Cody Johnson has said before that each album should outdo the last. And with his brand new one, Leather, it feels like mission accomplished.
The album, due out November 3, comes shortly after his last hit song ‘’Til You Can’t’ won a Grammy, two CMA Awards and countless other accolades and nominations. So there are a lot of high expectations, the highest of which came from Johnson himself. Working with longtime collaborator, songwriter and producer Trent Willmon, Johnson collected the most authentic country songs from the most authentic country hitmakers in Nashville, and the result is a collection of music that his fans and followers might never turn off.
Leather is part one of a two-album release, which gave Johnson a new means to share songs with his listeners in a way that was just enough and not too much. “I want people to have enough time to live with these 12 tracks.Figure out, what’s your favorite, what’s your least favorite, what makes you cry, what makes you happy, what’s the first song you click on when you go to it? And have time to develop a relationship with this body of work before you hear the second half,” Johnson told Holler.
The album includes the kinds of songs - plus collaborations with Brooks & Dunn and Jelly Roll - that set Johnson apart from his modern country peers. Just one listen makes it very clear that he is the genre’s benchmark. His music is as traditional as country gets now, in 2023. “I don’t have to prove to anybody why I wear a hat. I don’t have to. I don’t have to have that discussion. But when I walk into a room in Nashville, most people go, ‘Yep, there he is,’” he said. “There are a lot of hats in the room, but that one’s a real one”.
“I take so much pride in that, and I value that. I value the moral fabric and the character that goes along with that cowboy lifestyle.”
Right before Johnson put his third major-label release out into the world, he talked with Holler about the pivotal moments that made him on his way to Leather.
When I was about 17, I was in a bar in Huntsville, Texas called Shenanigans, and I saw Billy Joe Shaver. He said, “If y’all don’t like Jesus, you can go to hell.” I loved that. Then he kicked off with ‘Georgia on a Fast Train’ and I’ll never forget it. After that I immediately dove into the Texas country music scene. But even before that, as a kid, I remember sitting on the floor in front of the TV watching Garth: Live from Central Park. Seeing Garth Brooks play Central Park was when I said, “I wanna do that. That’s what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life.”
I’ve got a book about 4” thick full of terrible country songs. I used to write about everything: the girl I liked, the girl who dumped me, the girl who didn’t dump me, growing up, fishing, hunting and eventually wanting to rodeo. I would play those songs for everybody and anybody that would listen to me. I still have that book. I recently went through it thinking, “I wonder if there’s something in here that’s really good.” There was not. But you know, Babe Ruth held two records in baseball: the most home runs and the most strikeouts. That’s how I feel about those songs I wrote in the beginning.
When you grow up the way I grew up, we all had to work. My dad would go put in a 12-hour shift at the prison and come home, and then we’d load up the lawnmowers, weed eaters and blowers, and we’d go to the subdivisions and mow yards, trim hedges and do anything anybody would let us. My mother homeschooled us, but she would also clean houses on the side. So a lot of times I would get my schoolwork done and then help my mom clean whatever house she had that day.
But my first real job - one that I paid taxes on - was when I worked for the county patching potholes with cold patch asphalt. Then I baled hay for two summers. And I worked cows. I learned that work ethic at a very early age because I watched my parents bust their asses for everything that I had.
I think that really contributed to me not taking the first five record deals that came along. You can’t dangle glitz and glamour and fame and fortune in front of a guy like me and expect to get anything. If I have something, I want it to be something I’ve earned with my own blood, sweat and tears. That absolutely shaped me as a person.
There was a guy that I looked up to in Texas for a long time. He was pretty much the king of Texas music. He made me want be a songwriter, and made me want to go play live shows. And when I had the chance, I got him out on tour with me. But he was drunk, he was a slob, he was singing the same verse over and over in the song, and he couldn’t remember the next song. So I lost all respect.
You see what can happen when people are dissatisfied with their place on the food chain. Not everybody’s gonna be George Strait, not everybody’s gonna be Garth Brooks, and not everybody’s gonna be Reba. Arrogance can take hold, and arrogance can lead to a fall no matter who you are. But then you go meet people like Reba, and you sit down at dinner at her house, and she’s the most giving and down-to-earth person I’ve met in the music industry. Same with Ronnie Dunn (Brooks & Dunn).
You see both sides of the spectrum when you’re out here playing live. They say don’t meet your heroes, but I think you should. Because they’re gonna give you a really good perspective of who you don’t wanna be, or they’ll affirm who you do want to be.
I left the rodeo because I just wasn’t good enough. As a bull rider, you’re either born with something like that, or you have enough athletic ability to adapt while you’re still learning the ropes. I didn’t have either. I had the passion, but that just wasn’t where God wanted me to be. I was born with this crazy gift to hear music, to make it, to produce it, to perform it and to write it. I took that for granted. It wasn’t until it occurred to me: I had the gift of all gifts right here in front of my face, and I wasn’t taking advantage of what God gave me. When I had that “aha” moment, then it wasn’t so bad not rodeoing.
If I had continued to try to rodeo, my life would be so much different. I wouldn’t have my wife or my kids if I’d chosen to go down that road. God’s got a mysterious way of working. Because now I own a cattle ranch, raise cattle, breed roping horses, and I do team ropings, riding, cutting horses, and ranch rodeo events. I’m getting to live a cowboy lifestyle, even though I’m not going from town to town getting on bulls. It all really came full circle, because everything happens for a reason.
That Grammy was life changing. It goes to the songwriters – Ben Stennis and Matt Rogers – and I am so happy for them. Not only for having a two-week No. 1, but for it to win a Grammy. Their happiness means more to me than any trinket. As a cowboy, we always try to win that belt buckle. It’s just something to say that whatever you accomplished, this is about the road it took to get there. Hearing from Ben and Matt about how much the song has impacted their life fills my heart with joy. And that’s more important than a trophy.
I grew up watching award shows, and things have changed. I remember hearing the best of the best authentic country music. But now at 36, as an artist, it’s hard to watch how over the top the shows have become. I wish they could let it be what it’s supposed to be. When I was on an awards show earlier this year, I was thinking, “What the hell happened to my country music?” But I walked up on that stage in a sport coat and a cowboy hat and sat down on a stool and played ‘Human’ and walked out. I was proud of that.
Before Texas was ever a state, it was its own country. And I’m very proud of my country, the United States of America. I’m very patriotic. But at the core, I’m a Texan. I’ve got a state of Texas tattoo over my heart, not the American flag. That’s where I come from first. And I think that that’s that independent spirit that comes along with being a Texan. It gives you a way to go out into the world and tell people, “I know where I come from, and Texas has always got my back.” When someone in another country asks me where I’m from, I don’t say “United States.” I say “Texas.” That right there pretty much sums it up.
My wife and I met in a bar - Shenanigans (that bar has been very good to me) - very young. She was 18 and I was 21. That night, I told her I wanted to marry her. I told her I wanted to play country music and that if she’d stick by me, I’d make it where she’d never have to work again. She thought I was drunk, but I wasn’t. A week later we went on a date. A year later we got engaged. And a year after that we were married.
But I was in a time of my life that was not my brightest moment. So we kind of came together broken, and ultimately we’ve made each other whole. We know that no matter who screws what up, no matter who makes the mistakes, no matter what highs, no matter what lows, we need each other.
Everybody thinks when you get married, it’s all rainbows and sunshine and roses. It’s not. When you stay together and you pray together and you make things work, those lows mean just as much as the highs. Because after 15 years, I can look back and go, “What a beautiful picture.” There’s been anger and happiness and sadness and joy, and all those things that we’ve been through together is what makes it beautiful to me.
I saw that man go to work with 105-degree fever. He would go to work sick for days and days and days. And never complain. He would even work three jobs and never complain. He still made every baseball game, every rodeo, every FFA event. Plus he taught me how to play music and what country music should sound like. I owe a lot of that to him. And I owe my work ethic that I have now to him. No matter what, you can’t outwork me. I will run circles around a young man, and I get that from him.
Cody Johnson's 2023 album, Leather, is out on Friday November 3 via CoJo Music / Warner Music Nashville. For more on Cody Johnson, see below: