South,” for one, features guest appearances from Dierks Bentley and Florida Georgia Line and sounds tailored to blast at SEC tailgates), though a handful of songs walk quieter byways, including “White Lightning,” an acoustic number built around the singer’s warm, conversational drawl.

Additionally, Johnston has developed into an in-demand country songwriter, penning tunes for everyone from Tim McGraw (“Southern Girl”) to Keith Urban (“You Gonna Fly”) — a side career that has become increasingly difficult to navigate as the band’s profile has continued to grow.

“That does get sticky, especially now that we have the label involved (in February ’13 Cadillac signed with Big Machine, home to Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts, among others),” Johnston said. “They'll hear songs that their other artists are cutting … and be like, ‘Wait, is this Jaren singing the demo? Why the hell isn't Cadillac doing this?’”

While a handful of the band’s songs do peddle a fantasy familiar to fans of modern country, packing in references to pretty women, whiskey and reckless weekend nights on the town, Johnston expressed a desire to offer listeners more than warmed-over bro-country platitudes.

“There's a place for fun country songs. Everybody had those all the way back to Hank, Willie and even Kristofferson,” he said. “Still, how many times can you say ‘sippin’ on something’ before it becomes so redundant you want to shoot somebody? That’s why we’ve got something like ‘Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,’ which was really just me writing a folk song about a dude who wanted to get back home to his mom's porch. I think that is me digging a little deeper for that song. Every musician wants to grow.”

Though the singer is undoubtedly referring to artistic development — he stressed a need to push into new frontiers as a songwriter rather than settling into a role as a factory farm “just churning out shit because you know someone will say yes” — he could have just as easily been speaking about Cadillac Three’s public profile, which has risen to such heights that the band was even invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry last October.

“I remember saying, ‘I feel like I'm on the moon. I feel like Neil Armstrong right now,’” said Johnston of the long-cooking homecoming. “You wait your whole life to get in the center of that circle, and then you're standing there looking out at the Opry and it's like ‘Shoot, this is actually happening.’ It was definitely one of those bucket list moments, man.”

Photo credit: Jillian J