Nashville Special 2024: Cody Johnson Lives By The "Cowboy Code"

Cody Johnson, who won the Country Music Association’s coveted Single of the Year in 2022 for “’Til You Can’t,” almost didn’t need Nashville. A rodeo veteran who had a massive regional following in Texas and surrounding states, he could’ve made great money—and stayed out of the Music Row fray.

But once Johnson started dreaming, like all Texans, he dreamed big. Leather, his latest on Warner Nashville, makes good on his grown-man poetry with tracks including current single “The Painter.” Embracing cracked humanity and deep faith, it follows “Human” and “Can’t” in exploring how a guy who’s lived his breakout, “Dear Rodeo,” can also falter and embrace the fragility of being mortal.

Nicknamed “Cojo,” he’s put Sebastopol, his birthplace, on the map for the rest of America. But to people in the Lone Star State, he’s just 100% everything that makes Texas tough, strong, proud and willing to do a hard day’s work, as well as happy to deliver long sets of fiery performances.

Your passion! You’re unabashed about the music. I never feel like you’re playing a role.

The only role I know how to play is me. Whenever you talk to me in an interview or see me onstage, that electricity is very real. Something happens every night about 30 minutes before I play. I’m like a dog in a cage, about to get let out to do what I was born to do.

Strength, courage, commitment, do the job. That big, open-hearted, seek-your-life thing is very adult masculinity.

I don’t pay attention to what people see much. I try not to watch the news, I don’t ever look at social media, I couldn’t tell you what’s trending. Whatever truly touches me, reaches out to me and says this song has a statement and it’s a good statement, I stand behind it. That has a lot to do with being a cowboy.

When you shake somebody’s hand, look them in the eye. Your moral code is a standard that doesn’t waver. It’s always there—right is right, wrong is wrong. It’s either black or white; there’s no gray when you take that approach to your music and your business. I’ve never been described as “adult masculinity.” [Laughs] I like that. I’ll have to tell my wife.


We’ve all been young and enjoyed that wild side of it. I love the good party, honky-tonking, we’re-going-to-tear-down-the-town songs. I like having that, especially for a live set. On a Friday night, people worked hard all week long; they paid for their tickets with their hard-earned dollar. They want to let loose. Not every song needs to be about that tight moral compass or what’s right and what’s wrong. Sometimes they just want to let their hair down and have fun.

Are your songs’ truths easier because you know where your lines are?

That’s taken a long 37 years on this earth to figure out. I was a kid once. When I was 18 to 26, it was all blowing and going; let’s set the world on fire. I figured out how much that really wasn’t what it was about.

What got you to say yes to a major?

I wanted a major-label deal to get on radio. I needed a label that needed me. When it comes to publishing, masters, things I worked hard for, I wasn’t willing to give up a lot of that stuff.

What did Cris Lacy and John Esposito offer?

I said, “This is what I’m willing to do; this is what I’m not willing to do.” It came down to them saying, “We will do whatever you want; let’s just try this.” I said, “If you guys will leave me to myself to give you good music I believe in, I’m not going to change my name, I’m not going to take my hat off, I’m not going to change my producer; I’m going to be who I am. I’m not going to let you down.”

There’s something to be said for being grown.

That comes from the school of hard knocks, being broke, having to earn it. Cris Lacy didn’t get to where she’s at without being sharp and intelligent. I think when you truly know who you are, musically, personally, sonically, it means a lot to those people. They go, “This is a guy I can invest in. This guy’s got himself together.”

Five lives! Small-town kid, rodeo rider—a bull rider at that! You worked in a prison, played music in bars. You were a dreamer. There’s a difference between being a big regional draw, a pretty big star who’s nowhere near the record business.

Everything in my life taught me something. Growing up in a little town, I didn’t have big dreams. A big dream was getting a job I could someday support a family with. That was as big as I thought.

When I got out of Mom and Dad’s house, it was, “Hey, I can go play these honky-tonks, have fun, meet people, party and not get in trouble for it.”

Working at the prison taught me about growing up, the constant struggle in life of good versus evil. It’s everywhere. I’ve never talked about it, but there’s certain things that never really leave you.

Going out on the ropes and riding bulls, being broke, but you have that camaraderie with your circuit buddies. “Win, lose or draw, we’re sticking together.” There’s that cowboy code of ethics.

Growing up playing in Texas, getting to open for Roger CreagerKevin FowlerRandy RogersCasey Donahew, and Aaron Watson and Cory Morrow taught me about being on time, keeping your schedule, how to address a crowd, an interview. I got to go to country-music college—free tuition and no benefits. You either quit and go home or hunker down and go forward. I’m only 37 years old, but I feel like I’ve lived a lot of lifetimes.

Many of your songs are vulnerable, doubting even.

There’s a misconception masculinity is without vulnerability. That’s not the case. I’m very sure of who I am. I owe that to people paying for these tickets, streaming these songs and really connecting with these songs.

When you go to a meet-and-greet, a young lady says, “‘Human’ kept me from ending my life,” that’s real. Whenever a child comes up and says, “I survived my leukemia chemotherapy because of ‘’Til You Can’t,’” that’s bigger than a radio hit, the check they’re giving you at the end of the day or the platinum plaque on the wall. That’s real life.

Who would I be if I didn’t open myself up and be vulnerable? I’m a guy’s guy, pretty rough around the edges, but I don’t have a problem being vulnerable.

Who did you love as a kid?

I loved Elvis. I loved the boots, the swagger, how cool, how wrong! My dad’s generation was told Elvis was devil music. I was like, “Really?!” Elvis grew up with that bluesy gospel thing I grew up with.

I remember listening to a lot of Merle Haggard, one of the best songwriters ever. Glen Campbell had one of the best voices. I loved the way he could manage his voice—soft, but it was firm. I liked honky-tonk stuff like George Jones, straight tear-in-your-beer music. I listened to a lot of Chris LeDoux, wanting to be a cowboy. LeDoux was the guy—the world champion who got a record deal.

Willie Nelson had as big an influence on me as anybody. They kicked him out of Nashville. He didn’t care; he just kept playing music. That’s almost what happened to me. I couldn’t get a deal but kept making music. Willie can play everything from reggae to jazz to blues to country to rock & roll.

I also grew up listening to a lot of Tammy Wynette and Loretta LynnReba, of all people.

Do you think listening to Tammy, who was really vulnerable, but strong, inspired your transparency?

The first song I learned on guitar was “Stairway to Heaven.” My favorite rock band was The Who or The Doors. My taste is very eclectic, but I take something from every artist that speaks to me.

Bottom line.

I am a cowboy, not a role, not a gimmick. If you want to see a hard day’s work, come down to my ranch. You have no idea how many songs I get sent to me that are cowboy, cowboy, cowboy, cowboy, cowboy. And I’m going, “Oh, man, no!”

What is it about cowboys?

It’s our natural human instinct to be afraid to fail. We don’t want to fail, because we feel failure defines the next step of where we’re going. You’re a cowboy—whether you’re team roping, riding bulls or working on the ranch, you’re going to fail daily. The point of failing is, when you get bucked off, you get back on. It’s not about being bucked off, it’s the fact you got back on. There is no fear of failure. If you fail, you wipe the dirt off your face and go to the next one.

That parallels my career; being told, “No, your music is not going to work on radio.” OK, I’m going to keep working. “You’re from Texas; the Texas thing ain’t working.” OK, I’m going to keep working. I wasn’t deterred by “no” or failure. Also, work ethic. Not being afraid to put in the hard work, knowing you may work your ass off and have nothing to show for it—but you worked.

Anything else?

There’s a bit of pride—not cockiness, not arrogance—that comes with this hat. And wearing a belt buckle you’ve won training horses and all that.

Tonight in San Diego when I go onstage, little kids will be in the audience and they’ll all have their cowboy hats on. I get the opportunity to shape these young individuals, to pass down this code of conduct, this cowboy mentality they don’t even know yet. The same way when I watched George Strait when I was a kid.

To have the opportunity to really be an example for the youth of America that is not so much “in my truck girl with your cutoff shorts, and we’re going to go down to the river and party.” That matters.


When I heard “Human,” I very much related it to myself. I never planned on being anything but a cowboy, but somewhere I picked up this old guitar. Lines like, “Bless your heart for never trying to quit me or fix me or slow me down”… Well, my wife and I have been together for 15 years. We married when I was 21 and she was 18, so you can imagine the hell both of us put each other through being kids trying to figure [life] out, plus an unwillingness to say the word “divorce.”

We’ve been together through thick and thin. When I heard that song, I personally connected. There’s so much about this life I’m still trying to figure out.

After I recorded it, it took on this whole shape. Four years ago, the whole world started picking out ways to be divided. “I’m going to be divided from you because of politics, because of race, because of religion.” There was just such divisiveness.

Now I stand in front of crowds from Australia to Brazil to Canada to the U.K., everywhere in the United States, and go, “Listen, it doesn’t matter to me what color you are, it doesn’t matter to me what gender you are, it doesn’t matter to me who you voted for, how much money you have. We are all human. Your problems are different from my problems, but they’re still just a big old pile of problems, and we’re all still doing this thing called life right here at the same time.”

That picture is beautiful. As you said, it was very personal to me, but it’s taken on this universal aspect. It’s one of the most beautiful… it’s such a great song, one of the best I’ve ever had the opportunity to record, and I play it every night.