How Indie Country Traditionalist Cody Johnson Is Giving Nashville's A-List a Run for Their Money
By Sophie Schillaci
CoJo Nation is about to get a whole lot bigger.
Indie country traditionalist Cody Johnson has amassed a mighty following in recent years, debuting his last album, Gotta Be Me, at No. 1 on the iTunes Country Albums chart, No. 2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and just shy of the top 10 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart in 2016. As he gears up to release his seventh album later this year, Johnson's music currently sees an average of 18 million streams per month -- all without a label or mainstream radio support.
But perhaps most impressive is his stage prowess.
The Texas native and former prison guard/semi-pro bull rider sold 75,000 tickets to Rodeo Houston earlier this year, outselling the likes of Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean at the same venue. (In fact, the only artist to top Johnson's sales: Garth Brooks.) The 31-year-old family man already earns millions from touring, selling more than 271,000 tickets to 91 shows in 2017.
"I think it has everything to do with putting in the hard work and making the connection with fans," Johnson says in this week's installment of Certified Country. "At the end of the day, I like to travel around the country and play my brand of music. I like to bare my soul every night. And it's not a gig for me, it's not a chance at fame or a chance at riches, it's what I have to do or I'd go crazy. Music's who I am and the performance I get to put on every night, it's gonna happen whether anybody wants to play us on the radio or not, I think. I don't say that out of cynicism, it just is what it is. I'm just happy in the shoes I'm wearing. If it all blows up really big tomorrow, great. If it all goes away tomorrow, man, it's all been a great ride. I'm pretty thankful."
Johnson draws on inspiration from country legends like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Chris LeDoux and Brooks.
"I think no matter whether we're playing in front of a 500-capacity room or 75,000 people, that live show and that thing that I get to do, that drug, my drug, kinda drives us," he muses. "If you can't do it live -- for me, it doesn't need to be on a record, it doesn't need to be on any radio station, you've gotta be able to deliver it live."
Later this year, Johnson will step outside his usual comfort zone, releasing a new album that was largely penned by other songwriters. For him, it's a chance to grow beyond what fans already know and love about the artist.
"I love heartbreak songs. I love cheating songs. You don't have to be in heartache or be cheating or be happy to enjoy all this other stuff," he says. "I think what makes country music great, and always has been, is the variation of what you can hear on a country radio station. You hear different sides of different stories. You can tell the same story 15 times and it gets a little boring, I think."
"Everything I was writing was kinda filtered down that same line of, 'Man, I'm really happy,'" he says with a smile. "I've got two beautiful girls and a wife, and I'm sure there should be a heartbreak song somewhere on this record. I just couldn't write about things that weren't happy -- and that's an OK place to be. We took lemons and turned them into lemonade. If that's what I'm writing, let's go pick some songs. It wound up being really fun."
Johnson has certainly caught the eyes and ears of top brass in Nashville, but is holding out for a perfect partnership before signing on with a proper label. Not, he says, out of stubborness, but out of an inability to conform to anyone else's mold.
"I truly have faith that somebody's going to step up and let me be who I am and just partner into it, not try to change me," he says. "The Opry's in Nashville for a reason. Your bigger artists are played on mainstream radio for a reason, so I think eventually, no matter what we do independently, we've gotta have that to kinda seal the envelope for me."