How long should an album be in the streaming age? Chris Brown has the record, I think, with 45 tracks, while Morgan Wallen has dominated the year with Dangerous, a 30-track double album whose promotion has been disrupted by the video of him using a bad word.
Cody Johnson would never use the word Morgan used. While Morgan is Too Big To Fail, like a bank circa 2008, CoJo seems to be the Radiohead of country music, the biggest act not to be a Big Act. While Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs stay in heavy rotation on country radio, which helps them sell concert tickets, CoJo recently tried to break into the pack but Dear Rodeo, a brilliant song from his last album Ain’t Nothin’ To It, stalled in the twenties. At least On My Way To You, an outside write from Brett James, broke the Top 20, while other songwriters to be given the CoJo treatment include Chris Stapleton, Radney Foster, John Osborne and Casey Beathard.
Grady Smith produced a short video essay on CoJo, who compares the ‘former rodeo rider turned sturdy country star’ to a popular TV show like Law & Order, whose success you cannot begrudge. Expanding his brand, Cody has just brought out a new cologne as well as a biographical film and these serve to complement the release of Human, the second album as part of his Warner Nashville deal.
Impact tracks included the bouncy, fun trio of Treasure (‘beauty’s in the heart and not the eye/rust is just another shade of silver’), Let’s Build A Fire (written by Chris Janson) and Longer Than She Did, which was written by Eric Paslay, Paul Sykes and Matt Stell. This may serve Matt in good stead; if his own major-label deal goes south, at least he’s in with CoJo.
Added to these three tempo tunes are Honky Tonk Hardwood Floors, which is in the Luke Combs vein and dares you not to dance and drink, and Driveway, where a series of rural signposts involving grandma and grandpa and hickory trees build up a picture of CoJo’s version of heaven.
Also in his corner are Willie Nelson and Vince Gill: Sad Songs and Waltzes (‘aren’t selling this year’) is an old Willie tune which suits what Cody wants to do with his music while Son of a Ramblin’ Man is one of Vince’s. Harlan Howard’s tune I Don’t Know A Thing About Love was a hit for Conway Twitty; CoJo turns it into a Mayer/Stapleton-type funky soul jam, and I hope more major-label releases honour the old guard of country to keep their name alive (not that Harlan ‘Three Chords and the Truth’ Howard will ever be forgotten).
The title track is an outside write from Travis Meadows, and it’s a meditation by a musician who apologises to his girl ‘if I get kind of careless with your heart…I’m still learning to be human’. The song was deemed so important to the project that it not only gives the album its title but it’s placed at the very top of the set. In the week of release, Human was the nineteenth biggest-selling album in America, ahead of the safe country-rock of Old Dominion.
Til You Can’t, written five years ago by Ben Stennis and Matt Rogers, will win awards next year. The writers think Cody is the new Garth Brooks because of his tremendous live performances; this song will pop live because of the crescendo in the final minute (more dynamic shifts in country music, please!!) and the carpe diem message of the lyric: ‘If you got a dream, chase it cos a dream won’t chase you back’. The recording was more powerful because Cody had recently lost his lieutenant, guitarist JT Corenflos.
Alongside these two songs is another one Cody will be playing every night for the rest of his life. I Always Wanted To ends the album’s first side. It’s a song Cody has said is the saddest song of all time, written by the team behind The House That Built Me. The protagonist is in his nineties and his life had a wretched middle and end, with unmade memories and untaken pictures. I expect this will be his career song and I wonder who passed on it (McGraw? Shelton? Brooks?) because it was too sad. CoJo might single-handedly ensure sad songs and waltzes get back in fashion. I would put this song alongside Whiskey and You and Cover Me Up if I were doing a country music version of Les Miserables. There’s none of the resolution of Live Like You Were Dying, which means the song is Red Dirt rather than Nashville, a true Texan composition.
God Bless The Boy is dedicated to Cody’s daughter Cori, and it’s a pretty country song full of heart and fiddle which imagines his future son-in-law, who must ‘have a sense of humour’ to deal with Cori for whom ‘ain’t no boy ever gonna be good enough’. It’ll be a song to cuddle with at CoJo gigs, as will Stronger, the sort of tune Jason Aldean used to make before he rested on his laurels, in which Cody’s masculinity is trumped by the ‘lighthouse’ of a woman.
The reminiscin’ song When It Comes To You is the inverse of Cody’s hit On My Way To You, and I imagine this was on the shelf for a while, which doesn’t make it any less of a super country song about hearts ‘born to win or born to lose’. Scotty McCreery could have had a hit with it, for example, or Chris Young. Every track on this album is better than Chris Young.
There are only four CoJo-written tunes here, which is probably a condition of his major-label deal since the majors have staff songwriters creating hits for a voice like Cody’s to sing. Made A Home sounds lush, especially with an opening lyric ‘poured the concrete, cut the two-by-fours’ that sounds like something CoJo would actually do – unlike 96% of today’s country stars, who are just singing haircuts.
Cowboy Scale of 1 to 10 is a rollicking good spoken-song which compares people to hotness of peppers. Cody is backed up by four fellow Texans (Corb Lund, Ned LeDoux, Red Steagall and Dale Brisby) who help to run the listener through the scale, with a pretty boy at 1 and a member of the armed forces at 10. The rocking love song Known For Loving You is a clapalong anthem written with Peach Picker Ben Hayslip and Trent Willmon, a former star who has now moved behind the scenes. Even if CoJo is known ‘from here till Timbuktu’ or if he’s on the cover of the Rolling Stone, he’d rather be known for being the partner of his wife.
The 100%-er By Your Grace ends the collection. ‘I’m aware of everything that’s wrong with me but you still accept me anyway’ can be country or gospel of Christian music but, to my mind, it’s the essence of Red Dirt music. It’s a confessional song where Cody is guided by the Lord who has ‘paid every debt I owe’. His voice soars in the chorus, with a gospel choir alongside him, and this may become a sleeper hit if it’s marketed the right way or gets the attention from being included in his set where he opens for Luke Combs in 2022 in stadiums. Which is admittedly a step down from the Houston Rodeo.
Regardless, this is a well-realised set of songs (perhaps three or four tracks too long) that showcases every side of Cody Johnson. He might not have the platinum records that Luke Combs does but he is everything that mainstream country music should be: heart, empathy, family, melody and a fantastic voice.
It’s up to us whether he rises or falls.