Texas singer-songwriter Cody Johnson started out pursuing a career in rodeo, and wound up as a hard-driving entertainer who has become the only (at the time) unsigned artist to sell out NRG Stadium at RodeoHouston and went on to earn a Top 15 hit on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with “On My Way to You” in 2019.
On his latest Warner Music Nashville/COJO Music album, Human: The Double Album (out Oct. 8), and his recent documentary Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story, he brings the same ambitious attitude that he held in his rodeo days, giving it all he’s got and leaving it all in the ring.
Johnson previously channeled his journey of being forced to leave behind his old dreams of being a rodeo champion into the song “Dear Rodeo,” penned with Dan Couch. The song was featured on his debut major label album, Ain’t Nothing To It, which reached the top of Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.
“The lyrics to ‘Dear Rodeo’ could have been something I said in a therapy session,” Johnson tells Billboard. “You know how people write things down on paper and then burn them afterwards? It could have been one of those things. And I literally said to Dan the day we wrote it, I said, ‘Nobody’s going to relate to this. It’s just too specific.’ And I’m glad I was wrong.”
The song soon caught the ear of Reba McEntire, whose own early days in rodeo helped launch her career, when she performed the “Star Spangled Banner” at the National Finals Rodeo in 1974. Reba joined Johnson for a duet of “Dear Rodeo,” followed by a video, and shares her own connection to rodeo in Johnson’s documentary.
“I thought we could show Tuff Hedeman, a Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer — and I thought about Trevor Brazile, one of the greatest decorated cowboys of all time. It was too much for a music video and [Warner Music Nashville executive vice president, artist development] Shane Tarleton said, ‘I feel like this could be a movie.’ I wasn’t sure about making a movie about my story — it seemed a little egotistical — but he said, ‘What if I told you Reba wanted to be involved?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Because who would turn that down?”
The documentary, which is currently available via the Apple TV app, will be available beginning Oct. 12 via multiple video and streaming platforms, details Johnson’s journey of pivoting from one career field to another, but also draws upon the lessons he and others have gleaned from their connection to rodeo. The documentary also features Taya Kyle, the widow of American Sniper’s Chris Kyle, as well as Johnson’s producer and longtime collaborator Trent Willmon.
Johnson rode his first bull at age 15. Johnson admits he’s always been “a bit of an adrenaline junkie. “I saw a challenge and I wanted to accomplish it,” Johnson says. “I was good enough to get by. I had just enough of a taste of it to keep me going, and I really never expected to fail.”
However, Johnson soon found himself selling CDs of his music from the back of his truck to fund his rodeo dreams, only to watch as other competitors took home the coveted buckles. When it became apparent that a career in rodeo wasn’t in the cards, it was a hard setback. Johnson says, “Having that failure at a pretty young age, I felt like, ‘Where does my life go now?’ After that, I didn’t make a lot of good decisions and I wasn’t living in a good way.”
He spent time following in his father’s footsteps, working for the Texas prison system, but also playing in bars. It took his wife Brandi, as well as a group of good friends and meeting his now-manager Howie Edelman, to help Johnson put his full focus on music.
“One of the first things Howie said to me was, ‘Give me a list of places you play,’” Johnson recalls. “And I gave him a list and he said, ‘Okay, we’re not playing any of those places anymore.’ When you’re living week to week, and that’s your paycheck, that’s pretty scary. For the first two years, Howie didn’t make a paycheck. My wife worked very hard to support us during that time. I’ve had people ask me, ‘What advice do you have for kids coming up?’ And I’m like, ‘If you’re going to do it like I did it, just to be prepared to starve for a little while — because that’s the way it is.’”
He kept writing songs, playing concerts and attracting larger and larger crowds, eventually rising to headlining status at the Houston Rodeo and signing with Warner Music Nashville through a deal with his own COJO Music. Though much about Johnson’s sound and look feel like a throwback to ’90s country, success at country radio hasn’t been a sure thing.
“I live in an industry where the cowboy hat is not as popular,” he offers. “With ‘Dear Rodeo,’ one of the reasons why it didn’t get played on a lot of radio stations in different markets was because, and I quote, ‘It was too rodeo for radio, and it reminds people of animal cruelty.’ Which is mind-blowing to me, because my horses eat better than I do.”
On Human: The Double Album, Johnson is a co-writer on four of the album’s 18 tracks — but he also purposefully sought out songwriters familiar with the song structures and styles of songwriting popular with ‘90s country music. The album’s title track was penned by Travis Meadows (Dierks Bentley’s “Riser”) and Tony Lane (George Strait’s “Run”).
“’Human’ sounded almost like a ‘Dear Rodeo,’ part two,” Johnson says. “When you’re in an industry where you hear that people like Tony Lane can’t get songs cut because they are too country, or they’re not fitting into the niche of the newly-appointed, ex-hip-hop program director and what he or she wants, I’m like, ‘Bring them to me.’ I’m not being cocky when I say this, but I have the gumption to cut them.”
Of course, not every song has the gut-punch, heart-on-your-sleeve vulnerability of “Human.” Another track, “Cowboy Scale of 1 To 10,” penned by Johnson, Willmon and David Frasier, also features Red Steagall.
“It has this old Chris LeDoux, Charlie Daniels, Marty Robbins kind of feel to it,” Johnson says. “And it has a pearl of truth, because the guy who really is the cowboy don’t really care what you think about him at all. Then there are the guys that just — they wear the hat, and that’s okay too. But I love how it says, ‘Some ride bulls and some ride fences.’ The album has to have that fun factor, too. I’ve known Red for quite a while now, and I don’t think that’s going to be his last appearance on one of my albums.”
The album’s themes run the gamut from an ode to his daughter in “God Bless the Boy (Cori’s Song)” to the tale of an elderly man reminiscing about all the things he wishes he’d checked off his bucket list in “I Always Wanted To.” Johnson covers “Son of a Ramblin’ Man,” a track penned by Vince Gill and included on his 2006 album These Days.
For Johnson, earning a country radio hit is only worth it if the integrity of the music remains intact. “I always loved Maddie & Tae’s ‘Girl in a Country Song,’ because it’s true,” he says of the 2014 hit about the pervasiveness of sexist content in the era’s country radio hits. “I’m a father of 4-year-old and 6-year-old girls. When I was 18, I loved songs about booty shorts and all that. But now I don’t have respect for it. My goal is to create country music that anyone can come to a show and listen to. And we ride that line, that outlaw-ish side. You’ll hear us play ‘Long Haired Country Boy’ with the line, ‘I get stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon.’”
On the new album, Johnson’s road band plays on several tracks, including Johnson’s duet with Willie Nelson on an update of Nelson’s song “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” from the 1973 album Shotgun Willie.
“He wrote all these great songs and took them to a guy in Nashville,” he says. “A guy told him, ‘I love all your music, but sad songs and waltzes ain’t selling this year, so see you later.’ So Willie wrote that song. If Willie can be told that his songs are not good enough, and then write a song like ‘Sad Songs and Waltzes,’ that made me believe in myself. It was a very special moment having him on this album.”
His upcoming radio release, “Til You Can’t,” cautions listeners to make the most of every moment. “It reminds me of ‘Dear Rodeo’ in that the longer I sing it, my perspective on my own life changes every time I sing it,” he says. “You hear lyrics like fixing up the car with your grandpa, and everyone who hears it thinks, ‘Well, grandpa may die.’ Well, our time is limited, too. I think about all the division that we’ve had politically and with race and different things in our country… If you spend your time spreading hate, your time is going to be up, and that’s all you did with your time here.”
Johnson is the latest country artist to put out a packed album, following Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album, the first half of Thomas Rhett’s Country Again album, and Eric Church’s three-part Heart & Soul project. Like those projects, Johnson’s album is the result of making the best of being off the road for over a year.
“I wanted to land a [knockout] punch with this album and just put as much good material on it and give the fans everything,” he says. “They’ve been telling me for years, ‘We need more music.’ I wanted to give these people that have been supporting me and my family as much material as I possibly can.”
He’s not just talking about Human: The Double Album. He tells Billboard he also has a Christmas album set to release this year.
“There’s two original songs on it,” he says. “I also cover Willie’s ‘Pretty Paper,’ and Merle Haggard’s ‘If We Make It Through December,’ and we do this bluesy version of ‘Santa Claus Is Back in Town.’ Then ‘Away in a Manger’ is super bluegrass, and my wife and two daughters sing on ‘Silent Night.’ I think you’ll see a broad spectrum of sounds, just like we did with Human. We took that same theme and applied it to the Christmas album.”
There’s also a strategy behind the glut of music coming from Johnson: “We want to set it up to where next year, we don’t play 175 shows–maybe we play 75 shows, and each night’s a different set list from old albums, to the new material, or Christmas material closer to the end of the year. I want to set myself up as a businessman to be able to ride the ripples of the hard work and to have a little bit more of a heightened perception, from the public view.”
Johnson’s career ambitions draw on the independent spirit that runs through cowboy culture. Whether national radio success comes is secondary to building an enduring connection with his fans.
“I know I’m the guy from Texas,” Johnson says. “I know I’ve been an independent artist and that my music doesn’t sound like Top 40 hit radio right now. That doesn’t deter me at all. If I never get a number one on radio, if we never get a Grammy, that’s okay. It’s got to be part of God’s plan. It may not be meant for me, but I have to be myself.”