Huntsville, Texas-born country music singer-songwriter Cody Johnson knows that life isn’t ever one thing. Over the years, Johnson has grown and developed an appreciation for all types of singers, people, songwriters, songs, experiences, and perspectives. He loves connecting with a crowd. He loves exhibiting multiple sides of himself in his music, over the course of a collection of songs. Case in point: Johnson’s latest double-LP release, Human The Double Album, which he unveiled on Friday (October 8).
Walt Whitman is often quoted when discussing the human condition. The famed American poet has said, “I contain multitudes.” Meaning, of course, so does everyone else. Well, Johnson agrees and showed as much on his new double album. The artist, who recruited Willie Nelson as the album’s only feature, has always loved Outlaw country music and performing at Honky Tonks like his favorite uncle used to.
We caught up with the 34-year-old Johnson (aka “CoJo”) to ask him about his early days falling in love with music, how his parents influenced his journey, how his varied interests inspire songs, and what he loves most about being a musician (and cowboy) today.
American Songwriter: When did music enter your world in a significant way as a young person?
Cody Johnson: Man, honestly, I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have music. It was one of those things where when you’re born into a family where I was born into, my mom and my dad were great musical talents. My mom sings like a songbird and my dad played piano like Floyd Cramer and it was just one of those things where both sides of the family were so indoctrinated in music, especially gospel music.
I grew up singing music that you feel. When you sing gospel music, when you sing music in church, you know, it’s not about No. 1 hits or radio. It’s just about what makes a person feel something. That was my basis. I had an Uncle Terry that grew up playing in the Honky Tonks, in bars, and I always thought he was such an outlaw. And I kind of wanted to be like him. I had the best of both worlds growing up.
AS: That’s really interesting. And is perfect for a double album, probably.
CoJo: Yeah! [Laughs]
AS: How does country influence you? And I mean that both as a genre and style of music, as well as a region with its own sincere ethics. I think I saw that you were also a cowboy or bull rider at one point. But how does the region and the music that comes from that region influence you, the core of who you are and, therefore, the music that comes out of you?
CoJo: It’s funny you say that. I’m sitting in my truck and I just got back from an appointment where I just bought 20 head of cattle. Cowboy is what I do. When I grew up, you hear those songs about cowboys. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, singing about, My heroes have always been cowboys. And Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. And you hear Chris LeDoux and George Strait and Garth Brooks singing about it. I always felt like they were singing to a guy like me that, without those influences, I don’t know that I would have chosen my life’s path.
From a very young child, my mom introduced me to great singers. And when I say that, with country music singers, I’m talking about Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride. People like that who had great voices. George Jones. From there, I went more to the Honky Tonk side of the Waylon Jennings, the Jerry Jeff Walkers, more of the outlaw side of things. I really listened to a lot of Elvis Presley, believe it or not, growing up.
I think between Elvis and Garth and Chris LeDoux’s showmanship and Merle Haggard and those voices that I heard, the Glen Campbell voices, I kind of found my place of like, okay, I know who I am, I’m a country boy, I’m a cowboy. I know that I have this God-given ability to sing, but who do I want to sound like? So, when I was a kid, I would try to sound like all of them and it never really fit until I hit my mid-teenage years, early 20s where I finally found my own voice and knew what sound I wanted to go for. From that moment, I’ve never really looked back.
AS: Thank you for talking about that. May I ask, can you put some language to what that sound was. What did that feel like to find your own voice? How would you describe it to, say, the Man Upstairs? I know it can be hard to talk about your own “style” but, if pressed, what would you say, specifically?
CoJo: Well, I think that country music is gritty because life is gritty. Country music is not always happy because life is not always happy. It’s also very beautiful and very profound sometimes and we have to know those moments, too. I’ve noticed with a lot of artists that I’ve grown up with, they were either always really sad or always really nostalgic or always really upbeat and energetic. And everybody kind of found their theme.
But I always wanted whenever you listened to one of my records, I wanted you to feel the Honky Tonk versus the dancing with your wife in the kitchen versus the knowing what it’s like to be a dad versus knowing what it’s like to go out and be a kid and partying. We should feel all those things. I feel like country music has such a gift in and of itself because of our forefathers and our foremothers in country music that we should feel things.
Country music should make you feel emotion. It should instill something inside of you, with every song, whether it’s something funny or whether it is something very serious to make you contemplate life, that’s the beauty of what country music is. And I think we have gotten as a genre so caught up in making a No. 1 hit, to be relevant, relevant in crowd sales, relevant in this. And it’s like with those people who I just talked about, they never cared about those things. They were unapologetically themselves. I think that authenticity is something that I’ve always based myself on. If I can’t—it’s like wearing a pair of shoes that don’t fit.
AS: Okay, let’s talk about the new record—well, the new records! It’s a double album. There are a number of tracks, great guests like Willie Nelson. The record is tender at times, fun at times, introspective at times. So, how did it come about, how do you think about it now that it’s in the world today?
CoJo: When we made this record and we would up with 18 songs, my thought was, 18-22 songs are about what I play every night live. So, I kind of wanted to make the sequential album order the order that I would play this at a live concert. Usually, at a live concert, the first song would be bam-bam and up in your face and get you engaged. But on this record, I thought that “Human” was such an incredible song for me and it was so autobiographical. And it was written by Tony Lane and Travis Meadows, and I didn’t have a hand in it.
But I felt like they tuned in so much to me, with the line of, “I never wanted to be nothing but a cowboy but somewhere I picked up this ol’ guitar.” Well, that’s me. When they talk about, “Bless your heart for never trying to fix me or quit me or slow me down.” That’s my wife. And I’ve lived all those lyrics. And I thought: what a great way to not only talk to my fans that have been fans for over 15 years but to talk to new fans that Warner Music National has helped me reach through radio and playlisting and all the wonderful things they can do.
If you want to get to know me, listen to that first track. “Human.” And then from there on, we’re bonded together in a concert for 18 tracks. I thought that what a wonderful concept to try and get the people to get to know me.
AS: I love that idea, like a concert on record. It’s not live, per se, but it has that same energy, that same narrative structure. So, let me ask, given that music has opened up so much in your life, has taken you around the world, and introduced you to millions of people. What do you love most about it?
CoJo: Music has always been my first love and it’s been one of those things that no matter what emotional state I’m in, no matter what state I’m in throughout my life, music has always been there. I think that you and I can both relate to, no matter how good of a friend that you have somewhere, sometimes that friend doesn’t always relate to you. Whether it’s your best friend, whether it’s your spouse, sometimes people don’t relate to you as well.
But when you pick up the guitar and you start singing and you get back to your love of music, music doesn’t judge you, music doesn’t let you down, music doesn’t walk away from you, it’s always there for you. In recording in that sense, if you give yourself to that music, the music gives back to you and when you get in front of a crowd live, that crowd feels the authenticity. They feel that music and they feel that vibe and, honestly, no matter what anxiety I have going on, no matter what stress, anything else that’s going on in my life, good, bad, or indifferent, when I get my guitar in my hand and I hit the stage with my band, the whole world is perfect.
It’s priceless It’s something that no one really ever can explain unless you’ve lived it. My love for music will never go away. It’s something I’ll always have to have, even when it’s the thing in my life that’s making the most irritated because of my schedule and flights and bus rides and shows and appearances, at the end of the day, I can get fed up with it all I want to, but I still have to have it and I still love it.