Cody Johnson is certain his time has come. The former prison guard and rodeo rider from Huntsville, Texas (pop. 38,000), has earned his chance at country music stardom the hard way, racking up streams and building a fan base as a true-blue independent for more than a decade. Now, with the release of Ain’t Nothin’ to It on Warner Music Nashville, Johnson is eager to show what he can accomplish with the weight of a major label behind him.
“I just know I’ve worked my whole life to be here. This is that moment. I don’t want to sit around with my head in the sand going, ‘When’s it ever gonna happen?’ It’s happening right now,” says Johnson, fresh off a trip to Colorado to launch his first hat line with Resistol Hats. “I’m in ‘bring it on’ mode. This is why I do it. I’m here, it’s time, this is the one where I hope to change things.”
Based on past form, Johnson, 31, would do well to not change too much. His past two albums, 2014’s Cowboy Like Me and 2016’s Gotta Be Me, both reached the Top Ten of the country music charts, with the latter climbing all the way to Number Two and — perhaps more impressively — even reaching Number 11 on the Billboard 200 all-genre survey. With more than 400 million streams to his name, Johnson was only going to sign a record deal on his terms.
The terms Johnson got from Warner boss John Esposito are what he calls a “50-50 co-venture partnership,” with an emphasis on keeping control of his music. “That was the biggest reservation, that I’m not gonna let them have a piece of a pie they didn’t help me make,” says Johnson. “My fan base is rabid, man. It doesn’t matter what I put out. Sales weren’t really what drove me. It was to broaden the spectrum of sales — that portion of the country that only buys what plays on the radio.”
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Already it appears that Johnson is getting a breakthrough in the radio market, as Ain’t Nothin’ to It‘s lead single, “On My Way to You,” has risen to Number 23 — his first to even crack the Top 40 of mainstream country radio. The contemplative ballad is a perfect calling card for the album’s 15 tracks, with a spare but spacious sound that evokes the wide-open expanses of the Lone Star State and a meant-to-be credo that puts its fortunes firmly in the hands of destiny.
A key negotiating point for Johnson was that Ain’t Nothin’ to It was already in the can before he signed his contract. “[We said,] ‘Let’s go in, have fun, no agenda, just focus on picking the best songs, writing the best songs, and making those songs the best they possibly can be, for no other sake than the love of music,'” he says. “When we recorded Gotta Be Me, we were very strategic about what we were writing and producing. This time, we just had fun.”
Being a part of the Warner stable, and in particular the rapport he’s formed with Esposito, has been educational for Johnson, especially from a business standpoint. But it’s also helped validate his convictions. “This is who I am and why I’m on this earth. I really feel like this merger with Warner is a godsend because they’ve allowed me to be exactly who I am and not change anything about myself or my music,” he says. “The concept boggles a lot of peoples’ minds, but when you think about it, it’s not that crazy — to allow somebody to be themselves rather than direct them into whatever is quote-unquote selling.”
As with its predecessor, Ain’t Nothin’ to It kicks off with its title track, a wistful slice of old-age wisdom with a tough, hard-earned appreciation for the little pleasures in life. “Fenceposts” is the wide-eyed companion piece about laying down roots, while “Honky Tonk Mood” is the exact good time its title suggests it to be.
Despite the authentic, lived-in feel of these songs, Johnson only wrote two of the tracks on Ain’t Nothin’ to It: the album closer “Dear Rodeo” and the live bonus cut “His Name Is Jesus.” Selecting the songs was all a matter of feel. “It’s like trying on a pair of boots. It may be a really nice pair of boots, but if you put ’em on and they’re not comfortable, and you can’t walk every day in ’em, why get ’em?” he says.
For a man who’s not prone to live with regrets, “Dear Rodeo” proved far more cathartic than Johnson would have anticipated, as it found him unpacking the baggage of the bull riding career he never pursued. “For a long time I wouldn’t even watch rodeo. It made me so sad because I felt like I hadn’t accomplished something,” says Johnson. Once again, he sees the song fitting into a larger plan. “I wanted to ride bulls but that ain’t what God had planned for me. Instead of me writing half the record, three-quarters of the record, I’m fine with just that one song. I consider that my favorite song that I’ve ever written.”
Last week saw the kickoff to what promises to be a busy tour schedule for Johnson in 2019 — so much so that he opted to reschedule a handful of shows last fall in order to give his voice a rest ahead of time. In the coming months he’ll headline Rodeo Houston, the largest rodeo and livestock event of its kind in the world, for a third time.
He’s proud of what he’s accomplished (he is quick to credit his faith in God), but he also exudes an air of defiance. Listen to the frothing album track “Doubt Me Now,” which Johnson admits parallels his own career. Especially when it comes to being labeled “Texas music.”
“There’s a stigma being from Texas — that I’m Texas music, not Nashville music. But it’s great now. I’m a Texas guy who created a Texas record and signed to a national label, so it’s helping to bridge that gap,” Johnson says.
In fact, he’s convinced that he wouldn’t have been able to build his grassroots following, dubbed the CoJo Nation, anywhere else. “Texas, in many ways, is its own country. People there only listen to that music,” he says. “But here’s what’s different between me and other people who get flak about being from Texas: I really don’t care. I don’t care one bit.”