Cody Johnson Tackles Vices and Reinvents His Marriage Through New Documentary Dear Rodeo

Cody Johnson has said a few cuss words, drank too much and done some things he'd rather not discuss at the dinner table. When he was younger, circumstances forced him to abandon his childhood rodeo cowboy dreams and reimagine his future.

"I used to not want to talk about stuff like that," admitted the Texas-born country singer, now 34. "But, you think, 'Well, we all got our imperfections. That don't mean you can't influence people positively.' I've been given a microphone. If you can turn a failure into something positive, you didn't really fail."

The path was bumpy, but it led Johnson to his present — a chart-topping country artist with more than 2 billion career streams, a new documentary and a double album Human: The Double Album set for release Oct. 8.

Johnson turned his journey into his testimony – and his testimony into his documentary. Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story, co-starring Reba McEntireAmerican Sniper's Chris Kyle's widow Taya Kyle and Johnson's producer Trent Willmon, is available on Apple TV+ through Oct. 8. After that, "Dear Rodeo" will be available everywhere.

"Dear Rodeo," the duet Johnson recorded with McEntire, inspired the documentary. The feature-length film follows the pair and Chris Kyle from their early love of rodeo through the decision to leave the ring to succeeding in the careers that made them famous.

"There's a through-line of how we're small in a very large world," said Shane Tarleton, the documentary's producer and executive vice president of artist development at Warner Music Nashville. "There's this higher power, and just when we think we've got it figured out and things fall apart, there's a bigger plan. There's solace in knowing that everything is not ending here."

The documentary was two years in the making and sprung from conversations surrounding the "Dear Rodeo" music video. Tarleton felt the song was the best on Johnson's major-label debut album "Ain't Nothin' to It" and that it could be a vehicle to inspire others.

"I just knew it's universal," Tarleton said. "The unfortunate thing is that when people hear rodeo, they're like, 'Oh, horse (manure).' But it's not horse (manure). This is much bigger than horses and cowboy boots."

Johnson wanted to be a cowboy so badly that he didn't care if he looked stupid or got hurt — it was worth it. McEntire wanted to be a world champion barrel racer.

"I always thought everyone wanted to be a cowboy or cowgirl," McEntire said in the documentary. "It's honesty. It's mother nature. It's what God gave you."

Both inadvertently launched their careers singing at the rodeo. McEntire sang the National Anthem at the National Finals Rodeo in 1974. When Johnson lost money riding in the rodeo, he played songs and sold CDs out of the back of his truck. He used the cash to get him to the next rodeo in the next town.

Johnson had to take side jobs to pay for groceries and when he realized that funding his rodeo passion would swallow his earnings, life got even more problematic. The singer started playing house parties with his friend, who was a drummer. His dad joined Johnson's band to play bass, and the threesome performed in bars and honky-tonks. Johnson's mother was incensed.

"It was drilled into me that if you played in bars, the devil was going to get you," Johnson said. "That was very true."

He turned a corner when he met his manager Howie Edelman who introduced him to Willmon. In Willmon, Johnson found a kindred spirit — another cowboy who grew up on a ranch with a deep love of the lifestyle and country music.

In the movie, Johnson's wife Brandi said the men called out her husband's bad behavior, and their lives improved.

"I believe you're a product of who you place around you, and I didn't realize that a lot of my friends at that point were affecting me in negative ways," Johnson told PEOPLE. "When I started to get the right influences, it made me more uncomfortable with things in my life that I didn't realize I needed to get rid of."

Willmon told him he had a "cowboy's heart" and needed to start acting like it. Johnson built an enviable career touring the Texas circuit, but the statement inspired him to grow his music into the country genre's mainstream. He wanted to be the first cowboy to succeed in Nashville without changing his name, his sound or taking off his hat. 

In 2017, Johnson got the chance to headline the Houston Rodeo, one of the most coveted opportunities in country music. In his mind, the show closed the door on one dream and kicked the door down on another one. He went into the recording studio and made an album for his fans with no plans to use it to get a major label record deal. However, his manager thought otherwise. Warner Music Nashville stepped up and signed Johnson to their label group.

"I remember thinking, 'God has a really good way of making me look stupid to myself. The best thing I can do is stay out of the way,'" Johnson said in the documentary.

Making Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story blessed Johnson's family in unexpected ways. He said he and his wife reinvented their marriage, their approach to parenting their two children — daughters Clara, 6, and Cori, 4 — and their finances.

"It's been a complete life-changing thing," Johnson said. "I hope [viewers] take away that failure is not definitive. I hope they take away that they're not alone in this world, that God is somebody that can help you no matter how imperfect your life is. I don't want people to look at me on stage and go, 'Man, he's got it all together because I don't, and I never have.  I hope people take away from it that there's hope in everything.

"It's not about the rodeo. It's about letting go, turning the page and trusting the process."