Interview

Gotta Be Me: Cody Johnson Talks New Album & Remaining True to Himself

Photo: J. Trevino
"If you cut my veins music is going to pour out of them. It’s who I am to the core and I think the fact that I can say truly, with heart and hand to the Bible, that if tomorrow I wake up and it’s all gone, I am going to be happy. I’m going to be thankful and say what a hell of a ride that was." ~ Cody Johnson

Already well-known in the Texas community, Cody Johnson made national attention when his 2014 album Cowboy Like Mebowed at #7 on the Billboard Country Charts. On August 5th, Johnson will undoubtedly make a bigger splash with his highly anticipated follow-up, Gotta Be Me. In advance of the album, Johnson graciously called to talk about his roots, the album and much more.  

Many people, particularly in Texas, know your music and story, many others are new to you. While you have been pursuing music for years now, your official music education began in the church. How so?  
My family is a very musical one, in fact on the Johnson side of the family, and my mom’s too, if you trace back the lineage you will find musicians going back maybe five or six generations. My mom, she's a good woman, she kept my Dad, brother and myself in church, where my parents, both of whom have some of the most incredible voices I have ever heard, would sing. It was at church where I got to try out and cut my teeth on drums, piano, and bass. And then it was the house, with family there at Christmastime, where I would have my first audience. I would sing and play a few songs and the ten to fifteen people there would listen and clap at every song I sang. 

I didn’t have a lot of formal musical education, though, it was all by ear, which is how I learned to tune a guitar and work on the melodic structure of songs. And I think that’s due to my mom and dad who wouldn’t let me sing lead until I sang all of the other parts, which helped hone my ear.

In addition to the music in church, you were also influenced by what you heard at home and what you heard in the honky tonks across the lake from where you grew up.
I was raised on the belief that nothing good happens after midnight, and was told to stay out of those bars because that’s when the devil gets you. Still, I was always curious about what went on in those honky tonks….and fast forward to me now looking back and you know, I’m not so dang curious anymore (laughing). I know it’s mostly bad, so I got out as fast as I got in.

I heard the music that was played there, but my mom and dad always listened to country music especially the guys that could sing well - Glen Campbell on cassette was one of the first voices I ever heard. And I wanted to sound like that. I wanted to sound like Merle Haggard when he sang “That’s the Way Love Goes” and songs like that. I had a love for country music that was unexplainable and no matter what else I‘d done in life, it’s always been at the forefront. If I’m mad, sad, or glad you will always see me with pen and paper writing. Music has been an emotional outlet, a way to pay the bills, kind of a curse sometimes, but man what a blessing it's been most of all.

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And you’ve taken some quite different paths before devoting yourself to music full time such as college, the rodeo and working at a prison. 
When I graduated high school I had no clue what I was going to do. I went to college because that’s what I thought you were supposed to do. I had to pay my own way and that didn’t work out so well, so I worked at the prison because that’s where my Dad worked. He worked there every single day for thirty something years to provide for our family, so being around it my whole life, it was easy for me to transition there.

When I was doing the rodeo, a guy I knew had a studio in his attic and so I bought about two hours-worth of time. I played as many songs as I had written and ended up recording two twelve-track discs with just me and my guitar. Then, I bought a printer and a bunch of discs at Walmart and would sit on my tailgate after a rodeo and play those songs. People would come over and ask for a cd, so I would stick them in the printer, put my face on them and sell them for $5. Doing that was how I found out who Chris Ledoux was and from there, the story was over. Once I found out who he was and that I was following a similar path without even really knowing it, it gave me a fire. It gave validity to what I was doing and the courage to pursue it.

That’s what I meant when I said music always ended up in the forefront. No matter what else I tried to pursue, or what I thought I was going to do, music would always be there. It’s like the good Lord kept putting a guitar in front of my face saying, “No son, this is what you’re supposed to do.” It took me quite a while to take it seriously because when you’re eighteen or twenty-one and you’re on stage you just want to play guitar for the free beer and to make the girls holler, which is about as far as I thought I was going to go. I was living in the moment and it wasn’t until I met my wife, some members of my very first band, and my manager Howie that I began to feel more confident. I’m a very humble person; I have confidence in myself but not like what it takes to tell yourself “You can do it, you got it. You’re gonna be okay.” It’s different when someone else tells you “I’m right there with you, let’s keep doing this because you got something.” When someone else says something like that to you and wants to help you, it gives you that boost to step out of your comfort zone, step on that high wire and try your best. And what a great decision it was, I’ve never been more thankful.

Roping and working in the prison seem to be jobs that definitely shape your world view and require a certain toughness and perseverance. Besides stories for potential songs, did what you learn there carry over into the music industry?
Oh absolutely. I think I learned everything about myself there. They say you really find out who you are when you’re scared and when you ride bulls and work in a prison, well, if you say you’re not scared a little bit, I’m going to call you a liar. There’s a big part of those experiences who made me who I am and I look back on it all the time telling myself not to be scared of what I’m doing right now because I’ve already done all of the scary stuff. Music is easy compared to the time I got knocked out and didn’t wake up for six hours…that was tough. It created that toughness and a world awareness of how special life is and how easy it is to lose it as well as teaching me perseverance and the attitude of knowing that what is ahead of you is a mountain, but you step on it anyway, not quitting until the climbing is done.

And then sure enough with all of that climbing, time and support, things took off with Cowboy Like Me and are already quite frenzied for the new album. Why do you think people connect with you and the music? 
You know I’ll be honest, someone asked me a very similar question and I don’t really know the answer because to be able to answer that would require a certain amount of cockiness and I’ve long since left that go. In the last couple of years, I’ve tried harder to be a better man, a better person, husband, father, songwriter, and performer. I put myself aside and dedicated my life to the people in it. It’s not about what Cody wants or needs, it’s about being tied to this crazy bull called my life and hanging on; taking it the way it is and being appreciative for it.

I think the connection I make with people is because there’s a realness. I don’t sing anything I don’t believe in, I’m not doing anything that’s fake, and I’m not dressing or singing to get famous. I do what I do because it is what’s in my heart - if you cut my veins music is going to pour out of them. It’s who I am to the core and I think the fact that I can say truly with heart and hand to the Bible that if tomorrow I wake up and it’s all gone, I am going to be happy. I’m going to be thankful and say what a hell of a ride that was. I’m appreciative of every note and every crowd whether it’s seven or 7000 people. I owe it to the fans and myself and those good people around me to tell the truth. I want to remain myself whether this thing blows up into the biggest deal since bread and butter or it all ends tomorrow.

By all accounts, Gotta Be Me is looking to be an even bigger album than Cowboy Like Me. Is there any nervousness, excitement, or both?
I’m excited, but I’m also pretty nervous, I’m not going to deny that. This is a whole different body of water I’m stepping into and I know that every time I take a step forward I’m putting the step before that at risk. But I’m not afraid to be knocked down. I’m not nervous about a lot of things including being accepted, but what I am nervous about is putting myself out there; because whenever there is this much real in a record, and even in this interview, you’re putting yourself out there for people to touch and grasp. It’s a little scary, but I think I’m addicted to things that scare me (laughing).

I read that you wanted to make an album that was an advance musically. Is that sonically, on an artist level or both?
If you listen to the record I feel like you can hear influences from Gospel and Americana to Robert Earl Keen and George Strait. I want you to pick this record up and think, "Wow the musicianship a step up from the last one" - and that’s a big factor for my band because the band on the record is not the same band on the road [The Rockin’ CJB]. My band wants the studio musicians to play licks and do things that go way out of their league so they can learn them, play them on stage and make people say “Holy cow!” On an artist level, I want you to pick it up and look me in the eye so to speak, I want to set the precedent right now that this is where we’re at and this is who we are.

How did you and Trent Willmon, who once again produced the record, go about ensuring those things came across?
Trent had a lot to do with it. He has come so far as a producer from three records ago and I am so proud of him. I sat him down halfway through the session and said, “Dude, what have you been doing?” Before he was just dabbling in producing, but he applied himself like I applied myself. He shadowed producers he respected and learned from them and now I feel like I’m in a room with one of the legends. His dedication and intensity that was put into this album are what made it.

We have a very good relationship in the writing room, during pre-production and in the studio. We work very collaboratively and pull back the reigns on one another when we need to. We’re very give and take. We want to put each other’s opinion first but for the sake of the song neither of us cares who is right or wrong; it’s all about what makes the music the best.

And the album is filled with terrific songs, fourteen of them to be exact which nicely is a bit more than what most put on a typical album. Was it difficult to narrow them down? 
To be honest, we started with maybe forty songs. We sat down in different rooms and made our selections and then came to a happy medium as to what we felt was best for the album. It was sad for me because a lot of songs that didn’t make the record, I wanted to be on the record but I knew in my heart that some songs complimented the record better. You might think it’s like we pick the best fourteen and put them on there, but it’s not like that because although a song may be good, it may stick out like a sore thumb next to another one. You need good songs that complement one another and make one another better. It was a hard process because you love every song that you worked on. I put aside some of my own material just to get some of the outside cuts on this record because at the end of the day I have enough humility to know the best song wins. It can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow but I know I would have been a fool not to cut those songs.

Four of the fourteen are outside cuts. Two in particular that I am drawn to are “Grass Stains” and “Chain Drinkin’”because of their playfulness. What drew you to them?
Both of those were co-written by the Brothers Osborne and came to us by an incredible stroke of luck three to four days before we were headed into the studio. When I heard the demos I paused halfway through the second verse - on both songs - because I couldn’t believe they weren’t going to cut them. They’re both tongue in cheeky but with a serious, badass side. They’re clean, but kind of dirty if you know what I mean; the perfect middle of the road song.

Yes, perfect description. Another song, “The Only One I Know” (Cowboy Life) seems custom written for you.
I was writing with Shane Minor and had an appointment the next day with Jeffrey Steele and Shane says, “You need to listen to this song [written by Minor and Steele].” I listened and immediately fell in love with it. The next day when I was writing with Jeffrey I asked, “Man have you heard this song?” and I played it for him and he’s like, “Yeah, I think I’ve heard that one a time or two…why don’t you record it?”

It’s such a gorgeous song and one that I think I lived. I miss rodeo. It was hard to walk away from it. I still have friends who do it and are on the road every night driving from one rodeo to the next and when they tell me, “Hey thank you for singing songs for us man,” I know they appreciate them and that gratitude makes me feel like I’m right there with them.

That’s really special. While a lot of these songs are you and sound like you, there is one song that maybe has a different, but good, feel to it……"Kiss Goodbye." Did that take you out of your comfort zone a little bit?
It did until we started playing it live and I saw the reaction from the crowd. We played it for the first time recently and when I started talking the crowd went completely silent. No one looked away, they stared at me and when I started singing I felt that intensity, like a horse starting to run. They didn’t know the words, but by the chorus they knew them and had their fists in the air, dancing. And I felt like “Wow, I just pulled off something that did not feel like me” and that’s a testament to Trent getting me out of my comfort zone.

My nightly high is being on stage and hearing people scream and sing - that’s intense high voltage; there’s nothing like it – but every time you get on stage for something new it’s kind of like talking to a girl for the first time. You’re nervous, trying to get her to like you, just like you’re trying to get people to like you and your songs and so you’re a little afraid to play something you’re not known for. But I always remember something Gary Leffew told me. He told me to surround myself with good people and remain in a constant state of positive expectancy and if you do that, you’ll always be successful. I respect the people I surround myself with so when they said, “Trust me the song is you, it’s not what you’re thinking it is, but it’s 110% you,” the validity of that came through when I got on stage and the fans said that it was good. And you’re like, “All right, everybody is all good. I like it.”

To get that kind of crowd reaction must be incredibly gratifying. In the other direction is “Walk Away,” a traditional country ballad. 
I wrote that with Randy Rogers who is not only one of my favorite singers, but is also a friend and someone who has influenced my career. We were talking, toying with ideas, and he said, “Let’s write something so country it’ll never get played on the radio, like George Jones or Gary Stewart country.” And I was like, “O.K. Here we go.” The story very much started with a line I brought and after that it was history. I didn’t have anything specific I was writing about because I’m happily married, so I don’t know where the song came from, but I had that line so I just put it out there to see what would happen - and I’m so glad I did.

From the first song, “Gotta Be Me” to the last “I Can’t Even Walk” (Without You Holding My Hand) the album makes a definitive statement of who you are. Was it intentional to place them as the opening and closing tracks? 
Absolutely. I wanted those songs to be the first and last ones you heard. I wanted “Gotta Be Me” to be a message for the fans, radio and the industry as to who I am. And at the end of the record, with “I Can’t Even Walk” I wanted to make clear that who I am is not because of me, it’s because I handed the reigns over to the good Lord. I know He sees me when I’m not praying or when I am not taking my family to church, and also when I am, and I wanted to give glory to Him.

Your parents both sing on the track with you. Is it one that has a special significance for the three of you?
That song is one we used to sing in church and is a good testament to my life. It’s such a simple statement that’s also just so powerful. Think about being a little kid when you’re just starting to walk and you let go of mom or dad’s hand and you skin your knee. The first thing you do is reach for a hand and every time I let go of His hand, I try to reach back for it. And having my parents come in and sing on it with me…. there may have been some tears shed. It was really special.