This Texan has defied the power of Nashville's Music Row

Cody Johnson
Credit: Cameron Powell

When it comes to country music, Cody Johnson is a name that's causing ripples on Music Row in Nashville. This Sebastopol, Texas native just released his sixth independent album, Gotta Be Me, which hit #1 on the iTunes Country Albums chart. He's been selling out shows around the South, leading many to ask: Who is Cody Johnson? We sat down with the cowboy hat-wearing, bull-ridin' country singer to talk about his new music, how his family inspires him, his Southern memories, and his upcoming performance at the Texas State Fair.

You just recently released your newest album, Gotta Be Me. What sets this album apart?
CJ: I think this one definitely has more of a raw, honky tonk-ness about it. But, I think this really comes down to the fact that we got to spend more time on it. It wasn't about fitting a certain record and certain songs into a certain budget or time frame, it was about putting the right group of people in the studio and doing the right songs. And, there are songs that we'd written that didn't make the cut, simply because they didn't fit with the project. As a whole, I think this was my first project where I could really take advantage of every tool in my basket and take time on.

What's your favorite song off the album?
CJ: My favorite track to perform is definitely "Chain Drinkin'" with Brothers Osborne—it never fails to get the crowd moving and dancing. It really helps set the tone for the night. And, of course "Gotta Be Me" for what it's saying and the statement it makes on behalf of who I am. I'd say the one that actually means the most to me though is the last track on the album, "I Can't Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand)." It's an acoustic track, and my parents are actually singing on the background tracks. We used to sing together when I was growing up, so this is really special.

Where do you pull inspiration for your songwriting?
CJ: Everywhere. I pull especially from the love I have for my wife and daughters and the upbringing I had. My rodeo background influenced me a lot, and real-life instances inspire me. You can write about the pain and the happiness. You can try to prepare for it, but sometimes it just hits you out of the blue. It's always different. I've tried to figure out a way to bottle that inspiration, but I think that if I figured that out, it'd probably be the end of me.

If you could perform a duet with any artist living or dead, who would you choose?
CJ: Part of me wants to say Willie Nelson, but the other part of me is definitely leaning towards George Strait. Any project he's on just exemplifies why he's the King of Country.

What artist would you say has had the most impact on your sound?
CJ: I grew up on everything from gospel to Southern rock. Garth Brooks has definitely influenced the more ‘rock' side of my sound, but my dad listened to George Strait growing up, and so that's what I listened to. I love that George always had a line that he walked. He stays true to his sound and his music, saying, "This is who I am, and this is what I do."

Why have you decided to stick with being an independent artist?
CJ: Being an independent artist is one of those things that I never really planned on doing. Now, in the biggest projects of my career, these conversations are happening. And, the more that we've talked about it, the more I think it hasn't really made sense. I haven't had these opportunities since I started playing—which was in 2005—so I've just been working hard and giving it my all. No matter what I do as an independent artist, I think it all comes down to being content with who you are and what you're doing, and working as hard as you would if there wasn't a record deal on the table. And, maybe it'll be something that happens someday, but it's just not a fit right now.

You've got some strong Texan roots. What does being a Southerner mean to you?
CJ: One of the very first songs I ever heard was Don Williams' "Good Ole Boys Like Me." I think anywhere that you go in the South, you feel like you're at home. I love traveling and spending time abroad, but there's nothing like the feeling of home, or playing shows at home, or playing shows for warm, Southern people. It runs so deep that you can almost smell it when you come back home.

What's your favorite Southern food?
CJ: Ooh! Well, this isn't quite fitting in with my diet, but my wife makes a mean Bacon Shrimp and Grits.

What's your favorite memory of growing up in Sebastopol?
(Editor's note: I apologized in advance for what was sure to be a butchering of his hometown's name, so Cody has provided a pronunciation guide for us all: seh-bass-ta-pool)
CJ: So, we've been talking with the Opry lately about getting to play a couple songs here soon. As a kid, me and my dad would go out catfishing on Saturday nights, and he would bring along a radio. He and I would sit, and fish, and talk, and listen to the Opry on that itty radio. It was one of those times where my brother and I could ask him anything. So, I always wanted to play the Grand Ole Opry.

You're performing at the upcoming Texas State Fair. What can we expect?
CJ: I grew up doing FFA, so I think that anything you can do do represent your state and your home is an honor. We're so happy to be playing this new record, so there will be a lot of energy. We have fun engaging and connecting with the crowd, making sure they're having a good, so the music almost becomes secondary. It's more about the experience.

Let's do a little rapid fire. Whiskey or beer?
CJ: Beer.

Elvis or Johnny Cash?
CJ: Elvis.

Cowboy hat or cowboy boots?
CJ: Hat.

Pre-performance ritual?
CJ: Hmm. I always pray before I go on.

Favorite part of your job?
CJ: I love getting to do something that I love to do and still provide for my family.

Best way to eat grits?
CJ: Sugar and a pat of butter.