Cody Johnson delivers a heavy dose of truth on his latest album, Gotta Be Me, but he starts the collection with a little white lie.
Over a bluesy country swing, he opens the title track with, “I’m a long country mile from being in style/Dirty hat and cowboy boots.”
Liar, liar Wranglers on fire.
Since country radio has devoted most of its airtime lately to playing pop music mostly by males with slick beats, the format has created a major fan demand for live rock ‘n’ roll and fiddle and steel again played by powerful entertainers that blow the roof off venues everywhere they go.
That’s why acts like Johnson, Brandy Clark, Jason Isbell, Chris Janson, William Michael Morgan, Kacey Musgraves, Jon Pardi, Mo Pitney, Margo Price, Randy Rogers Band, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Tara Thompson and many more are loved from sea to shining sea.
Because, listen folks, when it comes down to it, synthetic beats in country music are not timeless.
Melodies and the truth are. And that’s what draws fans by the thousands to Johnson’s shows across North America. He recently sold out the 2,000-capacity Grizzly Rose in Denver, Colorado, rodeo fans are wild for him, and he continues to gain new fans the more his live performances are discovered online. And all this was done without the support of a major record deal.
“I don’t think I fit into today’s hipster style,” Johnson says in our interview for CMT.com. “I wear a cowboy hat and I get, ‘Nice hat,’ because people haven’t seen one in a while. This is who I am. I didn’t put on boots and a buckle to try and get a record deal or to try to get notoriety. I mean, this is just kind of how I dress. If you catch me going to church on Sunday, this is what I look like.”
Johnson says watching the world go by on a tour bus and playing up to 160 dates a year is way better way to earn a living than his previous job working as a prison guard near his hometown of Huntsville, Texas, which is considered the Lone Star State’s prison capital.
“People think there’s one big huge prison in Huntsville, Texas, and there’s not,” he says. “There’s probably five. Each one has its own designated type of inmate that lives there, and then there’s a couple of them that are on the outskirts of town that are very serious maximum security facilities.”
“My dad worked there for a long time,” he said. “I grew up around convicts and inmates and I had my taste of it. My dad was a good man. He didn’t beat on us and holler at us and all that stuff, but he spanked our ass if we did something wrong. I knew that came from work. In the prison, it was a blood sport every day. And he saw a lot of things that I didn’t.”
Johnson did witness some dark forms of humanity when he worked in the clink – a job he started right out of high school. And his back still hurts after riding bulls competitively from his teens into his early 20s.
“I’m very thankful for what I do for a living now,” he says. “I don’t want to go back to prison work. There were good memories and bad memories of it. But it taught me a lot. You grow up really quick when you’re 18 working in a penitentiary. It’s a different world. To be able to work there, I had to be a different person, and it made me a different person. It’s the same way when you’re riding bulls, you have to be a cocky son-of-a-gun.”
Gotta Be Me does offer plenty of bite when he sings about drinking, fighting and getting hillbilly high in songs like “Chain Drinkin’,” “Billy’s Brother” and the title track. Written with Randy Rogers, “Walk Away” is a twisted take of a classic cheating song meets George Strait’s “The Chair.”
The 14-song collection also has cool honky-tonk love songs, including “Wild As You,” “I Ain’t Going Nowhere Baby” and the closer, “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand).”
“Grass Stains” is a cheeky number about country sex co-written with Brothers Osborne, while “With You I Am” is a sweet love song about how the emotion brings out the best in people. But it’s cleverly written in a way where the “you” in the song can represent anyone or anything.
“I don’t consider myself a very good person without my wife, Brandi,” he says. The two have been married for six years.
“Before I met her, it was all about ‘me’ – every decision, everything I did was about ‘me.’ Then for the first time in my entire life, ‘me’ didn’t matter anymore. Ironically enough, when ‘me’ didn’t matter anymore, my career started to blow up. She’s what holds me together, and she kind of loves me in spite of myself. I don’t know that you could ask for anything more.”
Together, they have a two-year-old daughter named Clara, who also gets a nod on the album in the easy rocker “I Know My Way Back (Clara’s Song).” The track was inspired over a rough winter weekend on the road a month after she was born.
“There’s so much truth in this record,” he says. “When I went back on the road, I went really heavy to kind of make up for the time that I had spent at home to be with my family. But I didn’t want to play music. I wanted to be at home with my little girl and my wife.
“The first line is, ‘Some towns look better as you leave them and now this one is looking fine.’ When we loaded out of Kansas City, Missouri, in the rain and snow, it was horrible. I fell on the sidewalk a couple times on the ice trying to load gear. When I got back on the bus, I opened up the windows and I just watched the town go by. I said, ‘Some towns look better when you leave them.’ And one of my buddies made a joke and said, ‘Right now, this one is looking fine.’”
When conversation turned to how he was discovered, Johnson said, “hard work.”
“I still don’t think we’ve ever been discovered,” he added. “I’m going to keep pushing this thing as hard as I can push it without a goal in mind to try to get rich or famous. I just really don’t care about those things. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful. It’s just not a goal. I figured, I’m going to keep working hard and trying to just do my job and create music I believe in. Where it’s going to take us, that’s not my decision. That’s up to the good Lord, I guess.”
Gotta Be Me is produced by Trent Willmon and it’s available now.