Cody Johnson just might be the most genuine guy in country music.
He’s not just genuine in that he’s the real deal— the Texas artist has just as much country bonafides as any other artist. His new album “Gotta Be Me” ain’t his first rodeo ride (literally and figuratively), but it’s the one that’s managed to boost his Nashville stock a little longer than a perfect eight second ride.
Johnson also speaks his mind on several occasions, including recently when Blake Shelton’s “If I’m Honest” album passed “Gotta Be Me” on Billboard’s Top County Album chart due to a marketing stunt where the album became available for .99 for a limited time.
Johnson tweeted his congratulations, but a lot of fans took it as a subtweet.
Johnson elaborated to me in an interview earlier this month that he knew without the Shelton sale, “Gotta Be Me” would have been No. 1, but he realized it wasn’t a personal decision on Shelton’s part:
“We knew without those sales we’d be No. 1. But I’d sound like a spoiled brat if I said I was pissed,” Johnson said. “The rodeo side, the competitive side of me, was disappointed, sure. But it’s Blake Shelton, he’s a national celebrity, probably doesn’t even know who I am, and it wasn’t a personal decision on his part. So you can cry about it or you can take pride in the fact that your independent-released record was right behind Blake Shelton on the charts.”
There’s that genuine outlook on life again. One only has to listen to a handful of the tracks from “Gotta Be Me” to get familiar with Johnson’s defining traits which he first learned growing up in a small town and later as a rodeo pro.
“They’re real similar, in a lot of ways,” he says of the rodeo and country music businesses. “For one, you’re just sort of taking it day by day, not getting a lot of sleep, going from town to town. But a lot of it is getting knocked down, too. You’ve got to be able to take those hits, get back up, work hard, pray, continue to do what you believe in. And the rodeo taught me that.”
Johnson is also genuine in that he’s just so excited to be here, wherever “here” is. That old platitude is often used by artists who want to make themselves sound humble, but it’s rare to find an artist who really means it.
Johnson really is that genuine. And Austinites will get to experience that genuine enthusiasm at Stubb’s Saturday at 7 p.m.
“It’s gonna be energetic, energetic, man,” he said of the show. “We’ve got such a new high from this album. We’re learning new songs, harder songs, more cover songs. A lot more music to be played, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Some of those new songs (“With You I Am“; “Walk Away,” co-written with Randy Rogers) sound like a throwback to the Alan Jackson and George Strait albums of the ’90s , with plenty of twin fiddles and steel guitars, but also sound modern at the same time. Johnson said that was by design.
“It was intentional in that my music’s always had that traditional flair to it, whether it’s Americana, mainstream, rock,” he said. “We really wanted to show that versatility on those songs on this record, but have the common thread being that it still sounds like me. And [my producer] Trent Willmon did a great job of producing to make that happen.”
That common thread, making sure the music always sounded like him, also carried over to the way the record was financed and released. After Johnson’s breakthrough album, “Cowboy Like Me” hit No. 7 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, the record labels came a-callin’. Johnson mulled the offers over, and turned them all down to release the album independently.
“Not once in my younger days did I think, ‘One day I’ll get a record deal,'” Johnson said. “Success and fame, to me, was never an option, so to be courted by several record labels was humbling. My decision to go by myself was not a ‘Screw you, I’m going to do this on my own’ mentality, but it was like when you’re that guy in high school who’s trying to date that girl who don’t really like you, but you really like her, and that’s kind of how it felt with me.
“And that’s not a knock on record labels. I’ve got friends who are on labels who are very happy. But with me, I had just as much of a need to make an album by myself as I did to release it by myself.”
He reiterates that he has no feud with Nashville, as much as many of his Texas Country fans may foist that upon him.
“It’s been hard because right away, people people say, ‘Oh, it’s a feud between Texas vs. Nashville, indies vs. labels,’ and that’s not the case, man. I’ve got offices in both places, I’ve been recording in Nashville for a long time now, and I really just see them as two sides of the fence, and I’m happy to be in both places.”
His new album is unique enough in today’s country music that it feels refreshing, but universal enough to reach a wide audience. That’s evident from the title track to the album’s drinking songs, to the album’s closer, the Gospel-tinged “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand).”
Johnson said his Christian faith, while not perfect, is a big part of his music.
“If you see me out, I’ll have a beer in my hand and I’m not afraid of a scuffle, and I think we all have a few things we can work on, but I just know that when I pray daily and I give thanks to the man upstairs, my life works out pretty well, and when it’s just Cody trying to control Cody, it don’t work out too well,” he said. “And that’s reflected on the new album, I think. The first song is ‘Gotta Be Me,’ but the last song is ‘I Can’t Even Walk,’ and to me that’s saying that even though I gotta be me, the only way I can be me is because God lets me be me.”
No matter what the setlist is Saturday night, it’s clear those in attendance at Stubb’s will have a genuine Cody Johnson experience.
Tickets for the show can be found here or at Stubb’s.
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.
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