Nov 02, 2020, 05:59AM

What America Means to Me

The Cadillac Three's battle for the soul of the nation.

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This election is, as Joe Biden insists, a battle for the soul of the nation. It has each of us asking who we are as Americans. I reached rock bottom qua American just a week ago Thursday as I gazed into the mirror, looking for the nation in my eyes. I was, I saw, gazing back at me blankly and exhaustedly, like Joe on a particularly bad American day. I looked old, bewildered. I realized at that moment that the me in the mirror had forgotten what the very identity of America itself really amounts to.

But the next morning, browsing the new country music on iTunes, my intensely American soul found succor. My faith, if any, was renewed. I realized the true meaning of our creed: our music is a lot better than your music, understand? We're not red states, or blue states, much less the fucking United States of America. We, we are the Cadillac Three. If you're looking to these politicians to tell you the very meaning of you, you're barking up a very feeble tree. For that, you'll need the new album Tabasco and Sweet Tea.

In all sincerity, I’d like to associate American identity—my own or anyone else's—not with our debased political culture, much less our "legal" system, but with our popular arts. The New York Times dates the American founding to 1619, but I might go with 1927, a good year for recordings by the likes of Jimmie Rogers, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Duke Ellington. And one thing about the music: unlike the politics and economics (albeit in the context of those things), it’s marked by openness; it rests on racial and regional unifications that politics has had little success in producing. What we are as Americans, if we’re anything, is a sort of aesthetic synthesis. And where our political rhetoric is badly written, insincere, and often either empty (Dems), ugly (Reps), or both, our music is real. Or it was, up until the decade of autotune.

The Cadillac Three is often termed a "Southern rock" band; the term refers above all to the style of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, which itself combined many elements of American roots music. The Three put out a good album in that vein (Country Fuzz) early this year, then dropped Tabasco and Sweet Tea this fall unexpectedly. I've been calling it "country funk": a mating of Skynyrd and Prince (well, Morris Day and the Time, anyway). I realize that seems unlikely, but it is worked out here into a coherent sound, extremely well-played by an actual power trio (drums, guitar, and lap steel). Above all, it has momentum and even swing, partly induced by the killer actual drums: or in other words it sounds like a rock band playing together rather than a programming achievement.

As the Cadillac Three sing and rap their way through predictable, though fun and clever, lyrics about girls and booze, perhaps seeking airplay in a bro-country world ("It's a long dirt road to the top if you can't turn the radio on"), they fold a half-dozen or more American musical sub-genres into a form we might just call "roots": blues, country, southern rock, metal, disco, golden-era funk (think P-Funk or Ohio Players), and early (circa late-1970s) hip hop. And one thing the record does show you: it makes sense at this point to think of metal, disco, funk,and hip-hop as "roots" styles. Hip-hop's history is about 45 years long, and we're as distant from its beginnings, approximately, as young Eric Clapton was from the birth of the blues. And at least the Cadillac Three's not trying to persuade us of anything. One way this album gave me succor is by not featuring any manipulative rhetoric. They aren't telling me how much I should believe in myself, even on Bridges. They just want to get us bopping along, grinning like fools. They're successful in that.

No race owns any of the fundamental genres of American roots music: each is a complex combination of elements: African (even the scales and rhythms and the style of reception), European (the language and most of the instruments, among many other elements), Caribbean, Latin American. The vocabulary of the blues was as native to Hank Williams as it was to Muddy Waters; they'd both grown up in the Deep South, hearing it since they were toddlers. And if you want to keep your style to your group, or don't want anyone swiping it or expanding it, you'd better not make it publicly available in any form. Once you do, it's liable to blossom in all directions, some of them very delightful.

The Cadillac Three’s career—white boys from Tennessee—has been a bit of a struggle; they've barely scraped the bottom of the country singles charts, despite having recorded for Big Machine for almost a decade, issuing excellent singles all along the way. Meanwhile, they've been dismissed as bro-country doinks; iTunes reviews from traditionalists rant against them as being in the vein of Florida-Georgia Line (with whom they've collaborated), and hence not country. But really, unlike Florida-Georgia Line or dozens of similar acts, they're just trying to get blues-based rock back onto the country station.

Sorry about the white boy part, really, but one thing that white boys can be good for is curation: we're liable to still be working in and developing your styles long after you've gone in a different direction. Not that we should think of Jaren Johnson (guitar and lead vocals), Kelby Ray (slide guitar and bass), and Neil Mason (drums), as running a museum; they push all these elements together on Tabasco and Sweet Tea into a completely coherent new thing, a new genre of Americana.

At any rate, 11 songs, and not a clunker among them: each of them focused on a killer guitar riff, each building on a syncopated funk beat, some of them paying direct homage to Nile Rogers (a Chic-like guitar strum is the through theme), or Roger Troutman (on "Money Ain't Shit"), or Alice Cooper, or the Sugar Hill Gang: "Keeping it heavy; keeping it real. Best band in country, you best believe. You ain't never seen nothin'like the Cadillac Three." It's true. Or maybe we've heard it all before, just not in this combination. And I appreciate them writing my personal national anthem, Crispy: "I got a crispy, like a fresh bag of Lay's potatoes."

After this transformative experience, I looked at the mirror again this morning. It wasn't Biden staring back at me. Tabasco and Sweet Tea was playing, so my environment was pervaded by very delightful, extremely American sound waves. My head was bobbing, alright? I looked as refreshed and ready as Bob Dole in 2005, after a dose of Viagra. I seemed to have a little smile on my face. This beautiful shit is going to get me through election night.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell



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