Numbskull & Good Medicine Present
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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.”
“I have that disease where I think every song has to be a hit. If it’s mediocre, I won’t do it.”
For most independent music artists, a bold statement like this could easily be waved off as a “head in the clouds” sentiment from a young and naive dreamer, but from Houston native Josh Ward, it just so happens to be a bona fide fact. Since the release of both his second studio album “Promises” and his latest studio album “Holding Me Together,” Josh has amassed seven consecutive #1hits on the Texas Regional Radio Chart over two solid years and counting, distinguishing him as a new generation heavy weight champion of old school country music. Through tenacity and hard work Josh has grown into one of the most respected and appreciated musicians in the state. A well versed songsmith with a hauntingly traditional voice, his honest and visceral delivery of every song compels audiences to feel his lyrics with him as he takes them on his musical journey. Fellow songwriter Mike Ethan Messick once said of Josh, "Josh Ward sings like Mike Tyson hits hard."
Josh Ward found his voice singing old gospel hymns in church when he was knee high to a grasshopper. In high school, while riding in the rodeo circuit, he discovered Willie, Waylon, Merle, Jones and Strait, and found himself feeling like a string of chords being perfectly strummed by those legendary sounds. That feeling inspired him to pick up a guitar and start singing in the parking lots of rodeo events. The reactions and encouragements he spurred from peers and onlookers led him to form his first band and hit the local honky tonk circuit in 2003. Needing something to sell to the demands of a swelling fan base, he recorded his first EP “Hard Whiskey,” the title track being to this day one of his most requested at live shows. It was in 2012 when Ward truly found his stride with the release of his first full length album “Promises,” produced by GRAMMY Award-winning producer, Greg Hunt. It seemed clear that radio had discovered their new banner artist in Ward with all five singles hitting the Top 20 on the Texas Music charts, three of those scoring #1’s
-almost unheard of for a debut artist. Ward wrapped up 2013 as the Texas Regional Radio’s New Male Vocalist of the Year.
When it came time to get back in the studio for his next album, Ward knew just where he was going…back to Rosewood Studios in Tyler, TX with the return of Greg Hunt behind the sound board. Ward credits the hidden jewel studio as the place where he found his sound, and Hunt as the wizard who pulled it out of him. Their work on Ward’s third full length album “Holding Me Together” (released October 2015) proved yet another triumphant collaboration. All five singles went to #1 on the TRRR Chart starting with “Highway,” the 12-cylinder engine that takes you steadily through the steep grade and back down to TRRR’s Song of the Year, “Whiskey & Whitley,” with its bottomless tear-jerking come-on’s. Through many more miles of winding peaks and valleys on hits like “Somewhere Between Right & Wrong,” “Broken Heart,” and the newest number one single “Change My Mind,” what this album gives you is the white-knuckle roller coaster ride Ward intended you to have. A thrill that translates meticulously to the stage with live performances that not only mirror the studio versions, but as a whole, has only one singular motive…to hold you hostage on the dance floor.
The Josh Ward band is Josh Ward (lead vocals, rhythm, guitar), Steve Cargill (bass), Travis Bishop (keys, organ, harmony vocals), Justin Cognito (drums), Opie Rigdon (lead guitar) and Glen Shankle (steel guitar).