It was Paula Cole, who presciently sang ‘Where Have All the Cowboys Gone’ back in 1996 when 90’s Country was at its peak and you couldn’t move for boots, belts, buckles and hats. Fast forward twenty years or so and it is a more pertinent question for many Country music fans now than it ever was before. Most cowboys having been sacrificed at the altar of commercial success and arena stylings in the years since – but not Cody Johnson and not many similar artists, working, often independently, on the Texan music scene.
Johnson is a former pro-rodeo rider who has created a sizeable and loyal fan base across the Lonestar state with his previous five albums. Similar to artists like Aaron Watson, Johnson has proved that if you are good enough and you work hard enough you can make a healthy living away from the glitz and glamour of Music Row. Texas has its own state radio charts, but it was Johnson’s 2016 album, ‘Gotta Be Me’ that reached number 2 on the actual Country charts and brought the major labels knocking. Fans and critics alike were fascinated to see what Johnson would do on a major label – would he sell his soul and start using snaptracks and talk/sing his way through a series of faux-Country songs or would he attempt to redress the balance a little and do things his way? Well, those fans can, for the most part, rest easy. Not a lot has changed with Johnson’s move to Warner Nashville beyond a wider sourcing of songs. After having 9 co-writes on his previous album, Johnson is down to just 2 for ‘Ain’t Nothin To It’, with the label being able to steer him towards such heavyweight writers as Chris Stapleton, Radney Foster, Gordie Sampson and Brett James. This has sharpened his sound in some ways and smoothed it out in others. Infact this juxtaposition of Nashville writers with Johnson’s Texan sound is, for the most part, a triumph.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than on the catchiest song on the album, placed, like all good catchy songs should be, at track 2 in the running order. ‘Noise’ was written by the aforementioned Foster and Sampson and sounds eerily similar to something Michael William Morgan might produce. It’s an obvious contender for a single and with slightly deeper vocals it could have sat comfortably amongst all the other great songs on Trace Adkins’ 1996 ‘Dreamin’ Out Loud’ album. This is where Johnson is now in 2019 – playing a kind of cowboy Country music that was mainstream in the 90’s but is now decidedly left of centre and unpopular on Country radio with its smooth-skinned pretty boys singing about love, trucks and beaches.
The other two strongest songs on the album, ‘Dear Rodeo’ and ‘Monday Morning Merle’ see Johnson with his heart on his sleeve and his emotions to the fore. The former is an open letter to the rodeo, in which he states, ‘I’d be lyin’ if I tried to tell you I don’t think about you’ in a song that personifies the rodeo in much the same way a broken-hearted man might feel about the girl that got away. It begins with a simple melody and builds into an anthemic number with a strong guitar solo. ‘Monday Morning Merle’, perhaps ‘Ain’t Nothin’ To It’’s standout track, moves away from personification into metaphor – using the misery of a Monday morning and comparing it to the music of Merle Haggard. Each day of the week following is prescribed to a singer or a band – Springsteen, The Eagles, the Beatles, Jackson Browne and Johnny Cash are all name-checked as the week progresses and the guy’s mood lightens until it crashes back down to earth again the following Monday! Think 80’s West Coast stylings, think the Eagles, think Jackson Browne and you would be somewhere in the wheelhouse of where this excellent song sits.
So, there is experimentation and growth on ‘Ain’t Nothin’ To It’ – largely brought about by the use of more outside writers but that doesn’t mean Johnson has forsaken his Lonestar roots. ‘Where Cowboys Are King’ and ‘Honky Tonk Mood’ are both rooted in the past, the former being a George Strait-esque paean to wranglers, drovers and vaqueros everywhere whilst ‘Honky Tonk Mood’ does exactly what it says on the tin, gets everyone up dancing with its Texan rhythms and vague 50’s rock ‘n’ roll feels.
Johnson also utilises a bit of good, old-fashioned confederate defiance on a number of tracks on ‘Ain’t Nothin’ To It’. ‘Y’all People’ is a Kid Rock infused number dedicated to his fan club whilst ‘Doubt Me Now’ is a swampy, almost Black Stone Cherry type of number that only remains rooted in Texas thanks to the profligate use of fiddles. Both are interesting side steps that are fun and add strength to Johnson’s portfolio without ever reaching the heights of songs like ‘Monday Morning Merle’. The last song of defiance on ‘Ain’t Nothin’ To It’ is a cover of Charlie Daniels’ ‘Long Haired Country Boy’ which doesn’t quite work for me to be honest, coming from the clean, tidy, short haired and buttoned up Cody Johnson, but it is executed with a panache that is hard not to like.
A couple of smooth ballads, the title track in which a father dispenses the wisdom of his 33 years of marriage to his son who is just about to embark on the same journey and ‘Nothin On You’, Johnson’s attempt to get jiggy with it ground the album in a feeling of realism and everyday emotion and this is only strengthened by the excellent ‘Fenceposts’, a sort of “Just to See You Smile’ type of breezy number about a couple setting up a life together. Johnson is at his best channelling everyday emotions like love, longing, wisdom and despair rather than the slightly more machismo based rabble-rousers and if he is to have a wider fan base than just the Lonestar state in the future it is down that Strait line he must travel!
‘Ain’t Nothin’ To It’ isn’t a perfect album but it’s perfect for where Cody Johnson needs to be right now. It sits as a perfect introduction to a potential wider fanbase but also serves to only strengthen his existing ties to Texas and the ‘folks back home’. There is no hint of a sell-out or major label make-over, as some feared there would be and now, maybe the likes of Johnson and artists like William Michael Morgan, can set about bringing back a little cowboy sound to the radio and the charts. It’s more than long overdue.
Twitter – @rockjames
Portfolio – www.jamesdaykin.journoportfolio.com