Cody Johnson Was a Prison Guard. Now He's an Outlaw Country Singer

Cody Johnson started work as a prison guard. Now he’s a country-music singer.
Cody Johnson started work as a prison guard. Now he’s a country-music singer.
Cameron Powell
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At its best, country music is a storytelling medium. Think about the greats, from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson to Patsy Cline: Their songs play like diaries set to music. Some are sad, some joyful; some are simple tales, some complex analogies. The substance is in the story, and country sensation Cody Johnson has a truckload of ’em.

At 29, Johnson looks every bit the ruggedly handsome, commercially viable country star, but things weren’t always so easy. Johnson grew up in Huntsville, Texas, and at eighteen began work as a prison guard at the John Wynne Unit, a maximum-security men’s prison. It was a rough job for a teenager, though today Johnson jokes that the experience set him up to deal with rowdy bar crowds.

Being a prison guard was “one of those things, when you grow up in a small town like Huntsville, you do what Daddy did,” he says. “My dad worked for the prison system, and I followed in those footsteps, because it was a steady paycheck and there was always a job there. You grow up quickly when you’re eighteen and working in the prison system.”

Interestingly, it was the warden at the prison who convinced Johnson to quit his job and pursue a career in music. “He said that I could always go back there if I fell flat on my face,” Johnson remembers. “It was something to get away from there, but I tell ya, I really appreciate what I got from it.”

As a guard, Johnson learned to carry himself in such a way as to command respect, taking no nonsense but being fair as well as firm. He learned how to treat people, particularly hostile people — and now he’s able to use those experiences in songs like “Guilty as Can Be.”

“It was a made-up story about a guy who catches his wife cheating, goes to prison and the whole nine yards,” he explains. “I paid homage to my prison years there. It’s weird, though, especially in Texas: You never know who’s in the crowd that you’ve been involved with before. I try not to go too far into it. I’ve touched on it here and there, and I’m sure I’ve got another couple of prison songs up my sleeve. I’ve just been saving them.”

Johnson grew up in a musical family; his parents played a variety of instruments and sang at home and at church (father Carl even played drums in Cody’s band for a short time). He picked up the guitar in high school and soon realized that if you play guitar, the girls start paying attention.

“That’s why everybody starts playing — for girls and beer,” Johnson says. “I always had a band when I was trying to go to college or working at the prison in Huntsville. I was always playing, and then finally, after four or five years of just doing whatever I could do, I met my wife, and shortly afterward, I met my manager. You really start taking it seriously when you have people behind you going, ‘Hey, this is something you could do. You have something.’ I grew up very humble, so it wasn’t an easy thing for me to say, ‘Yeah, I think I can make it.’ I needed those people behind me, pushing me and telling me I could. It’s all downhill from there. I never really looked back once I made that decision to start doing it.”

Johnson’s sound straddles outlaw grit and commercial country — equal parts Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks. But there’s also a rock-and-roll side to the man, an adrenaline junkie who likes to ride bulls and get wild.

“All of that together means I’m not sure if you’d call me Texas or red-dirt or mainstream or outlaw,” Johnson says. “I just always say that I’m me. I sound like what I sound like, and I’m not trying to be anything that I’m not. I’m just trying to be myself. Wherever I fit, I’m just happy to be playing music for a living.”

In August, Johnson released Gotta Be Me, his sixth full-length album and the sixth put out on his CoJo imprint. He and his team have built an admirable cottage industry, and it’s paying off. Gotta Be Me debuted at number one on the iTunes country chart, and in the past twelve months has sold more than $1 million worth of music, also on iTunes. Johnson’s music has been streamed 140 million times in the past 21 months, and he has 215,000 Facebook followers and 110,000 on Twitter. All of this from an indie artist.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, and we didn’t expect that,” Johnson says. “With the new album, it was all about what song complemented the next song, and so on. We wanted you to have a record that is kind of autobiographical. To see it being so well received on such a broad spectrum — it’s amazing. I have no words to describe how great of a year it’s been.”

Johnson will be at the Grizzly Rose on January 12 and 13. “I’ve always said that if I had to move anywhere outside of Texas, it would be Colorado,” he says. “It feels like a second home, especially because we get to spend so much time at the Steamboat Music Fest every year. The Grizzly Rose has always been such a great home for us, and we’re getting to play two nights there. It’s an awesome venue, and the crowds have always felt like I was playing right beside my house. It always feels like home.”

The sets at the Grizzly Rose will include plenty of songs from the new album, though Johnson makes sure to play the older hits that fans want, too. He thinks he’s got the balance right, and the new songs are a breath of fresh air.

“People are showing up knowing every word to every song off the new record,” he says. “You put that energy out there for the crowd and you lay it on the line, and they give it back to you. Man, it creates an atmosphere in the room that is second to none. I love my job, and it’s because of getting to play shows like [the ones at] the Grizzly Rose — because I know what kind of fun it’s going to be.”

Johnson has had his share of bar-related fun in the past, and it’s reflected in songs such as “Billy’s Brother,” about barroom brawling, and “Every Star Has a Story,” which includes the self-explanatory line “I rode a horse called Whiskey.” It’s all part of the tapestry of life that he weaves into his music. And in 2017, he wants to do it all again, bigger and better.

“We’ve always tried to keep our eyes focused on the lights at the end of the tunnel,” Johnson says. “Whether it’s show production, media production, playing something new and different in the set or getting to play with bigger artists — overall, just working harder than I did this year. That’s the goal every year: to work harder than the last year.”

Cody Johnson
8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, January 12 and 13, $15, Grizzly Rose, 5450 North Valley Highway, 303-295-1330.

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