Country artist Cody Johnson talks with C&I about Elvis, growing up in Texas, and his latest album, Ain’t Nothin’ to It.
Cowboys & Indians: While you were growing up in Sebastopol, Texas, who were some of the recording artists who influenced you?
Cody Johnson: Honestly, the first one was Elvis Presley. When I listened to Elvis when I was a kid and heard “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” — you want to talk about an 8-year-old kid losing his mind? “Jailhouse Rock,” songs like that, made him kind of an American hero. But he also came across as kind of taboo, kind of a little bit rowdy, and a little bit too much for some people. That really stuck with me.
C&I: Which is kind of surprising, considering Elvis passed away a decade before you were born.
Cody: [Laughs.] Yeah, but everybody loves Elvis. Hell, my grandma loves Elvis. But when he came out, man, he was a little bit of a bad boy, too. He had that edge. Something about Elvis made you think if you smarted off, he might slap you. I heard that in his music. I heard that “I don’t really care what y’all think,” that whole “I’m going to boogie-woogie if I want to boogie-woogie” attitude.
C&I: Any other early favorites?
Cody: Well, on the other end of that spectrum, Glen Campbell. I was blown away the first time I heard those strings and those melodic structures and the purity of his voice in those Glen Campbell songs like “Wichita Lineman” or “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” It really struck me — and it really stuck with me. And while I was listening, I could see the images of what those strings were doing. See, I play by ear. I don’t read music; I don’t read a guitar tab. I can’t tell you what chord I’m playing on the guitar when I’m playing it. But with Glen Campbell, when I’d listen to those records, it’s like I could just see paintings in my mind. It was just making my mind view music in a totally different manner.
I also would have to put Willie Nelson on the list somewhere because of his ability to be 110 percent himself no matter what platform he’s playing on. He’s done every genre imaginable, and he’s still Willie Nelson. That really influenced me, and that led me to guys like George Jones and Merle Haggard — guys who have that honky-tonk, that angsty “Crying in my beer, I don’t really care” thing going on. One thing I think that all these guys have in common that influenced me is their attitude: “I’m going to do my own thing, and I really don’t care who I piss off.” I don’t really care whether it’s selling in Nashville or L.A. or Texas. I’m going to do what I want to do because it’s what I have to do.
C&I: On your latest album, Ain’t Nothin’ to It, you celebrate your independent spirit in a terrific song titled “Doubt Me Now.” Specifically, you call out to all the critics and doubters, and give them some advice: “You ought to be chasing your own dreams instead of shooting holes in mine.” Did it feel good to get that off your chest?
Cody: [Laughs.] Well, I’m not an arrogant guy, but I’m dang sure not going to sit here and not address the facts. For me, it was after 10 years of being an independent artist and working my fingers to the bone and building something from the ground up with my family, my manager, and my team that I’ve had from the very beginning. It was rough. It was hard. That’s what makes something like [Ain’t Nothin’ to It] so sweet. To address your point: Yeah, there were people who said, “You’ll never get outside the state of Texas. You’re always going to be a Texas musician.” And there were also people who said, “If you sign with a major record deal, you’re a sellout.” But here’s the kicker: I don’t pay attention to any of that. Because at the end of the day, I made my record independently. That record was completely done with no agenda — not radio, not a record deal, not a publishing deal, nothing. It was just me and [producer] Trent Willmon picking songs, producing songs that we believe in, that we were passionate about, that we knew that I could sing for the next 50 years. Songs that, if we turned on the radio, we’d want to hear them. That fun and creativity and lack of giving a you-know-what about it really transformed this into one of my favorite records.
Illustration: Jonathan Fehr
STILL INDIE: After more than a decade of recording (and selling vast quantities of) independent albums, Cody Johnson signed for the first time with a major label, Warner Music Nashville, to release Ain’t Nothin’ to It. But as Cody emphasizes: The new album was already recorded before he sealed the deal.
From the April 2019 issue.