Who’s scared of big, bad major labels? Cody Johnson, a former professional rodeo competitor and a stalwart of the proudly independent Texas country scene, transitions easily into the heart of the Nashville machine on his new album — fittingly titled Ain’t Nothin’ to It.
Texas country is often ignored in national conversations about the genre, which tend to focus on the never-ending battle between country’s traditional wing — now embodied by all things Americana — and its pop-leaning faction. But the scene in Texas is big enough that it can operate separately from either of those country cliques. The state has its own radio charts, and artists can enjoy long careers there without ever gaining a national following or a major-label contract. Johnson is a prime example: As an indie act, he reached Number Two on the Country Albums chart with 2016’s Gotta Be Me.
Johnson was reportedly wary of suiting up for a major. Cris Lacy, senior vice president of A&R for Warner Nashville, told Music Row she had been trying to sign him for eight years. But he’s the same old singer on Ain’t Nothin’ to It. Cowboys are an endangered species in modern Nashville writing rooms; Johnson still sings about them as if Chris LeDoux never went out of style (“Where Cowboys Are King,” “Dear Rodeo”). Fiddles have mostly gone the way of the dodo; Johnson is still a believer (“Fenceposts”). And while much of country music is no longer made for dance halls, Johnson still knows hows to make listeners partner up and move (“Honky Tonk Mood”).
At times, Johnson is so determined to show he hasn’t changed that his music ends up sounding even more amped-up than usual. His clobbering cover of Charlie Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Boy” veers into Jason Aldean territory, arena-rock for the country set. The same could be said of “Y’All People,” which uses the “We Will Rock You” beat to slam home country credentials — if you messed up your speakers playing Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” at peak volume, you’re in the club. (Johnson spends a lot of time listing his musical reference points on this album, to the point where “Monday Morning Merle” makes more sense as a Spotify playlist than a song.)
So where does the label come in? Major labels have clout in the radio world, which remains of vital importance in country. Sure enough, lead single “On My Way to You” is now Johnson’s biggest-ever hit on the airwaves.
Still, late on Ain’t Nothin’ to It, you’ll find him on the offensive, taking aim at people who “got nothin’ better to do than throw rocks at things that shine.” “You oughta be chasing your own dreams/’Stead of shootin’ holes in mine,” he adds. Johnson is an insider now — just don’t expect him to act like one.