When art truly imitates life, it transcends mere entertainment and really touches the soul. Country sensation Cody Johnson’s music has that kind of impact. In an industry where “authenticity” is often a buzz word used to generate ticket sales and streams, the Texas born entertainer is the real deal. In fact, the cover of the new Cody Johnson new album, Leather, is testament to that fact.
“When you see that hand on that saddle horn in that picture, that’s literally because I just got through castrating 20 bulls,” Johnson told Woman’s World in an interview on October 20th. “It was real. We branded 40 cows. That’s what my hands look like after a hard day’s work on the ranch. Leather is just not a saddle. It’s just not chaps. It’s not a cover seat on a car. Leather is part of a soul and I think the picture of my hands is a real representation of that.”
Getting to know the real Cody Johnson
When Johnson’s not on stage performing for sold out crowds, he is working on his Texas ranch. A real-life cowboy, who began playing music at the age of 12, Johnson spent years on the rodeo circuit as a bull rider while also releasing six albums as an independent artist.
He signed with Warner Music Nashville and released his first major label album in Ain’t Nothing To It in 2019. He followed with Human: The Double Album in 2021, spawning the hit “’Til You Can’t,” which won Single and Music Video of the Year at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards in 2022. He’s nominated for Male Vocalist at 2023’s CMA Awards, which take place in Nashville next November 8th.
Johnson, known affectionately to fans as CoJo, has also been the subject of an award-winning documentary, Dear Rodeo, and he has earned 17 RIAA Career certifications, a Pandora Billionaire Award and has over five billion global streams. He’s been named a CMT Artist of the Year and has won three CMT Awards.
During a recent Zoom call with Woman’s World, Johnson shared his thoughts on Leather, his new 12-song album, which releases Nov. 3.
Woman’s World: What inspired the album’s title track, “Leather”?
Cody Johnson: Ian Munsick, Rivers Rutherford and Jeremy Spillman wrote it and Ian had just started being on tour with us and we were sitting on the bus getting to know each other and he plays me this song called “Leather.” I said, “Buddy, what the hell was that?” And he’s like, “I wrote it about my brother. . . I was like, “Give it to me and I’ll cut it.” He’s like, “Really?” I said, “Not only will I cut it, I’ll name my album after it” . . .That’s literally what sparked Leather.
[The chorus says], “You can bend him, but you can’t break him. It takes years of work and dirt and hurt to make him but when the whole world falls apart, he’ll hold together.” My wife says the second verse is as autobiographical of me as it possibly gets and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but being a cowboy is not easy. If it were easy everybody would do it. There’s rough and tough and a grit.
There’s a line of morality that’s very hard to stand up for at times in today’s society. Where I come from “yes” still means yes and “no” means no. It’s black and white. There’s no gray area and that’s hard for a lot of people to swallow now days.
WW: How have you stayed grounded and maintained your authenticity as your music career has escalated?
CoJo: You have to stand your ground. I had a big fat record deal sitting in front of me when they asked me to take my hat off and I turned it down. Now, at the time I was starving you know. Me and my wife didn’t have anything and that was a hard pill to swallow. It’s not an easy thing to do to stand up and say, “I know who I am. I don’t need you to tell me who I am. This is who I am.
It gets easier over the years because the bigger you get the more people accept that, but it’s a hard road and that’s why a lot of people don’t take it. That’s why they’ll let people influence them to change their name and change the way they dress. It’s been a hard road, but I’m thankful for it because I feel like I’ve earned everything.
WW: You have a duet on the album, “Whiskey Bent,” with country rapper Jelly Roll. What led you to collaborate with him?
CoJo: Jelly Roll’s face tattoos are as authentic as this cowboy hat. That’s him unapologetic. I mentioned earlier that one of the first times I ever came to Nashville they said I could have a record deal if I would ditch the cowboy hat. Well that’s something I wear every day on my ranch breaking in new cattle, training my horses I mean it’s something that I do.
Jelly Roll wears his walk on his face for everyone to see plainly and I wear this hat unapologetically. When we met, we just hit it off. I think real recognizes real. I’m not knocking anybody, but I didn’t come off of TikTok and get a record deal and go straight to stadiums and play. I know what it’s like to starve and so does he. He’s just a good person and I want to be surrounded by positive good people.”
WW: I understand you originally wanted Jelly Roll to sing on a different song?
CoJo: I actually had him come into the studio to sing on “Jesus Loves You” . . . and whenever he heard the song “Whiskey Bent” it put him in tears and was like, “Man, if I had a choice, I would rather be on this song,” because he and I both have the kind of past whether it’s whiskey or a different substance, that he and I really related to the fact that we had something in our lives at one time that made us hurt other people that we regret. That’s real and when you hear that on the track, that’s real passion. That’s real emotion.
WW: You also have Brooks & Dunn as special guests on the song “Long Live Country Music.” How did that come about?
CoJo: At the CMT awards on stage I said, “Long live country music!” Well that night they [Phil O’Donnell, Wade Kirby and Trent Willmon] wrote that song after what I’d said.
It got pitched to me and the next day Ronnie Dunn calls my phone and says, “Hey you heard this song called ‘Long Live Country Music?’’
And I was like, “Yeah, I just got it. Why? Do you have it?” He said, “Yeah, are you going to cut it?” I was like, “I don’t know. Are you going to cut it?” And he replied, “I’m going to cut it if you don’t.” I said, “How about you talk to Kix [Brooks] and why don’t you all just cut it with me on my record?”
And that’s exactly how it happened. I do believe it’s a great opportunity to stand up with a bunch of guys that did it the way that I did it growing up, playing honky tonks, playing bars. They’ve got that deep country heritage of hard work, go get it nobody is going to hand it to you and that sound, the 80’s and 90’s and early 2000’s, the sound of Brooks & Dunn that’s anthemic. I feel like the three of us — me, Ronnie and Kix — we still stand for country music. We don’t want to water it down. We want it straight up.
WW: One of the most emotional songs on the album is “Dirt Cheap,” about a man refusing to sell his home because of all the memories that make it priceless. How did that resonate with you?
CoJo: That’s one of my favorites. The first time I heard it I cried because I’m a cattle rancher. I breed roping horses and we work on a ranch in Texas and it is a lot. I’ve made a joke ever since we bought this ranch. I told my wife, “I hope you love this house because I’m never moving. I’ve already got the oak tree picked out where I’m going to be buried.”
Being on that cattle ranch and having those places you hold dearly, to have the memories of your kids and your horses and dogs and your wife, that’s a big deal. So I really related to that song. I took that song to the first five toughest guys I know and played it for them, and they all cried, so I said, “Well we’ve got a winner here.”
WW: You’ve said your latest hit single, “The Painter,” describes your feelings for your wife Brandi. What did she think the first time she heard the song?
CoJo: She loved it. She was very adamant about keeping it organic. She said, “This sounds like a song that you would sit around acoustic with your band. Please don’t overproduce this song.”
Not that I ever do. . . it has more of a grassroots feel. I love the way it builds. Left to myself, my world is black and white. I’m a pretty simple cowboy kind of guy and she does paint my world. Everybody thinks when you get married — and Brandi and I have been married 15 years —everybody thinks it’s all going to be roses and rainbows and it is not.
There’s a lot of lows and a lot of downs along with the highs and ups, but when you look back on it you’re going all of that was part of the beautiful part, every bit of it. All the bad goes along with the good made this beautiful thing that we have called a life together and if that’s not painting a picture, I don’t know what is.”
WW: You’re going to be on the road next year for the Leather Tour. In addition to playing the new songs, what are some of the things you’re most looking forward to?
CoJo: “Every three or months we’ve got different support acts and one of my favorite things to do is [watch those opening acts].
I’ll never forget this. I played a golf tournament in Waco, TX one time and Neal McCoy was on the bill. Neal McCoy came out to the stage that day and caught a little piece of every single artist’s set and he would walk up to the artist and say, “Hey man, good job!” And I’m like, “That’s Neal McCoy!!!”
I’ll never forget that, so even today after I get off the phone, I’m going to head back — we’re at Country Thunder in Kissimmee Florida — I’m going to head back out and catch some of the opening acts. I think having diversity with your opening acts is good because we have people that travel all over the country to watch us. We need to give them something else. Randy Houser toured with me for over a year, and I cried the day that tour was over because I love Randy Houser, but you have to change it up and give them a little bit different tastes, different nuances when they come out to a show.
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