There once was a time when every new artist on the scene was desperate to sign a record deal with a major company. Well that’s no longer the case. The Internet, iTunes, social media and other cultural advances have gone a long way towards leveling the playing field and giving indie acts as much as chance of success as their corporately-backed counterparts. Cody Johnson is among the new breed of artists who are taking charge of their own career, calling the shots and achieving success on their own terms.
“I spent a lot of time in Nashville, my manager and I, trying to fit in to get a record deal because we thought that’s what would perpetuate my career,” says Johnson, who has always maintained his home base in Texas but traveled to Nashville frequently when he was writing songs for former Arista Nashville chief Tim DuBois’ publishing company. “Two or three different record labels really reached out at that time and tried to facilitate a deal, but it just didn’t make sense on the business side of things. If you are going to be an artist, you’d better have a hold of your business, that’s what drives it. We tried to make it work, and no matter which way we bent and which way they bent, it never did line up. It didn’t ever feel right so we sat down and had a talk about it. We prayed about it and we said, ‘It’s just not for us right now.’”
Remaining independent has worked out well for Johnson. A native of tiny Sebastopol, Texas, Johnson has racked up 160 million streams in the last 12 months and has sold over a million dollars worth of music on iTunes alone. In the last 18 months, he’s sold over 500,000 concerts tickets and his 2016 album, Gotta Be Me, debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes Country Album chart. He recently became the first artist to sell out Sam Houston Race Park.
“That was a big milestone,” he says. “After we played the Houston Rodeo this year, I wasn’t how we could ever find something to compare with that. That was a lot of people and a lot of adrenaline, but not too long after, we wound up right there back in Houston with 10,000 fans at the Race Park and it had the same intensity as the Houston Rodeo. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I had been sick most of that day. I had a little stomach bug and I was not feeling too well. I had to have some IV’s actually because I was so dehydrated. I was wondering if that was going to affect me but as soon as you step out on stage, and you see and hear a crowd like that, all that ails you goes away.”
Johnson is living the dream that began when he was very young. “My mother said I was singing when I came out of the womb,” says Johnson, who cites George Strait, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings as influences. “Both sides of my family have always been very keen on music. It’s been instilled in my life and I always knew I could play. I wanted to rodeo for a while. I wanted to ride bulls and I had some different dreams I thought I was going to chase, but God has a funny way of making things happen. Somehow music always wound up being my outlet. Whether I was frustrated, whether things were going good, whether things were going bad, I always had music and eventually I got paid to do it. Then a light bulb went off and I thought, ‘Oh, there might be something to this besides making tips.’”
On the way to making music a full-time career, Johnson paid his dues with some interesting day jobs, including a stint as a prison guard overseeing the chain gang on horseback. “It was a pretty wild experience,” he admits with a chuckle. “I started there when I was 18 and worked there for about five years. You grow up pretty quick. That’s what my daddy did for almost 30 something years, so I kind of knew what I was into. I had a beautiful young fiancé at the time, who is now my wife that I wanted to provide for and when you are from a small town, you grow up and do what your daddy did. It had health benefits and that’s what my life was looking like until I started getting more gigs and then I couldn’t hardly keep my job anymore. I was calling in and had to take off too much time. My wardens, the ones that I worked for, actually encouraged me and they said, ‘You could always come back to this. Go chase that dream and if you fall flat on your face, there ain’t going to be no shortage of prisons.’”
Thankfully, his career took off and he left prison life behind, but doesn’t regret the time there. “There were some days when it was not so great and you wondered if you were going to come home or not,” he admits, “but when you are in that situation you kind of just block it out, and go to work like it’s no big deal. It’s something that stays with you for the rest of your life and it shakes you a bit, but I wouldn’t take any of it back, bad or good days, it helped shape me for sure.”
When not making music, most of his time these days is spent doing Crossfit, roping, riding and spending time with his wife and two little girls at their home in Huntsville, Texas. But he misses his bull riding days. “I started riding bulls when I was about 15 and I fell in love with the adrenaline,” he says. “I don’t ride bulls anymore. . .I loved the intensity. It’s pretty rough and dangerous. I busted my eye socket once. I broke my right clavicle and right leg in two places, and a couple of ribs on my left side. I’ve been broke up a lot, but I did okay. I won some buckles and here and there. I won some money, but I was never that top hand and I knew that. Honestly I probably rode broncs better than I rode bulls, but I was just being hard headed. I wanted to be a bull rider. Now days I rope and ride horses. It’s really easier.”
And obviously Johnson devotes a great deal of time to his music, touring extensively and getting ready to record a new album next year with his friend and producer Trent Willmon. He’s currently writing new material and also looking for outside songs that fit his positive attitude and solidly country sensibilities.
As he gets ready to record his sixth album, Johnson’s career has never been hotter, but he’s not one to dwell on his growing list of impressive statistics. When asked what he thinks it is about his music that is resonating so strongly, he responds, “Honestly, the same thing that I’ve always attributed it to is giving God the reins on my career and my life and keeping good people around me —my manager, my wife, my band, and my team that surround me . . .The good Lord puts us where he wants us to be and I do my job the best I can every time I get there. I try to keep it pretty simple.”
He also tries not to let the current success change him. “I keep my head very much out of the clouds. People are constantly telling me how big of ripples we’re making and how much of a ruckus we are causing. I honestly don’t pay attention to it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I have about a six-person team that does all my social media. I don’t have a Facebook page. I don’t look at any of it. I try to just do my job and keep out all the ego and all that stuff that may come along with all of this and just remain normal. I think the authenticity of who I am when I hit that stage may have something to do with it and that’s because I am keeping my head out of the clouds and making sure that no matter what I’m not getting caught up in this thing and start acting like a rock star. I just want to keep playing country music.”
And if the big labels continue courting him, would he ever sign? “I’m not really anti-label,” he says. “I figure if it’s supposed to happen someday the right deal is going to get made and it will be with the right people, but now we’re just sticking to our guns because quite frankly I feel we have a brand in country music that’s worth fighting for. We’ve got a lot of people out there supporting us and I don’t really want to change what we’ve got going. Like I said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”