Cody Johnson Talks Making Country Music for Country People

Exclusive Q&A Reflects on No. 1 Debut, Playing with George Strait and Houston Rodeo Record

Cody Johnson is having a moment. His latest album, Ain’t Nothin’ To It debuted at No. 1, he’s fresh off a record-breaking sellout at Rodeo Houston, a headlining debut at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is scheduled for next month, and he has a stadium show with George Strait and Blake Shelton in August.

In an exclusive CMT.com interview, Johnson opened up about his definition of success, opening for Strait and his connection with the COJO Nation.

CMT.com: It seems like there’s never a bad time to talk to you. How do these accomplishments evolve your definition of success?

Johnson: While I was just talking to you, I was assisting my four-year-old in the restroom. I think my sense of success is the fact that I’m on my own tour bus with daughter, hanging out and having a good time.

My band and I are playing new songs. I just got a Resistol hat line out. And we’re talking about possibly maybe doing a Cody Johnson cologne.

The more I think about what my definition of success is, it was the other night sitting around the fire with my wife and my two daughters with old country music on the radio and my dog sleeping underneath the tractor in the quiet.

But last year when I played the rodeo, it felt more like the end of an era. It felt like the end of a chapter in my life. This year, I was more nervous onstage than I had ever been because it felt like I’ve got everything new. It was the first big show of the new chapter of my career – the next 10 years.

I think when you start thinking about it in 10-year increments, I’m technically in my first year of the second chapter and it feels cool.

What are your thoughts going into the stadium gig with Strait?

It’s just another show I’m going, to be honest with you. I don’t mean to play it down. It’s the same show we’re going to put on anywhere else just Blake Shelton and George Strait are playing afterward.

I think playing with Strait alone, just being on the bill, it’s like we can finally say we did that. I played a show with Merle Haggard once. I can knock that one off the bucket list.

I’ve never met George Strait. I’ve never met Garth Brooks. I don’t seek people out. I know I like my privacy, and I know they’ve heard what I’d tell them one million times how much they’ve influenced me. I’d rather just be on terms of, “Hey man thanks for playing the show, and thanks for having us.”

Greats like Strait, Reba and Alan Jackson got where they are today because of consistently being the artists they want to be no matter what’s on trend. What do you say to the critics in a profession where everyone has an opinion on how you oversee your career?

I don’t really care what they think, to be honest with you. I’m not in the business of changing who I am according to what people think or say. I’ve had people say, he’s selling out because he went to Nashville. Man, you don’t know me very well. You can’t dangle money in front of my face to get me to jump.

I’d love for people to be criticizing because all we get to do is prove them wrong. If you don’t believe in what’s popular, it comes down to what your character is. What kind of character do you have to be to put on the front that is, “This is what I do just because it’s popular.” That’s pretty cheap.

I’d rather be myself and where God wants me to be than to be putting on jeans and outfits and spiking my hair. That’s just not me. I can’t do it.

How do you recognize yourself in “Ain’t Nothin’ To It?”

That’s the best advice for a young guy. That song is a young man looking up to an older man and saying, ‘He must know something because he’s lived longer than me.’

My marriage personally has gotten better since I recorded that song because you can’t sing a song like that every night and not listen to the instructions: Don’t always tell her everything you’re thinking, and dance her when she needs dancing. But you learn to ride the ups and downs. There’s never been anything truer.

What do you look for when you go into record new material? Whenever you perform or hear you sing there’s always a feeling that you’re putting your soul on display.

Each song has to speak to me in some way. It has to be something that I’m passionate about, upbeat, slow live, happy sad, it has to touch a piece of my soul. As long as I have that, whenever I record it, that transfers.

What does it mean to you for country people to recognize themselves in your music?

It means everything. I’m going to say this delicately. It means everything to me because I feel like a lot of artists my age doing what I’m doing, country people can’t relate to, and the reason why they turned on country radio was to hear a country person sing a country song they can relate to. I just don’t feel like we’ve had that in quite some time with the exception of a few artists. I take a lot of pride in that.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.