When Texas singer Cody Johnson‘s new album Gotta Be Me landed at No. 2 on the Billboard chart last week – sandwiched between Blake Shelton and Chris Stapleton – you could almost hear the collective confusion in mainstream country circles: “Cody Who? After all, the singer doesn’t have a record deal and gets virtually no play on country radio.
But after 10 years and six self-released albums, 29-year-old Johnson has built a devoted following, selling half a million headlining concert tickets in the last two years alone. And those fans snapped up more than 23,000 copies of his album in its first week, besting first-week numbers this year for acts like Charles Kelley and Martina McBride. “It’s been surreal lately,” Johnson tells PEOPLE. “I couldn’t be any happier.”
With numbers like those, Johnson might not remain one of the Lone Star State’s best-kept secrets for long. Here are 5 things to know about the Sebastopol, Texas, native, who counts George Strait and Garth Brooks among his idols:
1. He’s a Traditionalist – but He’s No Hater:
Johnson is a straight-up, Wrangler-wearing, old-school hat act in an era of ball-cap-clad bros. But the singer insists there’s room in the genre for all. “I was influenced by George Strait and Garth Brooks and Chris LeDoux and Merle Haggard, but I love all of it. People talk all kinds of trash about today’s artists. I’m not one of those guys. I’m just happy to be at the dance.”
2. He’s Got Major Labels Itching to Sign Him:
“We’ve been approached by two or three labels. Some of the deals were very good, but the thing is, I went so long without any attention, I thought, ‘I’m never going to be a guy who will get to go to Nashville and get a label offer.’ So I thought if I wanted it to work, I had to make it work on my own. I’m not saying I’m better or that I can do it without them, but right now we happen to be doing it on our own and I’m proud of that.”
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3. He Can Sing a Prison Song From Personal Experience:
Johnson’s dad was a prison guard at the state prison in nearby Huntsville and the day the singer
turned 18, he followed in his father’s footsteps. “Eventually I wound up on horseback watching the
chain gang out on the field,” he says. “There’s pain and sorrow in prison – that’s one of the things that made Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard so great, they sung about these men – but they also want to hear about joy and happiness. People in prison, people in offices, people in an oilfield somewhere, people stuck somewhere they don’t want to be, music can take them to a different place. I still remember that every night performing.”
4. This Isn’t His First Rodeo:
When he was still in high school, Johnson started riding bulls. “It was pretty much on a dare. The first time, I got the snot knocked out of me,” he says. “But the adrenaline rush is something I never found again. I was addicted from that point on.” He tried to make it on the rodeo circuit, despite several broken bones (Right leg, both arms, a few broken ribs, right clavicle – “but not all at once.”). “The getting hurt part didn’t bother me. It was the not being good enough,” he says. “I saw the writing on the wall.”
5. He’s Paid His Dues:
“Whenever I wouldn’t make enough money at the rodeo– which was a lot of the time – I’d sit on my tailgate afterward and play my guitar and sell CDs I had recorded myself for $5 a pop.” One day, someone compared the young singer to Chris LeDoux, another former rodeo rider turned country singer. “When I figured out who he was, I thought, ‘Someone did this before me. I can do this.’ And it went from there.”