Photo courtesy of Cody Johnson
You have to hand it to Cody Johnson. For ten years he played the indie game and he was winning it. No easy task, especially in the country music world. He put out six albums before finally signing with a major label, Warner Music Nashville, in 2018. Sure, he was doing alright on his own, but now, he’s got the power of the big guns in his hands, the power to reach so many new fans via mainstream radio. Ask any artist how easy it is to get a song on country radio without label backing, and they’ll tell you flat out, that it’s nearly impossible.
On January 18, 2019, Johnson released his first full-length album as a Warner artist, entitled, Ain’t Nothin’ to It. While I could say I’m “fashionably late” to this party with this review (the album has been out for a week now), I won’t. I’m embarrassingly and inexcusably behind. That’s it. The only good news is, maybe everyone has read all the other reviews already and now want another opinion, or maybe there are others that are simply lagging in getting to the record itself. New music has been pumping out fairly regularly lately. It’s been tough to keep up. In any event, I have been LISTENING to this album since it came out, I just haven’t had time to put my thoughts down until now.
For those of you that are new to the Cody Johnson scene, welcome. A brief primer. He was born in Sebastopol, Texas in 1987. He has been what I would call something of a sensation across Texas for quite a while, much of that time, holding down a job working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. After winning a 2011 Texas Regional Music Award for Best New Male Vocalist of the Year, he quit that day job and began concentrating on music full-time. This boy from the Lonestar State began to get noticed in more places. His following continued to grow until he truly became a household name, all the time as an independent artist. Now, he has joined the ranks of other Warner Music Nashville artists, such as Ashley McBryde, Blake Shelton and Kenny Chesney, ready to take the world by storm with this new record.
The question is, just how did he do with this first crack at an album with a major label? I’m only one person, but let me tell you what’s rolling around in my head after listening to it for a week.
The first thing I need to mention is there are only two songs on the entire album, which is comprised of 15 tracks, that Johnson has writing credits on. In his long, but very heartfelt liner notes message, he explains that he had many songs ready to put on the record, but changed his mind. He knew there were really amazing country songs already written, just waiting for someone to cut them. He felt privileged to be one of the people to take some of those songs and record them. He even individually thanked each of the songwriters that penned the tunes he cut. Before I listened to this album with the concentration that I require to do a review, I knew I appreciated CODY JOHNSON’S appreciation for the craft of songwriting. He already had one check in the plus column.
I enjoy the mind games of title tracks. Sometimes they’re nothing more than an artist’s name. Sometimes I think they choose whatever song on the album has the coolest sounding title, whether or not it’s the best song or not. Sometimes, there really isn’t a title track at all. I’ll let you play around with that one in your head a little bit, give you something to do on your lunch break or while you’re daydreaming during that boring meeting. This time, however, the title track hit the bullseye.
Coming in right at track number 1, “Ain’t Nothin’ to It” (David Lee, Leslie Satcher) gets five gold stars. Don’t listen to it when you’re in a particularly emotional mood though. This one will pull at your heart strings. It’s beautiful because it’s real. Don’t be surprised if you start hearing it at weddings pretty soon.
The next song that stands out as a winner for me is track 3, “Fenceposts” (Robert Arthur, Benji Davis). The music alone takes the listener out to somewhere rural. Somewhere with rolling hills and dirt roads. A peaceful fiddle weaves itself in and out between Johnson’s voice as he sings about a piece of land he’s planning to buy. Land he wants his girl to keep secret until “the paperwork goes through”. One gets the feeling that might not happen, but our leading guy is a dreamer of the highest caliber and his glass is more than half-full. We’re pulling for him. It’s a pretty little song. Nothing to dislike about it. Pour yourself a glass of pink lemonade, sit on a porch swing and listen to this one with innocence and the spirit of young love in mind.
Cody Johnson does a cover of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “Long Haired Country Boy” on this album. It comes in at track number 5. This is an ass-kicker. Plain and simple. If you love the original, I’m pretty sure you’ll love this version. Johnson did Charlie Daniels proud right here. The Rockin’ CJB plays on this one and yes, they definitely DO rock. It’s exceptionally cool because you can clearly define each individual instrument even through the most intense moments of the song. Johnson’s vocals are spot on. Rough and tumble where they should be, and slow and serious where appropriate. Two thumbs way up from a long-time Charlie Daniels fan.
It had to be there. I knew it had to be there, and there it is smoldering at track 6. “Nothin’ On You” (Barrett Baber, Trent Willmon) is the sexy, sizzling ballad of the album. This is Cody Johnson singing a steamy love song with a smokin’, bluesy twist. I envision women in tears at live shows if he sings this one and can deliver it with all the fire that I think he can. Just wow. Most of you know, I’m really picky with guy ballads. This one hooked me in fast.
I really do like this entire record, but track 8 is the one that speaks to me as a music lover and has everything on my imaginary wish list of the perfect song. It’s called “Monday Morning Merle” (Bart Butler, Lance Miller, Brad Warren, Brett Warren) and I don’t think I made it through the first verse before I started it over again because I KNEW I caught something magical and I needed to pay better attention. To begin with, the song drops a name right in the title, which for me, is an instant draw. I live for that kind of thing. Drop a name or throw in a pop culture reference, and even if the music isn’t my favorite, I’ll probably at least remember the song. Pair all of that with a good melody, and I’m a fan. Well, let me tell you, this song has a soothing, comfortable melody that I love and it drops names left and right! I am so in my happy place listening to this song. The last song I reviewed that excited me this much because it had all these elements I so enjoy, was Ashley McBryde’s “Radioland”. This time around, the songwriters touch on classic rockers like The Eagles and Jackson Browne and my very favorite Merle Haggard song, “Misery and Gin”. I can’t give this track enough accolades. Johnson delivers it so convincingly. I’ve given away enough, I’m not going to tell you more than this. If you’re anything at all like me, jump right to track 8 and then start back at 1. I know you should never read the last page of a book first, but life is hard. Throw yourself a bone this time.
When an artist takes the time to pick a song to cut and then dedicate it to his army of fans, it better be meaningful and represent those fans completely. I think Johnson nailed it when he chose “Y’all People (Dedicated to the “CoJo Nation”) (Chase McGill, John Osborne, Laura Veltz). It’s catchy, it’s absolutely got that “hold your beer up and sing it with me”, anthem-style vibe that you just KNOW is going to be the one the CoJo Nation (which is bound to grow by leaps and bounds after this album really grabs hold) is going to wait for at every concert. It appears on the record at track number 9. It’s a party song with wailing guitars and fiddles and you can almost smell that bonfire burning away when you listen to this bad boy.
Photo courtesy of Cody Johnson
I don’t know if this song will ever see its way to being a single, but I sure wish it would. Track number 10, “Where Cowboys Are King” (Carlton Anderson, Brice Long, Wynn Varble) is super catchy, super country, and reminds me of something George Strait would cut. Oddly enough, George Strait’s name gets dropped in the lyrics of this song. It’s upbeat, but it’s not a beer drinkin’, honky tonkin’ song. It’s a tune about going home and that happy feeling one gets when they see all the familiar old haunts. This time it’s about cowboys and things out west, but it could be about anything or anywhere really. It just puts you in that nostalgic kind of mood. After listening to this song, I started thinking about the sights and sounds from my hometown, which is far from anywhere any cowboys dwell. That’s some brilliant songwriting if you ask me. Johnson’s voice is pure traditional country and it shines so bright here. Anyone that dares to say that “real” country is lost forever has never heard this man sing.
Another cover song on the album is live bonus track number 11. “Husbands and Wives” (Roger Miller) is one of those guy ballads that, to be quite honest, I’m not fond of. Although Johnson’s voice is excellent, it’s just not my favorite, but I included it because I think it’s one that many others WILL really love. If you’ve never heard the original, it’s a ballad that tries to make sense of why so many marriages collapse. It’s not the lyrics that I have a problem with, I actually kind of like them. It’s more the melody, the tempo and after that, it’s just one of those songs that doesn’t strike me as easy to listen to, but I know I’m in the minority. That’s why I included it.
The songs that I didn’t elaborate on, as this was a 15-track album, and I didn’t want to get way too long are:
“Noise” (Radney Foster, Jim McCormick, Gordie Sampson) Track 2.
“Understand Why” (Neil Medley, Randy Montana) Track 4.
“Honky Tonk Mood” (Al Anderson, Chris Stapleton) Track 7.
“On My Way to You” (Brett James, Tony Lane) Track 11. *I did not include this song as it’s the current single and it is already being played in heavy rotation and the media has saturated it.
“Dear Rodeo” (Dan Couch, Cody Johnson) Track 13.
“His Name is Jesus” (Live Bonus Track) (Cody Johnson) Track 15.
There is no doubt in my mind that the folks at Warner made the right decision when they signed Cody Johnson. Country music fans have been begging for traditional country artists to return to mainstream radio. Johnson is the answer to their prayers. The fact that he did pretty well for himself for so many years without the support of a major label speaks volumes about his work ethic. If he puts in that much effort WITH the backing a label can give him, there is really no limit on what this artist can do. He seriously is the one to watch in the next few years. This album is just the beginning. I think the next one is really going to shake up the naysayers who keep insisting that country music is dead.
In interviews we often ask subjects what they think when they “Think Country”. After listening to Ain’t Nothin’ To It, if somebody asks me what I think when I “Think Country”, I just might say, “Cody Johnson.”
Photo courtesy of J Trevino and Houston Chronicle
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