Interview: Cody Johnson’s Rodeo Past, Faith in God Help His Career Along
Country music is the unofficial soundtrack of the rodeo, but the two go hand-in-hand because of more than their rural roots: Whether you’ve just been thrown off a bull or received a “thanks, but no thanks” from yet another industry exec, you need a thick skin and a good deal of courage and mental toughness to get back up and try again.
“Getting the snot kicked out of you and having to muster up the courage to get back on even when you’re sacred or unsure, that type of mentality is something I’ve taken from the sport of bull riding,” explains Cody Johnson, a Texas-bred singer-songwriter who just so happened to ride in his younger years (or relatively younger years, as he’s still a year away from 30). In fact, Johnson’s bull-riding mantra has continued to be his musical one: “I’m gonna be me. I’m gonna keep my head down and try hard, and no matter how many times this thing might buck me off, I’m gonna get back on.”
On Friday (Aug. 5), Johnson will release his sixth studio album, Gotta Be Me. The 14-track project is filled with traditional country from beginning to end and features famous names such as Randy Rogers and the Brothers Osborne among its writing credits. Even without seeing the writers list, listeners will likely catch Rogers’ influence on “Walk Away,” which Johnson co-penned, and hear John and TJ Osborne in “Grass Stains” and “Chain Drinkin'” — but they’ll still believe the words coming out of Johnson’s mouth.
“No matter how good [an outside] song is, it’s like a pair of boots,” Johnson muses. “You don’t want to wear a pair of boots that doesn’t fit you; that’s how you get really sore feet, and you don’t walk the same.”
Johnson didn’t get his hands on the Osbornes’ contributions to Gotta Be Me until shortly before he was headed into the studio with producer Trent Willmon. The two had narrowed down their song selections, “but we both felt like there was something else needed,” the artist recalls — a piece of his personality that was missing from the project. It took only a listen to a verse and chorus of each tune to know they would fill that void, so Johnson set aside some of his own material to make it happen.
“For the sake of the project, I feel like this was the right decision,” he tells The Boot, “and we were grateful to have them.”
But there’s another song on Gotta Be Me, “The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life),” that is particularly important to Johnson, even though he didn’t write it. Penned by Shane Minor and Jeffrey Steele, the track tips a hat to rodeo riders — Johnson himself, as well as good friends who are still on the circuit — and “speaks to me in a way that no song I’d ever written about rodeo had,” Johnson says, reminiscing about playing for tips outside rodeos he’d ridden in, to make some extra cash.
“That’s where I learned how to write songs and write down what was going on in my head,” he remembers.
One of the record’s most unique moments, however, comes halfway through, with “Kiss Goodbye,” a song that finds Johnson speaking, rather than singing, its verses. Dale Oliver put together a demo of the track, without words, and gave it to Dan Couch, who came up with the first verse almost instantly. Together, Couch and Johnson finished the song off, and Johnson calls it “one of the coolest writing stories of any song I’ve ever written.”
“I didn’t want it to come across as a rap; I wanted it to come across as a George Strait “You Look So Good in Love” or anything Conway Twitty ever talked on or a Tom T. Hall kind of thing,” Johnson notes. And although he was a bit worried about making it work in the studio, “as soon as we started into it, it was country, it was real, and I could feel it … I think it has so much imagery and so much scenic view in it that I couldn’t deny it.”
Johnson admits that he is, of course, always trying to best his last effort with his next one — a competitive streak that he attributes to his rodeo days — without “selling out” to be successful. However, he especially has a lot to live up to this time around: His previous album, 2014’s Cowboy Like Me, debuted at No. 7 on the Top Country Albums chart, an especially impressive feat considering that Johnson was, and still is, an independent artist. Labels have made him offers, but “there’s just something about being independent … that’s intriguing and enticing.”
“It’s not that we don’t want it, but right now, we’re just not in the need for it,” Johnson clarifies. “We’re happy with what we’ve got, and we’re taking and utilizing it the best we can.”
Besides, Johnson knows there’s a higher power in control anyway.
“It’s not about me at all. I’ve given it over to Him, and wherever He wants me to be, that’s pretty much where I’m gonna wind up,” Johnson says, “and i’m okay with that.”
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