When Cody Johnson’s Cowboy Like Me 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 delivers it all with an uncanny confidence. His smoky baritone and ultra-Southern enunciations give him a voice as uniquely identifiable as country kingpins Jason Aldean or Tim McGraw. And he uses it to convey a Texas-proud swagger, a real-man charm and an unwavering honesty about who he is, where he comes from and where he hopes to go.
“I’m a God-fearin’, hard-workin’, beer-drinkin’, fightin’, lovin’ cowboy from Texas,” he grins. “That’s about it.” The hard-workin’ part is key. The other parts are easily found in his music. It’s intense, focused, sincere. And when he takes the stage, there’s a Garth-like conviction to his performances. Johnson inhabits the songs, recreates their emotions because they’re so familiar. And he’s willing to lay bare those emotions because he’s always been willing to risk. He lives in the moment behind that microphone, the same way he rode bulls in an earlier day.
“That’s a very, very rough sport to be in,” Johnson notes. “It’s very, very rough on your body. It’s very rough on your mind, and it’s scary. I mean there’s not a professional bull rider that won’t tell you it’s not scary. If it wasn’t scary, we wouldn’t do it.” Johnson pauses for just a beat. “I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie.” Needing a fix is part of the attraction in both the rodeo and music. In the former, there’s always another buckle to chase, another bull to conquer for eight seconds. In the latter, there’s always another fan to win over, another song to write. And in some ways, Johnson has been chasing something illusory, indefinable, since he first arrived on planet Earth in Southeast Texas.
Johnson grew up in tiny Sebastapol, an unincorporated community on the eastern shore of the Trinity River that’s 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. “You could hear the music from those bars across that lake,” he recalls. “I’d always hear somebody singing ‘Whiskey Bent And Hell Bound’ or something like that, and I always wondered what was going on across that water in those barrooms. It definitely intrigued me. I always wanted to go see what was on the other side of the tracks.” At a young age, Johnson was given the tools to eventually work in those clubs, though his official education was grounded in the church. His father played drums for their congregation, and that was likewise the first instrument that young Cody picked up. “Learning drums first taught me about feeling the song – feeling that dynamic of when it’s supposed to be big and when it’s supposed to be soft,” he says. “I think that still sticks with me as a songwriter and as a performer, and in turn it’s helped me shape my band, because I know what I’m looking for on every front.”
Johnson learned guitar next, and when a teacher heard him playing an original song, he convinced Johnson to form a band with a few other students enrolled in the Future Farmers of America. Just a few months later, that first band finished runner-up in a Texas State FFA talent contest, creating an internal buzz that Johnson would continue to chase. He didn’t necessarily think it would be a career. He briefly went to Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas, but traded that in to become a rodeo pro. Johnson did OK in that sport – the oversized belt buckle he wears today was won fair and square on the back of a bucking bull – but he broke a litany of bones: his right leg, his left arm, two ribs and his right collarbone. Cody started recording his own music during that phase of his life, beginning with Black And White Label, which featured his dad, Carl, on drums. Johnson sold the CDs, pressed on his own CoJo imprint, from his pickup. Eventually, Cody took a job at the prison to pay the bills. His band kept hitting the clubs on the weekend, with Johnson kept banging away on the guitar on Fridays and Saturdays while overseeing some very hardened convicts whose crimes had cut them off from humanity. “There’s a lonely style of music that a lot of those guys listen to,” Johnson says. “I worked in the field for a while, and they sang old prison work songs. Some had kind of lost hope, and I can see now that you have to sing about people that don’t have hope the same way you want to sing to give them hope.” Meanwhile, his weekend crowds began to grow, and Johnson started landing hits on the Texas music charts. After the release of his third album, he won New Male Vocalist of the Year in the Texas Regional Radio Music Awards.