The Black Cadillacs: The Myth of Making it in Today’s Music Scene

Sometime during the winter of 2011-2012, my bandmate and best friend, David Hutcheson, had been rambling on about “his boy” Adam (a childhood friend from Rocky Mount, NC who he’d kept up with) and the “fuckin’ badass” rock band he drummed with in Knoxville, TN called The Black Cadillacs. At the time, I envied the idea that these guys were young and able to put together tours with little help, and that they’d written and recorded a full album in studio. David had moved to New York City just a couple months earlier in order to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at Hunter College, and had left me basically alone in Chapel Hill with our own songs, recorded but unreleased, and no band to play them with. I was sharing an un-insulated A-frame cabin with just windows for A/C and a wood stove for heat. All the while working on a horse farm to pay rent; trying to cope with having earned a useless Bachelor’s degree in Dramatic Art, and wishing I’d spent time in academia gaining a more valuable skill. Shoveling horse shit and shivering next to a wood stove for a season or two built character in a way that I’d never dealt with before. I wanted what I dreamed The Black Cadillacs had. A life untethered and on the road, writing music and bestowing it upon the world, sleeping on floors and couches, but happy to be out there living, not a simple wage slave grinding out the day-to-day.The Black Cadillacs were on probably their third tour (bandsintown.com doesn’t even list this show in their records), and hadn’t slept in beds or showered in a week. David called me up and asked if I could house them when they played The Cave – , pretty much the smallest venue in town – that weekend. I mostly remember hearing the sighs of relief when they finally found my hobbit hole, realized they all had soft surfaces to sleep on and a hot shower, and at no cost. Other than that, I remember hearing lead singer Will Horton play an idea for a new song on our out-of-tune upright piano, and spending the wee hours of the morning with drummer Adam Bonomo and bassist Phil Anderson getting real on some Sega Genesis. Their show had been a bust, with only a handful of bar regulars in attendance, but it seemed to them that my cabin was a little slice of paradise.

Chapel Hill winters makes enemies of even the best band mates.

Chapel Hill winters makes enemies of even the best band mates.

Since that fateful evening, The Black Cadillacs, with their unique blend of Soulful Blues and Indie Rock have gone through several management agencies, released two full length LPs, recorded sessions for Daytrotter and OurVinyl, performed at SXSW and Bonaroo, sold out shows from New York City to Chicago, toured Europe, been written up in major music publications like Paste Magazine and American Songwriter, received placement in major network TV shows and feature films, and averaged over 100 shows a year. Their social media presence hosts a combination of nearly 10,000 followers. Their sound has matured and evolved (with a new EP out just this last week), but never strayed from its blues rock roots, and over five years together, they’ve been able to maintain the same line-up.

The Black Cadillacs are the very definition of what it means to be a hard-working, professional Indie-Rock band in today’s music scene. They’ve made it.

But, “making it” is no longer a term that carries the same clout it used to, and living on the road is a faulty, unsustainable lifestyle at best.
Just a couple weeks ago, Will Horton, the straightforward and warm-hearted lead singer for the Cadillacs, texted to alert me that they were coming down that week for a show at the newly created Cat’s Cradle Backroom in Carrboro. The Black Cadillacs track record in my town hasn’t progressed much since that first evening at The Cave. Over four visits they’ve suffered flat tires, competed with a free music festival going on across town (the venue they were billed at refused to allow the show to be free), and an opening act that didn’t even show up. When Will messaged me, there were two inches of February ice and snow on the ground in NC. Everything had shut down. Schools, work, shows – all cancelled.

Free standing space.

Free standing space. The PA is steam powered.

I quickly Googled their tour schedule to see where they were coming from/going to, only to discover that this show was going to be the first in a week-long string of shows along with Nashville synth-heavies Sol Cat. They were going to haul-ass all the way from Tennessee to Chapel Hill only to come back to Asheville, NC the next night. All told it would be a ten-hour sojourn to play a show in a frozen town where they’d drawn only thirty people every visit, friends and loyal supporters included. I warned them about the weather, dreading another failed venture, but they decided to come anyway.

I had no idea what to expect that evening, knowing only that the Cadillacs/Sol Cat show was competing with teen-popstar-turned-bankrupt-wannabe Aaron Carter in the Cat’s Cradle Main Room. At the very least, if no one came, we’d be able to laugh about that. To my surprise, I arrived to a room of sixty people on the coldest night of the year. The guys from the Cadillacs were ecstatic, and as I watched them perform, I noticed a slew of twentysomething bros mouthing the lyrics and bouncing with glee. Somehow, The Black Cadillacs had found a dedicated following in Chapel Hill, seemingly out of nowhere. They played a triple encore that night. Their soundman, Cradle legend Andy Young, leaned over to me and said “I don’t give a shit man, these guys are fucking awesome, and I get paid by the hour.”

After the set, I got the chance to catch up with the guys, and marvel at the success of the night. Will gave me a bear hug and told me, “Yea man, management told us we had fifty presales, so whether or not anybody showed up to the show, we had our bases covered. We had to come.”

I did some numbers in my head. Fifty pre-sales at ten bucks a pop, two bands plus their booking agents, the venue’s cut, and a ten hour drive between shows. As far as money went, this was a bust.

John Phillips, one of the Cadillacs’ two guitarists, and the band’s humble realist, confirmed my arithmetic, “This night was a lot of fun, but ain’t nobody gettin’ paid in this room. We’ve got five people back home who we owe for taking care of us. We’re just glad we got to play for a crowd.” And that seems to be the gist of what it means to be a successful touring band in today’s competitive over-saturated music scene. If you have a crowd, play for them. Give them everything you can whether they’re 3 people or 3000.

John mused to me about how it feels to be “five white dudes rolling around in a van, playing music”, and after five years together, the ongoing existential crisis of creating new music that everyone is satisfied with – that evolves while staying true.

The Cadillac's van. Not an actual Cadillac.

The Cadillac’s van. Not an actual Cadillac.

The Black Cadillacs, as a live act, pack a dynamic and distorted punch in stereo, albeit with a sound heard before. This isn’t to say that they don’t bring anything unique to the table, but that their show is accessible to almost any casual Rock listener. If you dig on Sabbath, Zeppelin, The Black Keys, or even early Radiohead, it’s easy to hook into what the Cadillacs have going: rhythmic, soulful, original, rock (keyword: ROCK). They do it as well or better than any act currently on the circuit, and people beyond Knoxville are starting to catch on. But as the shows pick up steam and the crowds get bigger, the band seems to be finding less time and energy to work on composing, improving, and growing together. And nobody gets younger. As the years pass and the bandmates find themselves cresting thirty, the idea of spending three weeks on the road becomes less and less desirable, but more and more necessary. With the constant stress of shows, press and travel, it’s difficult to focus on simply making good music with good people. At the end of the road, when the tour is over and the bills have to be paid, all of these guys work part-time jobs in Knoxville, and most of them can’t even afford health insurance.

The Black Cadillacs just put out a new self-titled EP last week through Red Bull Sound Select, and the band seemed to be, at best, lukewarm to the release. But the EP itself is keenly focused and showcases their sound as professionally and genuinely as ever. Horton’s lyrics and the overall arrangements have matured, reflecting on what it is to be a band on the run, and how that affects both the folks on the road and the loved ones waiting at home. The Cadillacs are discovering firsthand the inspiration for a long and rich history of songwriting that addresses road-weariness, from The Band to Sleater-Kinney. In the opening track, “Fracture”, Horton bursts with frustration,all this screaming/and all this moving around/ has got me thinking/ that I’m not coming down and all its gonna take is/to change what you believe in/ in time you’ll understand what this process is all about. That process is rooted in the music industry’s overwhelming need to push bands outward, to make them sellable live acts (because nobody makes money selling records anymore) and to enforce a lifestyle that offers no stability whatsoever. Being a road warrior isn’t a job (it certainly doesn’t pay), it’s a way of life that gradually distorts and bends you, eventually to the point that it’s hard to look back and see exactly where you came from, or where you’re going. Being a musician is no escape from the capitalist rat race. Maybe the parties are better, but the grind of it feels much the same as any low income job, exhausting of time and energy, and slow to progress .
The industry has shifted permanently. Touring has moved from privilege to necessity. Music scenes in every town across the country and the world are built around small, local venues that bring talented touring acts to a local crowd. The internet gives us all access to the music of so many professional touring bands like The Black Cadillacs, but doesn’t make it any easier for them to access us. Certainly, the internet is a venue all to itself, and with nearly 10,000 followers the Cadillacs are doing well. But to share their live show with all 10,000 of them, and expand further, means travelling far and wide to spread out audiences, selling tickets for less, and cutting in more marketing and industry people than ever before. It took more luck to “make it” in the days of Zeppelin and Sabbath. But now, “making it”, while still involving a combination of talent and luck, is more than ever a labor of love. In the end, it will be up to the five hard-working, passionate fellas from Tennessee who rallied around an idea together to decide if that idea is worth sustaining, agree on what they want from it, and make more music happen. I know I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground in hopes they do.

-Jeb

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