The award-winning singer made his way to the big stage by staying true to the roots of country music and the cowboy lifestyle that raised him. Now, in addition to turning out back-to-back country hits CoJo's finding inspiration in the things that make him happiest — his family, his fans, and life on horseback.
Cody Johnson might have a big awards ceremony to attend, but he's not missing the opening day of Texas deer season.
"I was needed to fly into Nashville for a rehearsal, the same day as the opener. My girls have gotta sit in the deer stand. The memory of them getting up early and having dad make grilled cheese is more important. Priorities are priorities," the singer explained.
CoJo, as he's known, is a redhead of medium athletic build with a freakish ability to jump up in the air in the middle of complex guitar handiwork, the kind of cricket leap one learns from getting bucked off rank bulls and having to pop and run. He's the kind of guy who shows up to a photo shoot with cow shit on his chaps and dust on his black felt hat, not for dramatic effect, but because his act is authentic rather than cowboy costuming.
A native of Hunstville, Texas, Johnson the artist is the product of a town built around a prison, the dying American pubic school vo-ag program, church and old-school country music, bull riding, dance halls, and the relationships that have supported him over a lifetime.
"I know I want to hear good music, good songs," he laid out. "I want to sing songs that make people relate, real stories. That's the kind of music I grew up on. If it's a happy song, I want to put a smile on your face. If it's a sad song, I want to make you cry. I want to show the world that who I am is who I'm meant to be and I'm putting myself down on paper for you. I feel an obligation to keep playing cowboy hat, true country music, because quite frankly, not a lot of people are."
Johnson's songs are inhabited by rodeo dreams and women wild as mustangs, beat-up guitars and lost chances, all conveyed in a Texas-twanged baritone layered with instrumentals played without distractions — every not supporting the emotion of the story. The result is a neotraditional feel that has been compared to the King of Country himself, George Strait.
Cody Johnson will be performing at Globe Live Field on March 11 as part of the American Rodeo. Get your tickets here.
It's hard to say whatever CoJo was a musician or cowboy first, but both certainly taught him ruthless persistence and refinement to get the desired result. He grew up wanting to be the Lone Ranger while also playing and singing gospel music in church alongside his parents, playing only by ear, and to this day he still does not read music. His father held childhood aspirations of becoming the next Elvis but instead worked in the Texas prison system. Cody's introduction to cowboy life and the rodeo came through a vo-ag teacher, Mr. Larry Fortenberry, himself a Texas herdsman. When Johnson haphazardly took up bull riding at 14, nobody stopped him from giving it a try. He became fixated on making it pro, with his teacher encouraging the path.
"We still talk once a month on the phone. Every time I win an award, he'll call me and say, 'Boy, you're doin' good.' He taught me your word is your bond. He taught me how to be a cowboy. An older man who mutually knows him said to me recently, 'That ol' Larry Fortenberry, he made a lotta men,'" said Johnson. Onstage or on horseback, Cody often wears a leather belt that Mrs. Fortenberry stamped with his initials, held together with his 2021 Red Steagall Invitational Champion Header buckle.
While Mr. Fortenberry pushed the cowboying, an English teacher pushed Cody to pursue music after he sang in class. He spent his late teens with visions of making it to the NFR, breaking bones and singing country tunes as a means to fuel up his rig and make it down the road to the next bull riding event. He knew Chris LeDoux sold his music at rodeos and followed suit. Using a garage setup, Johnson recorded and layered all the song elements, burned CD's, and sold them from his tailgate after events. Eventually, recognizing the limits of his bull riding prospects, CoJo took a job at the same prison as his father, working as a chain gang overseer. Eaten up inside by the end of his rodeo career, he played music on the side for $100 a night plus bar tab. At that point, he played when and where he could but didn't aim to make the big time. That goal didn't make his bucket list until he met his would-be wife, Brandi.
At 14 years old, Brandi first saw Johnson perform at a Future Farmers of America event. He was onstage singing in a leg cast with crutches from a bull riding accident. The two wouldn't officially meet until four years later. Johnson and a buddy kept the lights on at Shenanigans, a strip mall bar in Huntsville. After spotting Brandi walking across the dance floor, he asked for her number. He was 21, she 18. They moved in together within a month, were engaged a year later, and married a year after. In 2006, she encouraged Cody to leave his prison job to play music and go out on the road full-time. She quit college and picked up two jobs, putting all her chips on his talent. They've now been married for 14 years.
"I pretty much owe everything I have to her. I pray daily, "Thank you for this woman.' She gave me a reason to not be a danger to myself," said Johnson. "She had all the faith in me. I compensated for my lack of confidence in a lot of bad ways. She recently said, 'I always knew you would be this man. I knew this man was in that boy.' What an intuitive woman. There are times I've wanted to quit music, in the last five years even. Iv'e come home and said, 'I'm done. I can't do this anymore. It's eating me up.' And she'd say, 'Yes you can. You got to. You've got to get back to work, have a better mindset, and push through.' And I did. If I had to give it all up for her, I'd do it."
CoJo's is not a tale of overnight country stardom. In an industry that often values whatever it takes to make the next hit, Johnson insisted on doing things his way, by staying true to country roots as an independent artist on the road until the right deal came along. Until that deal arrived, he earned his keep the old-fashioned way: playing his heart out every night. He released his first professionally recorded studio album in 2009 and came under the management of Howie Edelman in 2010. Edelman then paired him with West Texas cowboy, songwriter, and producer Trent Willmon. Their adherence to traditional elements drew new fans with each show, but it was a slow climb. Cody refused to take off his hat, change his accent, or adapt his musical style to get signed — often career-killing moves in Nashville.
"I've learned not to question certain things. When you start to question things too much, it can cause bitterness. There have been times over the years where I've thought, 'Why is this not happening? Why have we not gotten the deal?' But that can put you in a very negative headspace. That's gonna bleed over to everything else. I've found it easier to keep on working," CoJo explained. "It's great to have a goal. I'm competitive. It's hard to keep that at bay. Like team roping — when I do something, I do it one hundred and ten precent. I've gotta be the best at it. It's great to have that drive, but you have to harness it a little bit, slow down, don't let this take over your life. That's the way it's been with music. I knew it was gonna be a long, hard road. I'm the underdog, the cowboy from Texas, the independent artist that couldn't get a certain deal."
Johnson's big break arrived in 2017 when he performed as a last-minute replacement for Old Dominion at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo before a crowd of more than 70,000 people. He signed a deal with Warner Music Nashville in 2018, namely because the agreement allowed him to simply be himself.
"I got to where I cut out the makeup artists. I looked like I was ready for a casket. Yeah, I've got a blemish. So what? You probably do too," he joked. "What you see is what you get. There's not a lot of frills around me. I feel like what's being lost in the genre are the components that aren't 'cool.' Well, there's this generation of younger people who think, 'Country music is just about someone with a broken heart crying in a honky-tonk with a beer.' That's not true. Country's always had versatility. I mean, Alabama was using drum synthesizers in the '80s. What's been lost, for me, for the last decade, is the willingness to be yourself and be true to what country music is even if people don't think it's cool."
Not being cool seems to have worked out OK. On the heels of the 20-song Human: The Double Album (2021) he released a live album in 2022. He was nominated in three categories at the 2022 CMT Awards, winning two of them. He was also one of five recipients of a 2022 CMT Artist of the Year award and was the country star with the most nominations at the 2022 American Music Awards. In addition, he took home Video of the Year and Single of the Year at the 2022 CMA Awards. He's performed at the Houston Rodeo three more times since his debut and played the Grand Ole Opry. He's collaborated with Willie Nelson, Zac Brown, and Brooks & Dunn, and opened for George Strait, Nelson, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band, and Luke Combs.
His modern traditionalist sound has found appeal with country fans across incredibly diverse demographics. For someone who began as a Texas dance hall circuit favorite, CoJo fans now span the globe.
Cody lives and loves the Western lifestyle and it's reflected in his music. Our brand is authentic to cowboys, rodeo hands, and ranchers. This is a way of life we feel strongly about preserving and the cowboy hat is an iconic symbol that represents it. As a former bull rider turned team roper, Cody lives it every day. His music is authentic country music that includes the younger generation of fans, which is encouraging for our Western way of life. Our Cody Johnson hat has been the most successful launch since our George Strait hats. That says a lot.
~ RICKY BOLIN, General Manager, Resistol Hats
"I want the world as our audience. I don't want to go for any one type. I want to go for people. I'm often reminded onstage when I see the joy on people's faces that we're not up there promoting Cody Johnson and country music; we're bringing joy to people. We're going to Australia and quite possibly the following year to the U.K. Thanks to technology, we can see where our fans are. I didn't think people in Japan would be listening to music by a cowboy in Texas, but they are."
In the meantime, CoJo's focused on his family, his ranch, and competitive team roping. The singer recently moved from East Texas to Central Texas. His days home are spent tending to a roan with kissing spine, to hooves cracked from drought, to livestock bitten by copperheads, contemplating how much land to convert to hay production versus grazing for his herd of Brahmans and Corrientes, and cooking game meat over open fires.
"We lead a pretty simple life. We're homeschooling our two girls. They feed the cows with me and then do their schoolwork. Brandi does the formal schooling. I show them the practical things," he explained. "I've always wanted to have good, purebred, white, long-eared, flesh-hanging-off-of-'em Brahman cows. We've got an excellent Hereford bull and this first round of F-1 calves are show quality. I'd like to ultimately add more acreage and raise Wagyu beef for restaurants. I want my kids to grow up on a ranch where they have to work and see the honesty and integrity of a hard day's effort, to see the finished product with a show calf that they've raised out of our herd. I want to use the good luck we've come into to invest in that. They're not making any more land these days. I'm not interested in Lamborghinis, an apartment in New York, or a beach house. I want to invest in the land and the herd."
Aside from parenting and raising livestock, Johnson competes in team roping at various events across the country. Finally being able to breathe a bit and recommit himself to the normal things that have always spoken to him has brought new inspiration that will surely serve CoJo in this newfound role.
"Being content is where I find creativity now. For the first time in my life, I don't feel like I have to chase down the horizon," he closed. "I can focus on my music and family in a way I couldn't before when we were flying down the road with a van and trailer playing two-hundred-something dates a year. Whether my girls remember any of my accolades is not important to me. I want them to remember the man who put them before anything, who performed three shows and flew home to ensure they went deer hunting. Don't let the goal define you. That's hard, but it's worth it. I would not trade the hard road we've had to walk for instant success. Instead of a Roman candle, I'd like to think of myself more as a lantern and I'd like to burn for a long time."
As long as Cody Johnson's got spurs on his boots and a rope in his hand, expect this country superstar — an unlikely one, and perhaps, even a reluctant one in ways that will keep him frill-free — to ride for the brand for years to come.