“I’m a long country mile from bein’ in style, dirty hat and cowboy boots,” Cody Johnson sings in the first line of the infectious, gently swinging title track from his latest LP Gotta Be Me. True as that may be, the Texas-born musician cleans up well, stepping into freshly starched Wranglers and commanding the stage where his crowd-pleasing tunes have taken on a wild life of their own, thanks to his devoted fan base. Johnson confidently asserts his musical independence throughout Gotta Be Me and yet finds himself rapidly hurtling toward mainstream stardom with a unique concept in his arsenal: actual country music.
“It may seem surface at face value,” Johnson tells Rolling Stone Country. “It’s very simple. In the words of David Lee [‘Hello World,’ ’19 Somethin”], who came up with the ‘Gotta Be Me’ hook, if you’re not yourself you’re nothing. Integrity, the type of pride you take in the work you do in your trade, it’s no different than if I swung an ax for a living. I have to be myself. It’s not about money, it’s not about fame; it’s about giving you music that’s 110 percent true and it’s built on being real. It’s built on character.”
One aspect of Johnson’s character that comes through as Gotta Be Me roars on is his knack for upping the ante on himself. The rough-and-tumble anthem “Chain Drinkin'” leads to the turbo-charged “Billy’s Brother,” and the flirty “Grass Stains” turns romantic in “With You I Am” and “Half a Song.” But Johnson saves the best for last with the LP closer “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand),” a spine-tingling bluegrass-gospel tune awash in gorgeous harmony.
Johnson was born in the tiny community of Sebastapol, on the eastern shore of the Trinity River, where the primary industry was a local prison. “In my family, you either worked for the prison, or you were locked up in the prison.” He was, in fact, one of the former, working as a guard on horseback keeping watch over prisoners in the fields as they often sang prison work songs. He would go on to become a rodeo rider, collecting scars, broken bones and plenty of stories about the rugged, adventurous existence along the way, one of which, “The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life),” is featured on Gotta Be Me.
In the past two years, Johnson has sold over 500,000 concert tickets as a headliner and in just the past 18 months, his music has been streamed an astounding 80 million times, all without radio airplay, selling 60,000 albums and 400,000 singles in that same time period. Dirty hat and cowboy boots aside, Gotta Be Me finds him dressed for even greater success.