Cody Johnson. Photo Credit: J. Trevino
It’s Good to Be Cody Johnson
TAMMY RAGUSA • Sounds Like Nashville
If you aren’t familiar with Cody Johnson or his music, you could scroll through his Twitter feed for the past few days and get some pretty good testimonials to the caliber of his newest album, Gotta Be Me. Sure, lots of Texas artists like Eli Young Band, Aaron Watson, Wade Bowen and Sunny Sweeney voiced their support for the new project, but so did Cody’s mainstream pals like Chase Rice and Jon Pardi. Even radio tastemaker, Bobby Bones, tweeted, “Cody Johnson, been listening to your record the last couple days. Good work man. That ones gonna last. Congrats.”
In spite of the high praise from his industry peers, it seems difficult for Cody to talk about himself. He often deflects questions about himself to talk about his team, his influences and his God. That kind of modesty and humility is rare and endearing.
But it’s the cowboy way. And when we sit down with Cody, it’s obvious that that is his way because he is a cowboy, and a longtime fan of the late cowboy/country star Chris LeDoux. “I wanted to be a rodeo man,” he says. “I don’t know how Chris did it. There will never be another Chris LeDoux. It is so hard to maintain a rodeo career, a world champion rodeo career, and what I consider a world champion music career, and I’m not the guy to do it. I’m not cowboy enough.”
Maybe, maybe not. He is country singer enough though. Gotta Be Me is his sixth album. At around the age of 19, he independently released his first album, Black and White Label. His third album, Six Strings One Dream, released three years later, landed him in the Top 10 of the Texas music charts three times. Then fate stepped in and so did Trent Willmon.
Trent has produced Cody’s last two albums, as well as Gotta Be Me, and the project prior, Cowboy Like Me, earned Cody a Top 10 debut on Billboard’s country album chart and a Top 40 on the mainstream chart in 2014. “I’ve been a Trent Willmon fan for longer than I’ve known him,” he says.
If you listen to Cody’s albums in order, you hear the maturation of a young man, but you also hear the lyrical and sonic evolution an artist should make. Gotta Be Me is definitely taking the next step. “I wanted to do that,” Cody says beaming, “but I wasn’t really sure what level we were on in the first place. I don’t know how you step up to somewhere when you don’t know where you’re at.” He explains, “I keep my blinders on. I’m like a good draft horse. I work and keep my head down and that’s what I do.”
So, Trent gets the credit for taking Cody up a notch and also for helping him create a project that would help new fans get acquainted with who he is and what he’s about. He says, “My thoughts were, before a major label, before any more success, before anything gets more out of control than it already is, because I feel like my life is a big, ol’ crazy, chaotic mess half the time, I want to set the precedence of who I am musically and lyrically, so when you pick that record up, you feel like you know me.”
He continues, “I wanted to put this record together so you could hear influences from track-to-track, from an Allman Brothers influences, to a gospel influences, to an Americana-Robert Earl Keen influence, to George Strait, but to have that mainline through the middle that showed me. And if there’s one person in the world that knows me pretty well, besides my wife, is Trent. He helped me get outside of my box, but also pulled the reins when he needed to.”
The title of the album reinforces Cody’s desire to disclose himself honestly to new listeners who may be unfamiliar with his music and who may not understand his cowboy lifestyle. The title track is certainly autobiographical, but we asked him, given one shot at earning a fan, what track might be the one that best tells who he is.
“As much of a statement as ‘Gotta Be Me’ is, as much as I feel like I’ve lived ‘Cowboy Life’ a little bit, and ‘Clara’s Song’ is about my daughter, I think the very last track on the album with my parents, the gospel song “I Can’t Even Walk,” we recorded that just like we were in church,” he says. “We were all standing around a microphone and we sang it two or three times, and we all agreed we were just singing it, we weren’t feeling it, so we stopped, said a prayer and we just did it. That’s not the best track we sang, but you can feel it whenever you listen to this track.”
Cody pauses briefly as if recalling the song, then continues, “Anybody that knows me knows I ain’t afraid to get in a fight, I ain’t afraid to throw down and go drink some beer and act a little wild now and then, and I probably cuss more than I should, but I know that everything I’ve got, I didn’t get from some magical potion that I created, it’s all been just because the good Lord has blessed me with it. I wouldn’t have a career without that protection and that guidance. On my own, I’m not that good. Without my prayer life and without the Gospel upbringing, I don’t really have much. I’ve seen me without it and I’ve seen me with it and I’m much better with it.”
If his new album is any indication, we agree.