Cody Johnson’s fans know a good thing when they hear it. And what’s coming from the hard working, bull rider-turned-country-musician is catapulting his career, and may actually help other Texas Country artists turn a serious musical corner.
To his family and friends, Cody Johnson is a good old fashioned, right-‘round-here kind of guy, a down-home, Texas traditionalist. But to hardcore fans and some influential critics, the Groveton native is much more, consider the shape of things to come in music circles. With his sunglasses on and earbuds tucked in tight under a cowboy hat, the bearded 31-year-old performer has been busy distinguishing himself in a sea of sameness within the country music industry.
His concerts are magnetic… and memorable. They can be rowdy affairs too; hard driven country numbers laced with moments of poetic love songs, heartfelt enough to make female fans swoon, and buy his music in droves.
What you can expect when you attend a Cody Johnson concert is six guys pouring their hearts out onstage
the performer told us recently from the road. “There are no computers behind the music: there are no tracks, nothing fake and no gimmicks.” And it is that sincerity that’s become his sonic hallmark. “I have a little bit of a wild streak and I think it shows in my music,” he says. “I (also) have a good moral standard, and I think it shows that in my music too.”
Johnson’s country contemporaries include successful Red Dirt artists such as Wade Bowen (“Songs About Trucks,” “Saturday Night”); Kevin Fowler (“Long Line of Losers,” “Best Mistake I Ever Made”); Roger Creager (“The Everclear Song,” “Love”); Aaron Watson (“That Look,” “July in Cheyenne”) and others, several of whom he considers important mentors.
And while each one is a force, Johnson seems to possess a certain special sauce that makes him stand apart. But his most distinguishing characteristics go well beyond hats, boots, guitar strings, and guilded-belt buckles. “I think maybe the biggest difference is the level of passion that Cody’s fan base has,” says Erin Austin, who holds down the midday shift on Houston’s KILT-FM, 100.3 The Bull. “Not to take away from anyone else,” says Austin’s KILT colleague, Nick Russo, “but Cody has connected with more people.”
For Johnson, it’s a modest equation: “It’s my job to give them exactly what they want, and it happens to be pretty fun when you get to do it.” The Grateful Dead have their infamous “Deadheads”, while Jimmy Buffett’s “Parrotheads” bring the tropical fun. Cody Johnson calls his devotees the “CoJo Nation”. “Listeners get excited, “… not only on the air when we play his songs, but also when we give out tickets to his shows,” says Austin.
In fact, last year when Johnson played at the radio station’s annual Ten Man Jam concert, Austin says he made a serious impression then too. “He was the highlight for so many of our listeners,” says Austin, who still hears fans bring up details of the performance. Russo acknowledges the current state of Texas Country performers’ level of achievement at this point in their respective careers – something they all share in common. But the bigger issue, some critics say, is that many Texas artists tend to find success within the state while basking in relative obscurity beyond the borders.
Johnson says that timing can mean everything. “All I know is I live in Texas, I’m a Texas artist, we recorded the Texas record (Ain’t Nothin’ to It) and Warner Music Nashville got behind it, and we haven’t had to change a thing.”
Red Dirt Road to Success
In the case of the former bull rider, it appears he’s successfully bucking quite a few trends these days. While four of Johnson’s self-released first five albums appeared to be headed for anonymity, his sixth effort (Gotta Be Me), beautifully produced by fellow Texan, songwriter/solo artist Trent Willmon, debuted at number two on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and number 11 on the Billboard 200.
Inexplicably, Gotta Be Me also sold 23,000 copies in the first week, in a rather lackluster market, without a record company promotional campaign putting resources behind it. “I will say this (and I hope you quote me): Trent Willmon, I love you and I couldn’t have a career without you buddy,” says Johnson. That event was a significant departure from the past, signaling a brighter day ahead.
Cody is all about the country love song
says Texas radio executive Mac Daniels, who programs two of the top radio stations in the U.S. in the Dallas market. “He sings the songs with lyrics that every guy wants to say to his special girl, and what every girl wants to hear from her special guy.”
In 2011, after several years of chewing up back roads and highways, the worm began to turn. Johnson won the Texas Regional Music Award for New Male Vocalist of the Year, which opened new doors and set a different tone.
Daniels says his country stations have played Johnson’s songs for years. “The response is very positive among all age demographics,” says Daniels. “He’s been our little secret in Texas.” One of the keys to Johnson’s growing success is rooted in his live performance.
On March 15, he joined a line up that included heavyweights such as George Strait, Brad Paisley and Chris Stapleton, as well as Carlos Santana, Cardi B, Kings of Leon and more, performing at the 2019 edition of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Not bad company.
While Johnson admits he’s not as familiar with some of the pop acts, he says he deeply respects the diverse line up of stars on tap. “It’s an honor to be on a bill with guys like Carlos Santana and George Strait,” says Johnson. Last year, Johnson shared the Rodeo stage with Garth Brooks, a longtime hero who he’d never met (ironically, both men were the only artists on the lineup to sell out their shows).
And this year, his newly released “Welcome to the Show”, opened each nightly performance setting an upbeat tone for the evening’s concert.
Tiny Town Beginnings
Groveton is a classic small Texas town (population of a smidgeon over 1,000); a crisscross of Farm-to-Market roads accented by worn and shuttered buildings. The city spawned a few notable sports heroes including NFL players Lance Johnson and Rodney Thomas, and 1920’s MLB shortstop Topper Rigney, as well as country singer Jacky Ward (“A Lover’s Question”).
It is also Johnson’s hometown and the place where he cut his musical teeth like a lot of small-town kids — in church. “I’m from a musical family — everyone on both sides sang,” says Johnson. “My mom and dad both sang, plus my dad plays piano, guitar, drums and bass (My mom has of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard).”
Johnson’s early influences were varied but clearly stated. He recently dusted off Charlie Daniels’ Southern Rock gem “Long Haired Country Boy” for Ain’t Nothin’ to It, released in January.
“You know I may be from east Texas but I’m a southern boy,” he says. “I listened to Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen…Rodney Crowell and Billy Joe Shaver.”
He’s been known to mention others by name in his songs (Alan Jackson, George Strait, Tim McGraw). And, he says he’s an unabashed fan of the late Chris LeDoux, and cowpoke poet Red Steagall.
He played in a band and toured in an ensemble that included his father. Together, Johnson says they played honky-tonks, bars, dance halls, arenas and everything in between. “I think he wanted to go on the road with me to fulfill a little bit of (his own) life-long dream,” says Johnson, but also “to look out for his boy.” Later, Johnson went to work for the State of Texas prison system in nearby Huntsville. “A typical day in the criminal justice system has a lot to do with monotony and structure,” he remembers. With encouragement from everyone from his wife to the warden, he took a significant leap of faith.
I knew I was walking away from retirement; I had no degree to fall back on, so it was kind of a risky move for me. But worth it.
Fans found the rising star early, and many have stuck with him for years. “I watched him open for Frankie Ballard (“Young & Crazy,” “Sunshine & Whiskey”) three years ago at the Humble Rodeo,” remembers Russo.
“Two years ago I watched him sell it out, then play at Rodeo Houston,” where he performed for an audience of 60,000-plus as a last minute replacement for Old Dominion. Austin was there too and remembers it well. “He made it look easy,” she says.
“There is an aspect of Cody’s story that seems to reflect what we saw with George Strait,” says Russo. “One of George’s big breaks came as he filled in at Rodeo Houston for Eddie Rabbit in 1983.”
If it seems like a rather interesting coincidence, only time will tell. “They see him as a friend they’ve been rooting on and supporting for years,” says Russo. “I think ‘On My Way To You’ resonated deeply; you could hear it at his shows when the crowd sings along.” Today, Johnson is doing the same thing beyond Texas borders, all over America.
“His music is like a wildfire,” says Russo, “ (spreading) among country music fans throughout the U.S.” “He has great songs, he puts on a great show, and he’s ‘country’… people still want that.”
Houston native Anna Priesmeyer says she was used to seeing the hot new country acts at one of the area’s many performance venues. However, something about Johnson’s music struck a unique chord with the young country fan. “I heard Cody’s music and instantly knew he was going places,” she says.
Priesmeyer calls Johnson “authentic,” somewhat like the ultimate compliment to a contemporary country artist. “It doesn’t sound like a pop song,” she says, describing his style as “true country.”
“Even though he’s gotten pretty big in the country music world now, his songs still have the Texas Country feel to them.” She says Johnson’s tunes remind her of old school, “1990’s country music.”
Based on his live shows and fan reaction, some critics have referred to Johnson in rather hushed tones, going so far as to call him “the new Garth Brooks.” “I’ll never forget the first time I saw ‘Garth Brooks Live in Central Park,” says Johnson. “I was a kid… and it changed my life, watching that man command a crowd. I feel extremely honored to be compared to shows like Garth Brooks’.” Daniels says, pragmatically, “Anything is possible.” But the Texas radio executive also says he also sees some striking similarities.
“Garth came along at a time when country music was evolving and looking for a direction,”- “He was there with his brand of music that appealed to all ages.” Brooks brought something different to the table. He was unique, says Daniels, and presented music that was “exciting to the young/active country fan.” “Songs such as ‘The Dance,’ and ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’ were also just great songs,” he adds. “Cody has the same type of songs, and the direction of country music is evolving back to the traditional style.”
So this could be a great time for him. In the case of the rising country star behind memorable songs such as “With You I Am” and “Ain’t Nothin’ to It,” the sky may be his limit. “I feel (like) he is the best of both,” says Daniels. “George Strait (who came along in the 1980’s) and Garth Brooks (who owned the 1990’s).” As Johnson’s brand gains ground and exposure beyond Texas, Daniels predicts, “He will explode and be a major face of the format.”
“My hope is that the national country audience is given the opportunity to embrace his music and appreciate him,” says Austin, “like we have here in Texas…” For Cody Johnson, time is on his side… and it certainly is fun to watch.
See Cody Johnson live in Houston on August 10th at Toyota Center.
Feature Photo Courtesy of Cameron Powell