Grounded and humble1/25/2017
Cody Johnson is billed as a country music “force of nature.” Some say the former prison guard is a real-deal superstar and possibly the hottest new act on the country scene. Record labels are reportedly pursuing him, but Johnson is doing just fine recording independently. His songs have been streamed more than 100 million times and his album “Gotta Be Me” debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes Country Album Chart. In the past 12 months, he has had sales totaling more than $1 million on iTunes — numbers that are the envy of many major acts — and in the last 18 months, he has sold more than 500,000 concert tickets.
Johnson sat down for a phone interview with CITYVIEW in advance of his Jan. 26 show at Wooly’s and talked about his rural roots, whitetail deer aspirations, country music and watching it rain in West Virginia.
CV: Hi Cody. How are you?
CJ: Very good man, I’m sitting here in West Virginia watching it rain.
CV: Is that going to be the name of your next song?
CJ: I was going to say it sounds like a song title, didn’t it? (laughs)
CV: So you’re in West Virginia. How’s life on the road?
CJ: We’ve been doing a lot of traveling, man. We’re not very far into this year, and we’ve already traveled half way across the country. It’s a good thing. Last year we did shows in California, and we’ll be hitting some of the south the next couple of weeks.
CV: And then to Iowa for Wooly’s on Jan. 26?
CJ: Yes sir. And we’re excited about it. A lot of these places like West Virginia and Iowa we’re getting to for the very first time. When you’re unfamiliar with the territory, it can sometimes be a little bit intimidating. But man, it’s fun to do this for a living, to go to new places and play music. Man, it’s pretty cool.
CV: How long have you been touring?
CJ: Since the day I could. Since the day I graduated high school, I’ve always been trying to travel somewhere to play music. And during the last four or five years, we’ve played 150 to 160 shows a year, and it never really let up.
CV: What’s best part of being on the road?
CJ: Well, there is a lot that I don’t like about it. I think everybody who loves their job only loves it so much, and there’s always a little something about it that you don’t like. I hate being away from my family, but I love the new experiences and getting to see different people from different sides of the sidewalk, the different food, the way they dress, the way they talk. We live in a great country, and you don’t have to go very far to find diversity. I think getting out to see things that I don’t normally get to see in my little realm in Texas. And it’s an inspiration, too. When you’re a songwriter, inspiration can be everywhere. Just like you were saying a while ago — that it sounded like a song title — that’s true. We can be sitting here writing a song. (laughs)
CV: How about a curveball question? Is there anything you want to experience in Iowa? Any food you want to try? Or is there anything that you don’t want to leave the state until you do or try?
CJ: Well, I do, but it’s not deer season so… I always wanted to come whitetail hunting in Iowa. I’m a big fan of the whitetail freaks from up there. Don and Kandi Kisky have a great whitetail program, and I’ve always wanted to go hunting up there. But I guess I’m going to have to keep coming back.
CV: What can people in Iowa expect to see at your show?
CJ: Expect a lot of genuine enthusiasm. It’s not a fake thing that we do. We’re having so much fun up there, and it’s not a put-on. It’s what we do for a living, and even on the worst nights for us, it’s still the best, and we enjoy what we do. We want to make you a fan. We’re not going to go above and beyond to try and win you over, we’re going to do our job the best that we possibly can to make you a fan of our brand of country music.
CV: How is it running your independent label and doing things yourself?
CJ: It’s a lot more difficult. It’s a lot more strenuous. You have to have a good team around you. For instance, I have a financial guy, I have a CFO, I have all these different people who are around me who help me run it. Basically, we do run our own little mini record label, but when the you-know-what hits the fan, ain’t nobody to fall back on except for your faith, the good Lord and your work ethic. I think that’s one of the biggest difficulties about this is that you can’t always fix things with faith and work ethic, but that’s pretty much the only option that you have as an independent artist.
CV: Do you plan on staying independent?
CJ: I plan on doing whatever the good Lord wants me to do. I figure He’s gotten me this far, and He’s led me to the right people, and He’s led me down the right road so far. If I can keep from screwing up, I’ll keep following Him and doing what He puts (in front of me). Right now it just didn’t make sense. Financially, it didn’t make sense, and from (an artistic standpoint) it didn’t make sense. But that’s not to say that down the road it won’t make sense. The timing for these types of things are everything, and who knows? Who knows what the future holds?
CV: Rumor has it you used to be a prison guard? When was that, and has it been an inspiration on your music?
CJ: There was a song on one of my albums, a couple of albums ago, called “Guilty As Can Be,” and it was a story of a guy who goes to prison, and we play a song in our sets that’s called “Huntsville,” an old Merle Haggard song that talks about where I’m from in Huntsville. I worked there for a little while. I enjoyed my time there for what it was. I think in a small town you grow and do what your daddy did most of the time, and that’s what my daddy did, he worked as a prison guard, and so that’s where I went to work. It wasn’t like I dreamed as a little kid to be a prison guard, but you learn a lot. And I think anything like that sticks with you in your day-to-day walk, from where you sit in a restaurant to the type of songs you write. Sometimes I still think about it. I might have to go back and do a walk-through every now and then and get my inspiration back.
CV: If you were writing a story about you, what would you start with?
CJ: It’d be me being a little kid walking down the gravel road where I grew up in Sebastopol, Texas. It’s just a white gravel road, and I imagine I’d be going to the corner store to listen to the farmers talk about the weather.
CV: That’s a nice image.
CJ: It’s really, it’s kind of how life works for me, growing up a country boy, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do, or what was expected of me, you know? I was just enjoying being in a small country town.
CV: Do you remember — was there a moment — when you realized or decided, “You know what? I could make music a career?”
CJ: It wasn’t until I was already playing music, but to be honest with you, it was one of those things where I was already out traveling — and at least making money at it — but it wasn’t until I was working at both the prison and playing gigs, and my wife was encouraging me to chase gigs, and my manager that I had met and had just started working with and encouraged me to chase this. I think it took people. You know, I wanted to make that leap, and I wanted to make that jump, but I was a little reserved because it is a big jump. You know, you’re kind of jumping out on your own, and like I said, that safety net, it’s a very thin safety net — faith and work ethic. But it was when I was already playing, and I’m already doing this, so I may as well do it right.
CV: In 18 months you’ve sold more than 500,000 concert tickets. That’s a lot. That has to be humbling.
CJ: Yeah it is. It’s very humbling. You know I grew up in… We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have a whole lot. It’s a very accomplished feeling to being able to provide for my family and man, the growth of the music, I mean, I never expected stuff like that. I think when you do expect things like that, it doesn’t happen, and when you stay humble and you keep your head right, it makes it that much more enjoyable whenever it does happen.
CV: You know, I said “that must be humbling” as reflex, I was kind of on autopilot, but actually, if you don’t have your head right it could work the other way, and the success could give you a big head.
CV: How do you stay humble when you have all this success? How do you keep grounded?
CJ: It’s just me. I don’t know any other way to be than grounded and humble. I have a strong moral code, and that’s just the way it is. I don’t allow myself to play into that. I know, at the end of the day, I’m only a little small piece of this thing. The good Lord has showed me favor in a lot of areas, and I look to Him to not be arrogant. I think the biggest killers in the music industry are arrogance and egos. There’s no sense in walking around like your you-know-what doesn’t stink, because everybody’s does. You just have to go out there and be thankful for the position and do your best.
Cody Johnson w/Randall King, Jesse Allen
Doors: 8 p.m., show: 9 p.m.