Great news for country music: Cody Johnson will release his new album, GOTTA BE ME, on Friday, August 5th. It’s an album that is unapologetically rural and bound to become a favorite of music lovers who have missed the brand of country that left the arena when George Strait rode away. It’s not that you’d mistake Cody Johnson’s music for George Strait’s (actually, he does come fairly close to a young Garth Brooks in a lot of ways), but in Cody you will recognize the accessibility and the sheer toe-tappability of some of the great country singers… and your heart will listen and your ears will smile. With Cody Johnson bucking all current trends in the genre, country music just might have a champion who will do what he does best, and outlast them all.
Recently, I talked with Cody about his new album. Here is some of that conversation…
Greg Victor: How are you doing today, Cody?
Cody Johnson: It’s a hit son of a gun out here in Nashville. It’s hotter here than I feel like it is in Texas.
GV: Is Nashville home for you now?
CJ: No. I live in Texas. I will never move out of Texas. That’s my home.
GV: How did growing up surrounded by Texas music influence you?
CJ: Man, I didn’t know what Texas music was for a long time. I grew up on Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell and Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings… and George Strait and Garth Brooks. The closest thing to a Texas country act I’d ever heard of was Clay Walker or Tracey Byrd. But then I started to notice my dad listening to guys like Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell. And in my teen years, I started hearing the Cross Canadian Ragweed and Pat Green and Cory Morrow. They were my heroes, and now I get to call these guys friends. I don’t really care if people label me Texas Country ‘til the day I die, ‘cause Texas will always be my home. But my music isn’t just Texas, and it isn’t just Nashville, either. It’s just my brand of country music. Wherever that puts me on the map, I’m perfectly happy with. I’m so thankful for what I have that, honestly, if it all went away tomorrow, I’d say it’s been one helluva ride. And then I’d go right back home to Texas and continue to do my thing.
GV: And when you’re out on the road, what is it that you miss the most?
CJ: My wife and my daughter. They get to come with me a lot—enough so I don’t miss home too bad—but I miss the normal things. Getting on my tractor and going and doing stuff around my property. Fixin’ this or fixin’ that, or just calling up my dad and goin’ fishin’. I don’t want to sound like some kind of a pity case. I’m very thankful for what I do. I get the opportunity to do a lot of things when I’m out on the road that a lot of people don’t get to do. I don’t take those things for granted, but there ain’t no place like bein’ home, we all know that.
GV: So let me see if I have this right: you’re a country singer who prefers being out in the country.
CJ: (laughs) It doesn’t take very long, talkin’ to me, to figure out who I am. That’s the whole basis behind this album, Gotta Be Me. I wanted to make sure when you listen to it, you can pick out every influence and tell what parts of my life have made the music what it is. I’m very open with the fact that I didn’t start playing music to try to be famous, or to get rich. I started playing music because of what’s in my heart. It’s just who I am.
GV: And now that you’re starting to become well known…?
CJ: There’s a line drawn in the sand for me; there are certain things I won’t do. At the end of the day, if I don’t have that integrity that will let me go to sleep at night—of being the guy who my parents raised—I don’t have anything.
GV: Is that sort of the message of this album?
CJ: I think it starts off with the first track, “Gotta Be Me.” That title track is the message.
GV: In your opinion, what makes a great country song ‘great’?
CJ: Authenticity. Believability. When you hear Johnny Cash sing “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and he sings, “I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned,” you know he meant it.
GV: You hear it and you feel it.
CJ: It’s the same with all the great songs. It’s that “Holy cow, I believe every word falling out of this guy’s mouth” feeling you get.
GV: Was it difficult deciding which songs to include on the album?
CJ: If I had my way, we’d have done a 40-song box set, because I want to record every song that I’ve ever written.
GV: At least the album has a generous 14 songs on it. That’s a good start.
CJ: Well, we started out with a pile of 30 or 40 songs that I’d written or co-written over the past two or three years. There was a handful of songs that I reeeeally wanted to put on this album, but it was because I had a passion for those songs. But there were certain songs that made the album, simply because they complemented the different influences I was trying to share. I wanted you to hear those different pieces of who I am and some songs spoke that better than some of my favorite songs. As far as the four outside cuts, that I didn’t write, on this album, I put aside some of my own material for those songs because I knew that I could sing them with the same level of believability.
GV: Which four tracks are those?
CJ: “The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life),” “Wild As You,” “Chain Drinkin’,” and “Grass Stains.” The last two came from the Brothers Osborne, who are hot right now. They came in last minute. My friend and producer, Trent Willmon, were sitting there, asking ourselves, “What’s missing on this album?” And those two songs got emailed to us just a few days before we went to press. We jumped on the opportunity, because we felt like it filled a need. “Cowboy Life” was written by Shane Minor and Jeffrey Steele. I’ve written a lot with both of those guys over the last year. “Cowboy Life” spoke to me because of my rodeo background. I feel like it sang about dreams that I never got to fulfill. I’ve got a lot of buddies who ride in the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) and the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) and I felt an obligation not only to tell people where I come from—my rodeo background—but to sing a song for those guys. I wanted to have a (Garth Brooks-like) “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” kind of track on the album. I was thankful to have that song to add.
GV: I’m not surprised to find out that you wrote my favorite song on the album.
CJ: Which one is that?
GV: “Walk Away.”
CJ: Oh, yeah. Myself and Randy Rogers wrote that one.
GV: Of course. I shoulda known that just from listening to it. What about you— do you have a favorite track on the album?
CJ: It’s hard to pick one, but to be honest with you, I’d say the song I wrote one hundred percent myself, for my daughter. It’s called “I Know My Way Back (Clara’s Song).” If you just listen to it, and you don’t know that it’s about my daughter, it’s just a love song. For the first month of my daughter’s life, I was there everyday. For the second month, I was gone. I was out on the road, trying to make up for lost time. That song is what I felt, every single night that I was on the road, without her. That song shows more of my heart and my feelings than any other song I’ve ever written.
GV: Have you ever sat down and thought what might be the key to your success so far?
CJ: I really don’t know. I heard that my music has been streamed over… uh… over…
GV: 80 million times.
CJ: Yeah, 80 million.
GV: That’s just in the last year and an half…
CJ: That’s the kind of stuff that I don’t really pay attention to. I keep my head out of the clouds. I don’t consider myself to be a “rising star.” I go to work every day, just like I would when I was working any other job I’ve ever had, to provide for my family and to do what I do with integrity. I like to go to sleep at night feeling like I’m doing my best. The more trust I put in the Lord, the more trust I put in Him, to guide my team, and to guide me, and let me step out of the way, the better things seem to go. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything other than being myself. Just me being me.
GV: You “gotta be you,” right Cody?
CJ: That’s it!
To purchase GOTTA BE ME on iTunes, click here.
To keep up with Cody Johnson, visit his official website.
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