In his new duet with Reba, “Dear Rodeo,” Cody Johnson sings about breaking up with the sport, in which he was a star bull rider. “Rodeo is a very beautiful gypsy woman,” he says of the love song about the sport he left behind, “and she left me when I didn’t apply myself as I should have to that marriage.”
Cody wrote the song with Dan Couch, and says they wrote the song from the perspective of rodeo as a woman who left him. “This was the perfect woman, I had the perfect marriage, but I didn’t focus on keeping that woman happy and make her love me back. She left and I was alone with the mistakes I made, thinking ‘Why am I here by myself?’ I had to admit it was because I didn’t try hard enough.”
After Shane Tarleton, who works for Johnson’s label, Warner Brothers, heard the song, he immediately said, “Reba has to hear this.” Once he played it for her, she was immediately on board. After all, she could easily identify with it because she was a barrel rider in the days before she became a country music superstar.
“Getting her involved was pretty easy, because we have very similar backgrounds in rodeo,” Johnson explains. “She is so gracious and a wonderful professional and said, ‘Thank you for letting me be a part of the song.’ I was like, ‘No, thank you.’
“When she was talking about the song, she said, ‘The song gets to me because it’s about where I come from. I feel like this is my song.’ When you have that authenticity, it really relates with people.”
Johnson fell in love with music when he was 12, but as a teenager rodeo called his name and he decided to become a bull rider, one of the hardest and possibly most dangerous categories in that sport.
“I think I was just young and stupid and competitive,” Johnson says of his decision to enter bull riding competitions. “I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie and I’ve always liked my foot a little harder on the accelerator than most people. There was something about doing something that you know can kill you that makes it more fun to me.
“Ironically, looking back, I’m a good team roper and I can ride the hell out of a cutting horse. I don’t know why I didn’t do that back then. If I went back to rodeo, I would not ride bulls. I’d rather ride a gentle horse and swing my rope.”
Johnson’s career in rodeo resulted in numerous injuries that he says were no fun, but just as others in the sport, they were a part of doing what he loved. He was a huge fan of the late Chris LeDoux, a world champion bareback bronc rider who also knew what it was like to have a few broken bones. LeDoux also loved music and sold his early albums from the back of his truck at rodeos. Johnson found himself doing the same, beginning with his debut album, Black and White Label in 2006. Like LeDoux, he also ended up signing with a major label in Nashville after building a lucrative career for himself in music.
Ironically, Johnson’s career has patterned that of another super star, George Strait. In 1983, Strait was called upon to fill in for Eddie Rabbit, who came down with the flu and cold not perform at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is the world’s largest livestock show and richest regular-season rodeo. He was a hit and continued to perform and sell out shows there for years.
In 2017, Johnson got the call to fill in for Old Dominion at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, who, because of a death in one of the band member’s families, could not perform at the event. On March 8, 2017, Johnson performed his first show at the event to 60,000-plus people. The crowd loved him, screaming and yelling for him as if he had been scheduled to play there all along. If there was anyone who didn’t know him when he walked on stage, he won them over with his own brand of music and his energetic stage performance by the time the show was over. Johnson has performed at the rodeo every year since his debut, becoming the first independent performer to sell out the NRG Stadium to a crowd of more than 70,000 in 2019.
From Johnson’s perspective, returning to perform at the Houston Rodeo and others around the country remind him of just how much he learned as a bull rider that has helped him in his country music career.
“I won’t say all of the country music industry, but in my world it’s very similar to rodeo,” Johnson says, explaining, “It’s a grass roots, start from ground up experience, which is how rodeo translates also. I’ve been on tour with artists where you can tell they didn’t come from the honky tonks, didn’t come up from putting in the work yourself. It’s very obvious when you are around those people, you know you are cut from two different cloths.
“In the rodeo world the cowboy mentality is ‘No one is going to give you anything, you aren’t owed anything, if you want something, get off your butt and go get some dirt under your fingernails and get it yourself.’ I’ve taken that mentality to country music — here I am, here are my goals, here is what I set out to do. I’m not afraid to take constructive criticism, not afraid to have failure or get bucked off. It’s all about getting back on.”
Johnson’s advantage when he came to Nashville and joined Warner Music Nashville is that he had already built a fan base through his years of hard work in clubs and honky tonks, and had become a well-known name in Texas and beyond. By the time he signed with Warner, he was filling venues all over the U.S. and his first album with them, “Ain’t Nothin’ To It,” debuted at number one on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. The lead single, “On My Way To You,” hit the Top 20 on the country radio chart and commanded more than 33 million on-demand streams. He says his fans stick with him because they have learned to trust him.
“It comes down to do what you say you’re gonna do. If you say you’re gonna do something, don’t falter from that. I played two sold-out shows at the Grizzly Rose, back to back, and I was so sick I was doing IVs during the day so I could make it to the show that night. I’ve never really backed down. I tell people, if you feel like you can hang with me by all means try your best. I’ve traveled a lot of miles over the last seven years. For instance, one week I played three shows in the Midwest, then flew to New York to do interviews and TV, and then flew to Los Angeles to meet the band to do four more shows.”
Johnson’s live show could earn him Entertainer of the Year one day, as he has honed his craft of making sure his fans have a great time when they see him, no matter if it’s a small club, a 2,500 seat bar or a rodeo arena. There is a lot of energy and great communication between him and his audience, and they love his music, whether it be the raucous tunes or the sweet ballads.
“If fans see you show up and do what you promised, you’ll earn their trust. I walk in the door and look them in the eye and I play like I’m in Gillette Stadium. I think that is what they see. When blue collar America goes out and works their butt off and then spends that hard-earned money on you, and you give them their money’s worth, they know you are a product they can count on to make their day better. You earn those people’s trust, you form this bond, and they know that I’m giving them the truest parts of deep inside my soul every night. I don’t put my show hat on, this is really Cody Johnson.”
Johnson is proud of his deal with the record label but he says he would be playing music whether radio plays him or not. “It comes down to grit and determination, I will strive to make music people want even if people say I won’t make it. Warner Brothers never tried to change me, they never said take off your hat. I have 18 songs on my new record for them and all I’ve been asked is when will we get to hear it. That’s a beautiful thing.”
Most of the songs Johnson has recorded in the past were written by him, but for the new album he decided to take a different approach. As the time came to record a new project, he and Scott Gunner, who handles his publishing, put out word that he was looking for songs, but stipulated that they had to be written before the years 2000.
“Scott reached out with the “Great 20th Century Cody Johnson Song Search,” Johnson says. “He invited all these writers to submit songs but he said, ‘I don’t want to hear anything written past 2000 … the only songs I want would be written before 2000.”
Johnson explains, “In 2000 we started to hear things change in country music. People were searching for something… it was the more slick, skinny jean phase, it’s like people stopped knowing who they were, and they were searching to try to make it work. Before 2000, songwriters weren’t writing for Jason Aldean, they wrote a song and maybe Aldean would cut it. It was a completely different way of writing. So these writers had all these songs that were ‘too country.’ Can you believe that? So we got these guys like Brett James, Terry McBride, Jeffrey Steele, they couldn’t get some of the songs they wrote back then cut because they were too country and they brought those songs to me.
“When it came down to getting songs for this new project, we had tons of material. I was so taken back by the amount of songs that were poured out to us. All these men and women sent us these great songs and I was like, ‘Who am I to get these great songs?’ So I wound up with 18 songs on this record. They were the 18 best songs that got pitched to me. They spoke to me when I listened to them. It was like putting on a brand new pair of boots; they fit. The song was written for me. If I played this song for my mother, she would think I wrote it. My fans will think I’ve lived it.”
Because of COVID-19, Johnson says they had plenty of time while recording the new album which allowed them to get really creative with it. “If a song needed to be slow and sad, then we could spend time to do that. Or if it was a bluegrass song then we could do that. Warner Brothers is the only label in town who would allow me to go in and trust me to do a good job.”
The album will be out next year and Johnson says he can’t wait for his fans to hear it. “I feel like it’s my best record yet. The band played on seven of the tracks. I’ll put my band up against any band playing live but playing in the studio is a different ballgame. They did so well, and the album flows so smoothly.”
While he waits for the pandemic to be over, Cody has been able to do things at home in Texas that he would not have been able to do had he not had this amount of time off.
“I’ve just been catching up. I live on 50 acres and have more acreage under contract. We raise exotic deer which is a pretty lucrative business here in Texas. I was able to spend time to do stuff on my place that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do. Most people might not enjoy building fence or clearing brush but I did.
“I think for me just getting to work on the ranch, take the girls fishing, go sit in a deer stand and watch the squirrels, take my girl on dates, teach her how a man should treat her. Take my wife on dates. That’s all I’ve done all summer and it’s been very fulfilling. I’ve strained myself physically, but I sleep good at night.
“I’ve really taken this opportunity to not think about music… who am I without the bus and crowd? I’ve focused on pieces of myself I want to work on to make better and focused on stuff that has nothing to do with music. I have not picked up a guitar unless we were doing a live stream. I have not sang a song except for bedtime lullabies. People ask how are you doing without music and performing? I get emotional, tear up on how much I miss it, but I’ll not take it out of perspective on this opportunity I’ve had to be home.”
Johnson will go out December 3-12 to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, to be held this year in Arlington, Texas at Globe Life Field. The event is usually held in Las Vegas. Seats will be available in groups of four with separation between each group. All performances will be covered by The Cowboy Channel live and simulcast on RFD-TV as well as being streamed on the PRCA on Cowboy Channel Plus app. In conjunction with the rodeo finals, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Convention will be held November 30-December 3. Cowboy Christmas at the Fort Worth Convention Center will run concurrently with the rodeo.
“It’s really cool, but also very unfortunate why it’s in Texas this year,” Johnson admits. “This whole thing is crazy to me, that we can gather and do certain things but we can’t have shows. I’ve tried to stay on the very positive side of it. It’s like I’m in my own back yard, and I don’t have to travel to Vegas. It will be fun to just go to Fort Worth. And it is cool to be part of rodeo history … I don’t think the finals have been in Texas since 1958 and it may never happen again. I’ve got three shows booked at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth and we’re also negotiating where I might get to perform at the rodeo.”
Johnson will forever be connected to rodeo even as his music career climbs to the top for him. Of rodeo he says, “My focus was on the wrong thing and when I addressed that in ‘Dear Rodeo,’ much like a therapy session, I’d be direct with her (rodeo) and say I’d be lying if I tried to tell you I don’t think about you.” Quoting the song, Johnson says, “I tried like hell to tell myself it was all your fault, I held on tight with all my might but I couldn’t hang on.”
The singer goes on to say, “It is hard to admit you’re not good enough at something, whether it’s a failed marriage or a dream of something you didn’t succeed. It’s hard to admit that you were the catalyst that dammed up the river of success. It’s also empowering and freeing to address that failure, and then to admit to yourself, ‘If I hadn’t failed, I wouldn’t have had the success I have today.’
“In interviews you’ll hear me talk a lot about perspective. Perspective to me is the sharpest tool a human being has. From perspective comes focus and from focus comes drive. I think if you get all those things in line, failure isn’t failure anymore, it isn’t a dirty word anymore. It’s more like ‘Where am I going next, where is this leading,’ instead of thinking of it as a brick wall.”