Texas Indie Country Star Cody Johnson Throws Curveball at Nashville Labels

Sticking to his guns and delivering amped-up performances won Cody Johnson a rabid fan base and a major-label contract with Warner Music Nashville.
Jay Trevino
Sticking to his guns and delivering amped-up performances won Cody Johnson a rabid fan base and a major-label contract with Warner Music Nashville.
Cody Johnson is a straight shooter with a no-nonsense approach he brings to the stage — and to his life.

“I’m one of those guys that won’t wear any hats that don’t fit," he says. "I don’t like BS. I think if someone’s got an opinion, great, say what you’re going to say, but don’t hem and haw in between.”

The former amateur bull rider, who started making music and selling CDs from his pickup truck when he was a prison guard at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville after graduating high school, figured out who he was over the course of a thirteen-year career touring as an independent country artist.

“When you have to get there, you do. You figure it out real quick — who you are inside and out and what crap doesn’t fly — when you spend a lot of time on the road,” Johnson said, calling from his tour stop in Little Rock, Arkansas. “Such as when it comes down to discussing songs the band and I are going to record. It’s very simple; I quickly will make it clear if a song’s not me. There’s not any tiptoeing around, ‘Well, could we do this or that to make it you, then?’”

Johnson says people that meet him get to know quickly that he is “direct on and off the stage.” He adds, “It’s not that I’m trying to be abrasive. In my mind, I’m thinking I’d rather not beat around the bush and lie to you.”

If you look at the 32-year-old Sebastopol, Texas, native’s past work, Johnson has played hundreds of shows in his state, Oklahoma, and two dozen more states. On his own, he’s released six albums from 2006 to 2016 under his label, CoJo Music, and pieced a string of country hits on the Texas music radio charts, including “Wild as You” and “With You I Am,” off his lauded 2016 Gotta Be Me, which peaked at number two on the Top Country Albums chart. Plus, he snagged the Texas Regional Radio Music Award as Male Vocalist of the Year that same year and again in 2018.

“Five years ago, I was in Nashville courting every record company in town, trying to make the jump from an indie to a major label,” Johnson recalls, “and there were certain ones that said, ‘Man, we’d love to give you a deal, but you’re going to have to take the cowboy hat off, because we’re not looking for the cowboy thing.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I didn’t put on this cowboy hat when it comes to you. Thanks for your time.’”

The singer, songwriter and acoustic guitar flat-picker’s rabid fan base undoubtedly gets where he’s coming from. Dubbing themselves “CoJoNation,” Johnson’s fans are responsible for purchasing half a million concert tickets in one calendar year.

Known for his charismatic, rowdy frontman showmanship that’s drawn comparisons to Garth Brooks, a Texas Country/traditional sound reminiscent of George Strait and George Jones, all meshed with an assemblage of heartfelt this-is-who-I-am country songs dotted with rock and soul, the rising star packs venues. Just last year, Johnson sold out more than 45 shows, including the historic Ryman Auditorium in Tennessee and the Lone Star State’s Rodeo Houston 2019, which clocked in 74,177 attendees. He will perform once more at this year’s Rodeo Houston on March 12.

Like his fans, record labels in Nashville caught on and eventually “got” Johnson, who found himself in a bidding war for the right to release his seventh independent album, Ain’t Nothin’ to It, which he and his longtime producer Trent Willmon co-produced and completed on the singer’s successful indie imprint.

Ultimately, a partnership was forged between Warner Music Nashville (WMN) and the East Texan after he and WMN President/CEO John Esposito discussed what the contract could look like while downing some tequila shots.

“I had stipulations, which were, ‘I don’t give up my masters, my publishing, or my creative control. And I get to keep my own booking agent, my manager, producer, my promotion staff, publishing office, road manager and band — basically, my camp,’” Johnson says. 

Esposito, who had tried signing Johnson twice before to not-as-generous deals, was happy to oblige this time, eager to add him to the label’s artist roster. “Warner Nashville’s exact words were, ‘You got it. We want to be in the Cody Johnson business. We can learn from you when it comes to touring and when it comes to how to develop,'” Johnson recalls.

The revolutionary way of thinking — remaining independent yet getting the perks of global distribution and major market radio play — is what Johnson calls groundbreaking.

“We’re partners, if you want to get technical. I own 51 percent and they own 49," he says. "To me, that’s huge, because I’m an independent artist, still today, and I’m a label artist, too. Who takes an indie artist and gives him a major platform?”

Wildcard Tour 2020 featuring Miranda Lambert and special guests Cody Johnson and LANCO happens Saturday, February 1, at the Pepsi Center, 1000 Chopper Circle. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $25 and are available at the Pepsi Center website.

Listen to Cody Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.