Over the past few years, several bands have jumped to the top of the Texas Music heap by riding the back of a particularly popular song, be it Josh Abbott with “Taste” or Casey Donahew with “White Trash Story”. Cody Johnson has become the latest new scene headliner by taking an alternative route. A slow build fueled by word of mouth reviews of his vibrant live show. It’s a live show that finds its foundation with traditional country music. A rarity these days. I once compared his live show to that of a downsized Chris LeDoux production. Johnson is a an artist in that cowboy mold and puts that requisite work ethic into his music career.
There’s been nothing spectacularly fashionable about Cody Johnson’s music. It’s catchy, straight ahead country music. His cover of Zane Williams’ “Ride Withe Me” is most indicative of this. It’s not a special tune, but I’d be willing to bet you’ll still be humming it long after you last heard it. He’s made his bread and butter with his live show. That’s where I, and many others, first heard about him. Other musicians would rave behind the scenes about this young cowboy dude stealing all the festival bills by being more energetic than just about everyone this side of Shinyribs.
It’s not a new formula. Put a guy up there with a good voice, solid band, great songs, starched shirt, hat and Wranglers and see what happens. Whereas Kevin Fowler at times panders to the lowest common denominator with great aplomb (re: “How Country Are Ya?”), Johnson has yet to release a completely hokey song. While at times, Aaron Watson can come off a little too slick, Johnson maintains a degree of edginess.
Johnson’s music and live show do both have a bit of grit and drive to them. Yet, it never ventures into the full-on rock that is so prevalent in today’s Texas Music. Even when he and his band are at their most rockin’, they are still undeniably country. He drags rock n’ roll into his country, not the other way around. And, in my opinion, that is why he is succeeding. Johnson provides a touch of authentic country without being silly or overwrought.
Johnson produces country music for those that love the country music they heard on the radio in 80s and 90s. But, the larger point is that he makes country music for those who forgot they they used to actually enjoy the genre before squeezed down Clear Channel playlists suffocated the creativity right out of it. Listeners that have gravitated to solely Americana and the more rocking side of the Texas/Red Dirt scene are now identifying with Johnson due to him reminding them what country music should be and should sound like in the year 2014. Honest, no-frills, country music.
People are thirsting and craving music like Cody Johnson’s whether they realize it or not. It’s a good thing he’s come along because Jason Boland, Jason Eady, and Matt Hillyer can only do so much. Their music is harder, more honky-tonk. Stylistically, think they’re Gary Stewart or Haggard to Johnson’s George Strait.
Johnson’s music is not perfect and I would never put it on the same level of songwriting as Isbell’s Southeastern or even Boland’s best, but for what it is, it’s pretty good. If you’ve been missing fiddle and steel; are sick of trucks, tailgates and moonshine, but still want a touch of drive under the melody, then Cody Johnson’s your guy.
There is a place and audience for this type of music right between The Departed’s and the Drew Kennedy’s of this scene. Rock, country or folk…we don’t care. We will respond if it is good. And, right now, Cody Johnson is on the top rungs of the Texas Music ladder.