When Cody Johnson’s Cowboy Like Me debuted in the Top 10 on the Billboard Country Albums chart in January 2014, jaws dropped in offices all over Nashville.
“I got a lot of ‘Who is this kid?’” Johnson says with a laugh two years later. “I love that. That was a new horizon. And I’m gonna work to make sure people know exactly who I am.”
Johnson does that from the start in Gotta Be Me, a follow-up project that’s loaded with solid country instrumentation and winsome melodies. In the first minute alone, he paints himself as a cowboy, raised on outlaw country, who drinks too much, fights too much and won’t apologize for having an opinion. By the time the 14-track journey is over, he’s shared his rodeo history in “The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life),” demonstrated his woman’s influence in “With You I Am” and paid homage to his gospel heritage in “I Can’t Even Walk.”
Johnson delivers it all with an uncanny confidence. His smoky baritone and ultra-Southern enunciations give him a voice as uniquely identifiable as country kingpins Jason Aldean or Tim McGraw. And he uses it to convey a Texas-proud swagger, a real-man charm and an unwavering honesty about who he is, where he comes from and where he hopes to go.
“I’m a God-fearin’, hard-workin’, beer-drinkin’, fightin’, lovin’ cowboy from Texas,” he grins. “That’s about it.”
The hard-workin’ part is key. The other parts are easily found in his music. It’s intense, focused, sincere. And when he takes the stage, there’s a Garth-like conviction to his performances. Johnson inhabits the songs, recreates their emotions because they’re so familiar. And he’s willing to lay bare those emotions because he’s always been willing to risk. He lives in the moment behind that microphone, the same way he rode bulls in an earlier day.
“That’s a very, very rough sport to be in,” Johnson notes. “It’s very, very rough on your body. It’s very rough on your mind, and it’s scary. I mean there’s not a professional bull rider that won’t tell you it’s not scary. If it wasn’t scary, we wouldn’t do it.”
Johnson pauses for just a beat.
“I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie.”
Needing a fix is part of the attraction in both the rodeo and music. In the former, there’s always another buckle to chase, another bull to conquer for eight seconds. In the latter, there’s always another fan to win over, another song to write. And in some ways, Johnson has been chasing something illusory, indefinable, since he first arrived on planet Earth in Southeast Texas.
Johnson grew up in tiny Sebastapol, an unincorporated community on the eastern shore of the Trinity River that’s never exceeded 500 residents. Even today, it’s more than 30 miles to the nearest Walmart, in Huntsville, Texas, a town best known as the headquarters for the state’s criminal justice department. It’s a rough and tumble area, and it comes through in the music. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Strait, Billy Joe Shaver – their songs were all essential to the local clubs, and Johnson was exposed to their mysterious allure even before he was old enough to get in.
“You could hear the music from those bars across that lake,” he recalls. “I’d always hear somebody singing ‘Whiskey Bent And Hell Bound’ or something like that, and I always wondered what was going on across that water in those barrooms. It definitely intrigued me. I always wanted to go see what was on the other side of the tracks.”
At a young age, Johnson was given the tools to eventually work in those clubs, though his official education was grounded in the church. His father played drums for their congregation, and that was likewise the first instrument that young Cody picked up.
“Learning drums first taught me about feeling the song – feeling that dynamic of when it’s supposed to be big and when it’s supposed to be soft,” he says. “I think that still sticks with me as a songwriter and as a performer, and in turn it’s helped me shape my band, because I know what I’m looking for on every front.”
Johnson learned guitar next, and when a teacher heard him playing an original song, he convinced Johnson to form a band with a few other students enrolled in the Future Farmers of America. Just a few months later, that first band finished runner-up in a Texas State FFA talent contest, creating an internal buzz that Johnson would continue to chase.
He didn’t necessarily think it would be a career. He briefly went to Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas, but traded that in to become a rodeo pro. Johnson did OK in that sport – the oversized belt buckle he wears today was won fair and square on the back of a bucking bull – but he broke a litany of bones: his right leg, his left arm, two ribs and his right collarbone.
Cody started recording his own music during that phase of his life, beginning with Black And White Label, which featured his dad, Carl, on drums. Johnson sold the CDs, pressed on his own CoJo imprint, from his pickup.
Eventually, Cody took a job at the prison to pay the bills. His band kept hitting the clubs on the weekend, with Johnson kept banging away on the guitar on Fridays and Saturdays while overseeing some very hardened convicts whose crimes had cut them off from humanity.
“There’s a lonely style of music that a lot of those guys listen to,” Johnson says. “I worked in the field for a while, and they sang old prison work songs. Some had kind of lost hope, and I can see now that you have to sing about people that don’t have hope the same way you want to sing to give them hope.”
Meanwhile, his weekend crowds began to grow, and Johnson started landing hits on the Texas music charts. After the release of his third album, he won New Male Vocalist of the Year in the Texas Regional Radio Music Awards.
The music thing started to look like maybe it could be a business, not just a sideline pursuit. He was stunned when his wife, Brandi, agreed.
“It was a moment when I felt like I wasn’t on my own anymore,” Johnson says. “To have my fiancée at the time say ‘I’m behind you, no matter what we have to do,’ it gave me a whole new level of confidence that some people might have thought I already had. But I didn’t.”
Even with her belief, the road wasn’t easy.
“I sacrificed, and I worked my tail,” he says. “I barely slept for years trying to make this thing happen, and me and my wife didn’t have a lot of groceries. We didn’t have a lot of things for a long time.”
Johnson reached a new creative plateau when he enlisted singer/songwriter Trent Willmon, who wrote Montgomery Gentry’s “Lucky Man,” to produce an album in Nashville. That project, A Different Day, raised the bar on Johnson’s barroom ambitions. The studio musicians he worked with challenged his own band. Johnson grew – and his bandmates grew – because they had to stretch themselves to live up to the album on the road. That pattern has continued through three projects as he continues to chase something illusory.
“It’s that always-never-good-enough kind of attitude that gives us that drive,” Johnson says.
When Cowboy Like Me broke onto the Billboard chart, it demonstrated that they had built an audience, but also gave them a little cache to push it even further. The band has broken beyond the red-dirt confines, drawing sizeable audiences in such far-flung destinations as California, Montana, Wisconsin and the Southeast, as Johnson wins over fans with his honest songs and on-stage ferocity.
And Johnson’s built up a Twitter following of 73,000 fans – impressive numbers for a guy who’s marketed and developed his career without the aid of a major label.
He approached Gotta Be Me with two major objectives: to make yet another advance musically, and to provide an authentic self-portrait to that growing fan base still trying to figure out who this Cody Johnson guy really is. He worked with some of Nashville’s best songwriters – including David Lee (“Hello World,” “19 Somethin'”), Terry McBride (“Play Something Country,” “I Keep On Loving You”) and Dan Couch (“Somethin' ‘Bout A Truck,” “Hey Pretty Girl”) – while drawing on his own history, rich with its own compelling subject matter.
“Every Scar” draws a life lesson from all those rodeo bruises and broken bones. “Half A Song” blends his barroom experiences with the melodic and rhythmic sensibilities he picked up at his daddy’s feet. The fiddle-rich “Wild As You” embraces a freedom-loving woman whose sense of adventure is as deep as Johnson’s own. And that spacious gospel closer, featuring his parents on harmony, surrenders some of the rabble-rousing, adrenaline-raising pieces of his past into bigger spiritual hands.
In essence, Gotta Be Me documents the life of a guy who’s lived in the fast lane as a beer-drinkin’, rodeo-ridin’ cowboy, but who’s also seen just enough darkness to temper that wild streak.
“You’re only a couple bad decisions every day from screwing your whole life up,” he reasons.
With a good woman behind him and a whole lot of promise in front of him, that’s enough to keep Cody Johnson in check. The energy he put into his rebel years now goes into his work. He’s not sure what he’s chasing, but he knows it’s paying off The “me” that Cody Johnson is becoming will continue to evolve, and it’s his intent to share that journey in an honest, meaningful way. The same way that Haggard, Strait and Nelson did when they made their marks. When it’s all said and done, the plan is mostly to reach the point where people are no longer asking “Who is this kid?”
“I don’t want to be a blemish on country music,” Cody Johnson says. “I don’t want to be a dot. I’d like to be a mark.”
Randy Rogers Band
Authenticity isn’t something that can be manufactured in a studio. It’s not a craft that can be learned or artfully practiced. It comes from living life. It’s the byproduct of blood, sweat and tears and as the foundation for music, it elevates mere entertainment to compelling art. Every note, every word on the Randy Rogers Band’s new album Nothing Shines Like Neon rings with authenticity that makes each song linger with the listener long after the music fades.
“You’ve just got to be true to yourself and you can’t fool anybody,” Rogers states matter of factly of the band’s philosophy. “As a whole, our body of work is pretty consistent to our live show and the band that plays on the record is the band that you go see.”
The same line up has been performing together since 2002 andthe music has evolved as they’ve soaked up life experience. “As men we’ve all matured and lived a lot of life together,” Rogers says. “We’ve had a few breakups happen to us. We’ve had babies. We’ve had life changes. We’ve been on the road 200 shows a year. I’ve been in this band 15 years so a lot has changed. I still listen to Merle Haggard every night. I mean that hasn’t changed, but a lot has changed for us musically and privately. We all are in a good spot and we all are just as good friends as when we started.”
Camaraderie and creativity have made Rogers and bandmates Geoffrey Hill (guitar), Johnny “Chops” Richardson (bass guitar), Brady Black (fiddle), Les Lawless (drums) and Todd Stewart (utility player) one of the top bands on the competitive Texas music scene. Nothing Shines Like Neon continues the momentum established by the band’s four previous albums—Randy Rogers Band, Burning the Day, Trouble and Homemade Tamales, each of which went to No. 1 on iTunes. Earlier in 2015, Rogers joined friend Wade Bowen to record the critically acclaimed album Hold My Beer Vol. 1.
Produced by Nashville legend Buddy Cannon (Willie/Merle) at Cedar Creek in Austin, RRB’s news album Nothing Shines Like Neon showcases the band’s taut musicianship as well as Rogers’ earnest vocals and insightful songwriting on such instant classics as the groove laden “Rain and the Radio,” the heartbreak anthem “Neon Blues” and the playful “Actin’ Crazy,” a duet with Jamey Johnson. “Jamey and I wrote that song together,” Rogers notes. “I met a movie star a few days before Jamey and I were going to write. I was in LA playing at the House of Blues and he came out to the show. I was thinking about him …and thinking about being a struggling actor living in LA and having to put up with all the bullshit that LA is. I just wrote that song about him.”
The album opens with the fiddle driven shuffle “San Antone”. “That is a Keith Gattis song. He wrote by himself. Being from Texas and living so close to San Antonio, I don’t think that song is going to hurt me at all,” Rogers laughs. “It’s one of those songs when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh hell! Why didn’t I write this song?’”
“Takin’ It As It Comes” features Lone Star legend Jerry Jeff Walker. “I’ve been a big fan of Jerry Jeff’s all my life,” Rogers says. “He came in the studio with us, got in there with the band, jumped around and played guitar and sang. We had a great time.”
“Rain and the Radio” is Rogers’ homage to Ronnie Milsap. “I wrote that with Sean McConnell. He and I have written a lot of songs through the years. I’ve always been a huge Ronnie Milsap fan and to me that song has a little Milsap feel to it, kind of a bluesy country thing, which we haven’t done before. Any artist that I look up to always tries to create something different and pushes the envelope a little bit. I think we do with that song in particular. It’s very country. It’s just very different. As a band, we’re trying to broaden our horizons and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If we were all just stuck doing the same old thing, we would all be bored. We probably wouldn’t still be here. It’s just a matter of spreading your wings a little bit.”
“Look Out Yonder” is a poignant tune Rogers recorded in honor of his mentor, the late Kent Finlay. “Kent gave me my start in the music business. Up until the day that he died, we talked about songs and about music,” Rogers says. “We actually named the record, Nothing Shines Like Neon after a lyric in one of his songs as a tribute to him. Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski are singing on ‘Look Out Yonder’, which was written by Earl Bud Lee, who is most famous for writing ‘Friends In Low Places’. He and I have been friends for 10 years and he has always wanted me to cut that song. I’ve never had a record where it fit and just thinking about losing Kent and Kent going to heaven and joining his mom, ‘Look out yonder coming down the road’ it just fit. I haven’t performed that song yet live, but I know I’m going to have a hard time getting through it. The day we started our record, I got a call that Kent passed away so this record is definitely dedicated to Kent. That song makes me think about all of us musicians and how we are crazy as hell and lead the most unorthodox lives. Most of us return back to our roots, so hopefully this is an album that glorifies Kent’s life and is also a nod to the traditional sounds that we all grew up loving.”
A native of Cleburne, Texas, Rogers grew up addicted to traditional country music. “I wanted to be George Strait when I was in the sixth grade,” he says with a smile. “And I grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, I’ve listened to them more than anybody else, my whole life. I always liked songs. I always wanted to find out who wrote the songs and what the songs were about. I always liked the art and the craft of being a songwriter. My dad’s Beatles records got played a lot and Michael Martin Murphy is another one I listened to a lot as a kid. My dad was a huge fan.”
Like many artists, Rogers got his start performing in church and then expanded to local venues. “I could write a song when I was pretty little, 11, 12 or 13,” he says. “It’s like a kid who could do calculus or something. It was just something that clicked in my brain for me. I went and finished college and got a degree in public relations and then started a band.”
Since then the Randy Rogers Band has steadily built a following that has spilled beyond their native Texas. For the past 10 years they’ve recorded for Universal Music Group, but on Nothing Shines Like Neon, Rogers again takes the reins, releasing the album on his own Tommy Jackson Records, named after a song he wrote for their very first album. “It’s a very obscure Randy Rogers Band song and to this day there is always this one drunk kid at a show that says, ‘Play “Tommy Jackson!” Play “Tommy Jackson!”’ It’s kind of a running joke within our band. It’s like, ‘How in the hell did this kid in Iowa City, Iowa remember that stupid song “Tommy Jackson?”’ It’s about a guy who is on the run from the cops, wanted for murder. It’s a story song and we just felt like it was a unique way to name a record label.”
Nothing Shines Like Neon is a stellar collection in an already impressive body of recorded material that owes a lot to the band’s potent live show. “You come to a show, you know what you’re going to get,” Rogers says. “We’ve worked hard at making ourselves better on stage and we care about our live show. It’s a way to come out and unwind, and we’ve stuck to writing songs that are about real life, about breakups or divorces, falling in love or babies being born, and in the case of this record even death, the ups and downs of life. People can relate. That’s what country music is supposed to be. Our band has been around for a long time because there’s no bullshit to us. We’re not in it to be rich and famous. We’re in it to make a living, provide for our families and do something that we all love. You can’t fool people and we haven’t ever tried. I think that’s the key.”