Country Star Cody Johnson Trades Spotlight for Cows in Search for Balance and Inspiration
Cody Johnson's new double album Human has been available for more than one week, and the Texas-based country singer hasn't been online once. He doesn't know that nearly every country music outlet cheers the traditional feel and cowboy culture he brought back to the genre. He hasn't read fan comments about the album. He held up his end of the bargain, released Human, and then he went to buy some cows.
"I checked out," Johnson said. "Literally, I'm calling you in my truck right now because I just left my buddy's house paying for some roping steers."
The disconnect is critical to the prolific artist because it keeps him grounded and his inspiration flowing. By the end of the year, Johnson will have released his feature-length documentary Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story, Human and his first holiday album — A Cody Johnson Christmas out Nov. 19 — in less than six months. His single "'Til You Can't," a sentimental ode to loving your people while you can, is now at country radio.
"I just think it's a balance," Johnson told PEOPLE of the tightrope between his personal and professional life. "I've got 6-year-old and 4-year-old little girls, and I'm trying to be not just somebody who's out trying to get rich or famous. I'm trying to be a good leader to influence the people around me. I want to be better. And the things that make me better are working on my ranch and just doing the normal things."
Johnson programmed himself to turn his onstage persona off and on like a switch — and it was easy. He feels whole on stage, but unplugging, he said, allows him to "come back to work with a new mindset and fall in love with it like I did when I was 18 years old."
Before the pandemic forced him off the road, a documentary, a Christmas album and a double album weren't on his agenda in such quick succession. The singer said he's blessed that he didn't have to worry about the financial impact of COVID-19, so he pivoted from a calendar of live shows to days spent in the recording studio. He sat down with his producer Trent Willmon and publisher Scott Gunner and said, "OK, what are we going to record?"
They sifted through songs without specific goals. Johnson's record label's executives were working from home, which gave him more freedom to create his album. He co-wrote four of the 18 songs with others coming courtesy of Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, heavy-hitting songwriters including Travis Meadows, Carson Chamberlain, Ben Hayslip, Harlan Howard, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas, and fellow artists Chris Janson and Matt Stell. Willmon, Gunner and Cris Lacy, EVP of A&R at Warner Music Nashville, pitched in to find the outside cuts. Every time Johnson heard a song that stuck in his head for weeks, he added it to his "pile." There were 18 songs in line for him to record, and he was ready to hang his reputation on each of them. He worked on the collection for a year. When he finally told John Esposito, chairman and CEO of Warner Music Nashville, about Human and its 18 tracks, the executive was utterly supportive. (Johnson is signed to a co-venture with Warner Music Nashville and his own COJO Music.)
Shane Tarleton, executive vice president of artist development at Warner Music Nashville, suggested splitting the 18 songs into two nine-song albums.
"We weren't chasing radio," Johnson said. "We weren't chasing playlists. We weren't chasing charts. We just wanted the songs that moved me that made me feel like I could record it and move you. Those are the kinds of things you can do when you have the freedom. Then when you have the time, you can't ignore it because it's just a godsend."
Johnson chose to remake Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes" and Gill's "Son of a Ramblin' Man" because they were fan-favorites when he played them on stage.
When he sequenced the album, Johnson pretended he was writing the setlist for the last show he would ever play and that the concert was at Nashville's famous Ryman Auditorium. While he usually structures his concerts to open with a blast of energy, he chose to start this experience with "Human," a vulnerable ballad about mistakes and forgiveness.
"It is the most impactful track to me on the entire album because it spoke more about me and what's going on inside my head and inside my heart and soul than any song I've ever heard," Johnson said. "After 2020, I think a lesson we can all learn is no matter what your income, no matter what race, no matter what walk of life you come from, we all have the struggles that remind us that we're just human."
He chose songs for different reasons, such as he needed a particular sound, tempo or energy to continue the momentum he created in the tracklist. Johnson ended the first album in a serious place with "I Always Wanted To," but didn't linger. Johnson launched record two with "I Don't Know a Thing About Love," a Harlan Howard song that the singer describes as more Motown than Conway Twitty.
"I want to bring you down, build you back up, make you happy, make you sad, make you laugh and just make you feel things," Johnson said. "To me, that's what country music should be. Every one of these songs went through such a process that there's no way they would have remained on this record if they weren't worth their salt."
When Johnson finished recording Human, he considered that his biography was filmed, his album was complete, and he wondered what he could do to take his offerings up another notch for fans. His voice still felt and sounded its best, so he immediately went back into the recording studio to make A Cody Johnson Christmas. While he was involved in every detail on Human, he gave much of the decision-making for A Cody Johnson Christmas to Willmon. They chose the songs and keys together then Johnson left town. Willmon recorded the band's portion of the record without him.
"I just let go of the reins, and I said, 'Trent, make me a great album,'" Johnson said. "Then I came in and I sang 10 songs in one day, and it was the most fun I've ever had in the recording studio."
The additional fresh content will allow Johnson to switch up his live shows even more to ensure fans are more engaged in the live experience in 2022.
"This is my brain on country music," Johnson said. "We're not hell-bent on getting radio play, although we'd love it. We're not hell-bent on getting a Grammy award or the CMA award or an ACM, although we'd love that, too. We're just content with the life that God has given us to create music that we believe in. There's integrity in that. Don't be afraid to buy into it. This is me."
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