When Cody Johnson’s Cowboy Like Me album debuted in the Top 10 on the Billboard Country Albums chart in January 2014, jaws dropped in offices all over Nashville.
“I got a lot of ‘Who is this kid?’” Johnson says with a laugh two years later. “I love that. That was a new horizon. And I’m gonna work to make sure people know exactly who I am.”
Johnson does that from the start in Gotta Be Me, a follow-up project that’s loaded with solid country instrumentation and winsome melodies. In the first minute alone, he paints himself as a cowboy, raised on outlaw country, who drinks too much, fights too much and won’t apologize for having an opinion. By the time the 14-track journey is over, he’s shared his rodeo history in The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life) demonstrated his woman’s influence in With You I Am and paid homage to his gospel heritage in I Can’t Even Walk.
Johnson grew up in tiny Sebastapol, an unincorporated community on the eastern shore of the Trinity River that has never exceeded 500 residents. Even today, it’s more than 30 miles to the nearest Walmart, in Huntsville, Texas, a town best known as the headquarters for the state’s criminal justice department. It’s a rough and tumble area, and it comes through in the music. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Strait, Billy Joe Shaver – their songs were all essential to the local clubs, and Johnson was exposed to their mysterious allure even before he was old enough to get in.
Johnson reached a new creative plateau when he enlisted singer/songwriter Trent Willmon, who wrote Montgomery Gentry’s Lucky Man, to produce an album in Nashville. That project, A Different Day, raised the bar on Johnson’s barroom ambitions. The studio musicians he worked with challenged his own band. Johnson grew – and his band mates grew – because they had to stretch themselves to live up to the album on the road. That pattern has continued through three projects as he continues to chase something illusory.
When Cowboy Like Me broke onto the Billboard chart, it demonstrated that they had built an audience, but also gave them a little cache to push it even further. The band has broken beyond the red-dirt confines, drawing sizable audiences in such far-flung destinations as California, Montana, Wisconsin and the Southeast, as Johnson wins over fans with his honest songs and on-stage ferocity.
He approached Gotta Be Me with two major objectives: to make yet another advance musically, and to provide an authentic self-portrait to that growing fan base still trying to figure out who this Cody Johnson guy really is. He worked with some of Nashville’s best songwriters – including David Lee (Hello World, 19 Somethin’), Terry McBride (Play Something Country, I Keep On Loving You) and Dan Couch (Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck, Hey Pretty Girl) – while drawing on his own history, rich with its own compelling subject matter.
Every Scar draws a life lesson from all those rodeo bruises and broken bones. Half A Song blends his barroom experiences with the melodic and rhythmic sensibilities he picked up at his daddy’s feet. The fiddle-rich Wild As You embraces a freedom-loving woman whose sense of adventure is as deep as Johnson’s own. And that spacious gospel closer, featuring his parents on harmony, surrenders some of the rabble-rousing, adrenaline-raising pieces of his past into bigger spiritual hands.
In essence, Gotta Be Me documents the life of a guy who’s lived in the fast lane as a beer-drinkin’, rodeo-ridin’ cowboy, but who’s also seen just enough darkness to temper that wild streak.
“You’re only a couple bad decisions every day from screwing your whole life up,” he reasons.
With a good woman behind him and a whole lot of promise in front of him, that’s enough to keep Cody Johnson in check. The energy he put into his rebel years now goes into his work. He’s not sure what he’s chasing, but he knows it’s paying off The “me” that Cody Johnson is becoming will continue to evolve, and it’s his intent to share that journey in an honest, meaningful way. The same way that Haggard, Strait and Nelson did when they made their marks. When it’s all said and done, the plan is mostly to reach the point where people are no longer asking “Who is this kid?”
“I don’t want to be a blemish on country music,” Cody Johnson says. “I don’t want to be a dot. I’d like to be a mark.”