“I don’t want to be a dot on the radar of this industry,” Cody Johnson told me during my phone interview with him. “I want to leave my mark on it. I want to change country music to what I feel is the better.”
The 29 year old singer is definitely making a dent in the genre. Johnson has over 73,000 Twitter fans, his music has been streamed over 100 million times, his latest album, Gotta Be Me, debuted at #1 on the iTunes Country Music Chart, and in the last 12 months he’s sold over one million dollars in music on iTunes alone. And that’s not even all of his triumphs. He’s also sold over 500,000 concert tickets in the last 18 months. One of his sold out tour stops was Joe’s Bar on Weed Street. The icing on the cake is that he does all of this without the help of a record label or support from mainstream country radio. Not only are Johnson’s musical accomplishments impressive to say the least, they’re also damn near unheard of for an independent artist.
“Life is happening fast. I know how fortunate and how blessed I am, and I’m not ever going to take that for granted. The team that I have and God above are the only reasons I have this. I feel very undeservingly fortunate every day that I wake up.”
Success hasn’t come easy to Johnson. It’s something he’s worked extremely hard for his whole life, and he credits the resilient work ethic he was brought up on. The Texas singer grew up lower middle class, and as he explained, “I think that work ethic and that drive, that kind of feeling like you’re up against the world is what pushed me to be kind of a scrappy, tough dude and not really be intimidated by big goals and big dreams and the doors in your face that get slammed.”
While being told “No” more times than he could count was something Johnson got used to, it wasn’t enough to stop him from pursuing his career in music. “You can hit me as many times as you want. I’ll always stand back up, and that’s just how I am.” Johnson stated during our interview. This theme of determination and persistence is really demonstrated throughout his latest album, Gotta Be Me, which was released August of last year. The former bull rider said he is constantly pushing himself to be better and prove to an industry who has consistently told him no time and time again that he doesn’t just belong, but that he’s going to make sure people know who he is. This album, as Johnson described to me, is something that’s a good representation of where he is as a songwriter and in his career.
Gotta Be Me is an excellent addition to an already exceptional catalogue. In the opening title track of his 2016 release, Johnson kicks the album off with a traditional straight forward country melody reminiscent of George Strait, when he sings, “It ain’t always pretty, but the cowboy in me couldn’t change if he wanted to.” Personally, I think this one line probably best describes the outlaw country singer. Johnson carries on throughout the rest of the album with a certain confidence that could only come from someone who has lived the life he’s lived. While he tells listeners about the struggles of living the cowboy life on “The Only One I Know,” a song he says he’s lived and sings with conviction every night, Johnson also reveals his sensitive side on ballads like “With You I Am” and “Half a Song.”
While we were discussing “With You I Am,” it was interesting to learn that Johnson wasn’t initially crazy about the song he co-wrote with David Lee and Trent Willmon. “When you listen to those lyrics, and the way we put them together…we all have something or someone that makes us feel better with it. The whole concept to ‘With You I Am’ I think that’s what drew me to it. More and more we played it, and when we finally got it done in the studio I fell in love with it. I knew right then this has to be our first single. I feel like it represented the album pretty well,” Johnson said of the song.
During our interview, the singer/songwriter told me that aside from him and (writer/producer) Trent Willmon actually having time to write and gather the right songs for Gotta Be Me, they also had the ability and finances to take their time with everything.
“With ‘Gotta Be Me’ there was a lot of talks of record labels before and right up to the wire of trying to push this thing through to a record label, and it didn’t really work for me. I’ve been told no for a long time, and I’m one of those guys that when you tell me no, I’m just gonna go ahead and do it the hard way. I don’t mind working harder to get to a goal, and I think with Gotta Be Me, we changed the album. I had a different title, but I knew we had to pick Gotta Be Me because I needed to put my foot down and say, ya know what…I’m gonna dance with the one that brought me. I believe in what I’m doing. I’m not gonna change this, I’m not gonna change that, and I have to be myself. And if I have to do it the hard way, on my own, independently, that’s fine. I don’t mind doing that at all.”
Doing things his way is definitely paying off for Cody Johnson. He’s built a solid, loyal and dedicated fan base who show up night after night to show their support. Johnson’s achieved all of his success while remaining true to who he is, both as an artist and as a human being. He hasn’t strayed from his values and as he expressed to me, “The secret is to surround yourself with good people.” Another important factor that Johnson said has played a big part in his success, as he mentioned early in our interview, is his faith.
“If I don’t pray, if I don’t surround myself with people who are willing to pray with me…and don’t get me wrong, if you see me out and about you’ll probably see me with a cold beer in my hand. I don’t back down from a fight, I’m not the perfect man, nobody is. I’m not trying to, I don’t ever wanna come across as preaching to anybody. But as for me and my house, that’s the way it has to work for me,” Johnson explained. “When I try to run things, they tend to get screwed up because I tend to just see it my way. But whenever I let go and I trust in the Lord and I really give it over to him, and I let go of the reigns, I know that my stress level is better. My happiness, my creativity, my everything is better.”
Johnson went on to tell me, “Success did not come until I finally said that you know what, I’m gonna stop trying to direct this ship, and I’m just gonna say, “Alright Lord, whatever you want to happen, I guess that’s just where I’m gonna have to be.” And all of a sudden it blew up, and that’s for me what happened. And I’ve never looked back.”
The last track on ‘Gotta Be Me’ is titled “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand)” and is one of the most beautiful and sincere songs I have ever heard. It’s in the same class as Blake Shelton’s “Savior’s Shadow,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord,” and up and coming artist Jacob Bryant’s “Sometimes I Pray,” and truly says more about Johnson’s character than any other song could.
“It’s basically my testimony. I mean, everybody talks about how successful I am and how big this thing’s getting, and me, me, me. But at the end of the day I’m extremely thankful, and I know the reason why I’m here, and that’s why I put that song on the album.”
In a genre where sincerity, which is the foundation of country music, can often get lost in the mix of tailgates and day drinking, the authenticity that radiates from Cody Johnson is refreshing to say the least. There’s a certain genuineness in his music that stems from the validity in his lyrics. The Texas native writes and sings with the naturalness of a legitimate cowboy because he IS in fact a cowboy, and lives the cowboy lifestyle to this day, and not just because of where he comes from. Johnson spent years as a bull rider, and compared the decision to leave bull riding to “trying to leave a girl you know you shouldn’t be with.” He still ropes and rides when he can find the time, and grew up listening to Chris Ledoux and idolizing music heroes like Garth Brooks and George Strait. After seeing him perform, it’s easy to see how his stage presence is inspired by these two country icons. Whether he’s moving from one end of the stage to the other or standing still, he still manages to captivate his audience and leave them hanging on every word he’s singing. As he put it to me in our interview, “If you’re not having fun at my show then I’m not doing my job.”
There’s no denying the talent in today’s country music. From songwriters to the artists who record the songs, country music today is just bleeding talent. If there’s one problem with country music, though, it’s the lack of authentic songs, especially on the radio.
“There’s not as many authentic, real thick songs that you can really sink your teeth into. There is a place for, and I’m all about the new hip-hop-ish kind of thing. I mean, we’re drawing young kids to country music, but I think there should be more or there shouldn’t be a barrier to keep those real songs out of the genre. I feel like that when real and authentic makes a comeback, we’ll see a little more of the country music that we feel like we’ve lost.”
Artists like Cody Johnson are the real deal. They’re honest, both in their songwriting and their personalities. They do their best to keep traditional country music alive, while still trying to stay relevant in an ADD generation and a genre that are always looking for the next big thing to come along. Cody’s talent, passion, resilience and character are just a fraction of what make him such an exceptional artist, both on and off the stage. Despite the division between Texas country and Nashville country, Johnson has managed to create his own niche where he’s stuck somewhere in the middle, balancing being himself and trying to do something that has nothing to do with neither of the two places. Not only is Cody thriving there, but he’s proving to be an inspiration to other artists struggling to find their own identity in country music. Johnson is no doubt a pioneer in country music with much more success to look forward to.