Authentic, traditional country music that is also accessible to the masses (read: frequent radio play) is a hard line to straddle, but it seems to come naturally to Texas native Cody Johnson.
Johnson’s new album “Gotta Be Me,” out today, calls to mind Jon Pardi, Aaron Watson and 90s-era Alan Jackson and George Strait. And while Johnson never quite reaches the levels of Strait’s greatness (but then, who among us can?) he states his case as one of the best traditional acts out there today. That in itself in today’s market feels revolutionary. No bro-country frills, no sonic gimmicks, just a man with some songs to sing.
Johnson comes by it honest.
“I’m a God-fearin,’ hard-workin,’ beer-drinkin,’ fightin,’ lovin’ cowboy from Texas,” the biography on his website reads. “That’s about it.”
His own life story up until this point could be considered a country song. Johnson grew up in Sebastapol, a tiny, unincorporated community on the eastern shore of the Trinity River with a population that has permanently sat underneath the 500 mark.
He started playing music in his church, where he first learned drums, then guitar, then started a band with some kids in his Future Farmers of America club.
After a brief stint in college, he left to become a rodeo pro. He did fairly well, but gave that up after breaking several bones.
The whole time he was riding bulls on the rodeo circuit, Johnson was also writing songs and playing music, culminating in the creation of the Black And White Label band, featuring his dad on drums. He sold their CDs out of his pickup truck.
Several shows and four albums later, his 2014 album “Cowboy Like Me” reached No. 7 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.
Now, “Gotta Be Me” is poised to outperform “Cowboy Like Me.” To call Johnson an overnight success is a vast understatement, but he deserves every bit of recognition he’s about to get.
“Gotta Be Like Me,” which shares songwriting credits with Randy Rogers, Brothers Osborne, Chris DuBois and Trent Willmon (who also produced), features songs that highlight all aspects of life, as Johnson states when he says he’s a “God-fearin,’ hard-workin,’ beer-drinkin,’ fightin,’ lovin’ cowboy from Texas.”
There’s a song on “Gotta Be Me” for every part of that statement, too, while the song of the same name states the album’s thesis early on.
The God-fearing part is showcased on album closer “I Can’t Even Walk,” which pays homage to those early days learning to play Gospel music in church.
The hard-working aspect of Johnson’s life? That would be “The Only Way I Know (Cowboy Life),” which also highlights his rodeo history.
As for all that beer drinkin’ and fighting? Check out “Chain Drinkin'” and “Billy’s Brother.” (Side note: It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a country drinking song that I actually enjoyed. I don’t know if it’s the swing-time melody of “Chain Drinkin'” or what, but I had a smile on my face the whole time.)
This being a traditional sounding country album, there’s also plenty of love songs, including current single “With You I Am” and my pick for the best cut of the album, the heartbreaking “Walk Away,” co-written with Randy Rogers.
Johnson stays true to his personality on this album while also making entertaining music that will hopefully lend itself well to radio play. If you’ve been wondering where to find a good traditional country artist, Cody Johnson’s a good place to start.
Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.
Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.