Brad Shultz of Cage The Elephant doesn't have the Southern accent you would expect from someone native to Kentucky. He's eager for the tour to reach Louisville, which is two hours north of Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Shultz grew up. His feelings toward his hometown seem to have mellowed in the months since a candid interview with Rolling Stone. The article painted a bleak picture of the midsize city.
"Bowling Green is an interesting town," he states diplomatically. "In some ways, it's the best place to raise your family."
Shultz is quick to remind me the college town has its share of problems. It has an opioid epidemic and a high crime rate for a town with a population around 65,000 people. I wonder why he is telling me this. I never once asked why he and his bandmate and brother Matthew felt the need to, as he puts it, "escape."
The story makes for a compelling narrative. The band, whose lineup also includes drummer Jared Champion and Daniel Tichenor on bass (Lincoln Parish left the group to pursue a producing career), was playing a dirty hybrid of British Invasion and hip-hop on festival stages eight years ago. Their self-titled debut yielded the inescapable hit "Ain't No Rest For The Wicked." When your band is trying to be seen as more than one-hit wonders, it's good to have a compelling backstory to give your image dimension.
Shultz seems defensive whenever I try to talk about anything other than Kentucky. According to an article on the local Bowling Green arts website The Amplifier, the Shultz parents began raising them in a religious commune. When I ask Shultz if religion played a part in influencing their band's songwriting, he says they were never trying to go "against that grain," only to return to his story of living a somewhat-sheltered existence in the Bible Belt.
Shultz claims their fourth studio release, Tell Me I’m Pretty, strives for something honest and authentic. The track "Sweetie Little Jean" dramatizes the 1996 search for 7-year-old Morgan Violi. Shultz says she was close to his family. "Has melancholy taken you for good/You know that I would save you if I could/Watched your laughter turn to tears/Then you vanished in thin air," Matt Shultz cries on the tragic track. Brad refers to this as the moment in their lives when they left their innocence behind.
"It shaped certain parts of who we are," Shultz says.
Tell Me I’m Pretty was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. "Mess Around," the album's first single, wouldn't feel out of place on one of the Black Keys' albums. Shultz maintains that Auerbach's handiwork doesn't overshadow the album, claiming he helped the band learn, grow, and push forward.
"[Auerbach] showed us you didn't have to put every idea in a track to make it better," Shultz says.
The Shultz brothers have kept coming back to Bowling Green in the years since they hit it big. Matt Shultz married aspiring French actress Juliette Buchs in a civil ceremony at the local county courthouse two years ago. They also helped their father, also named Brad, record an album of spiritual pop songs.
"My dad always wrote about something that meant something," Shultz says. "It's ingrained in us."
You can take the musicians out of Bowling Green, but you can't take Bowling Green out of the musician.
Cage the Elephant is scheduled to play Gila River Arena on Sunday, June 26.