Cody Johnson Sheds Light on Texas Penitentiary Life

Cody Johnson will know exactly where the exits are when he returns to Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley music venue on Thursday (Oct. 6). And it’s not because he’s played there before.

His previous job as a prison guard in Huntsville, Texas — the prison capital of the Lone Star State — has made him hypersensitive of his surroundings, and he notices the tiny details of every room he enters well before others.

“I’d lock a lock,” he admitted during our interview over the summer. “I’m the guy who can tell you what guy has looked over his left shoulder, how many times he’s looked over his left shoulder, what color clothes he’s wearing and never have to look in his general direction. It’s almost like a constant hint of paranoia because you had to have it to work there.”

Johnson was 18 and right out of high school when he first took the job at one of the five local penitentiaries. He said each one is designated with its own type of inmate.

“There’s a couple of them that are on the outskirts of town that are very serious maximum security facilities,” he explained. “But I grew up around it. My dad worked there for a long time.”

“The first day on the job is easy to be honest with you — just keep your mouth shut and do your job,” he added. “There were times where you’d feel in fear for your life, and you’re not really sure if you’re going to go home. I have been in enough situations that will stay with me for the rest of my life. To this day, I don’t sit to my back to the door at a restaurant. I’m very security-minded — even when I’m out at shows with fans.”

At his concerts, he’ll occasionally see the familiar faces of former prisoners.

“Some have come up to me and said that I wasn’t so tough without my gun on,” he recalled. “And some have said, ‘Hey, whenever I was there, you treated me right. You were firm, but you were fair. And I appreciate that.’

“It’s a weird element because you’re not there to make friends.”

But is it odd to have convicts as fans?

“I don’t think so at all,” he said, “I think we’re all about two or three bad decisions away from prison. If I would have been caught for half the things I’ve done in my life, I’d be there right now probably. But there’s a lot of good people in prison. It doesn’t take much to go these days.

“I’ve always thought it was cool that Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Johnny Paycheck sang about prison. It’s a hard thing to sing about. But it’s something I don’t think I can ever get away from — the same way I don’t ride bulls anymore. I get to rope here and there, but bull riding and rodeo made me who I am now. If I ever let go of it, I’d be a counterfeit.”

Johnson’s latest album Gotta Be Me is available now. His 2016 tour continues this weekend with stops in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Friday (Oct. 7) and the State Fair of Texas in Dallas on Saturday.