Album Review – Cody Johnson’s “Cowboy Like Me”

Cody Johnson is country. There’s no denying that. But there’s a mantra around Saving Country Music which states that just because something is real country, doesn’t mean it is real good. Just as if something isn’t real country doesn’t mean it’s real bad. People tend to be fans of music first, and then their loyalties break towards certain genres. And even though most of the business conducted around here centers around country music, the underlying loyalty is to music with soul, not just a certain sound.

I’ve received more requests to comment on Cody Johnson’s music in 2014 than any other artist. Meanwhile my status of staying mum on him has caused some to question whether I actually care about country music, others to question the legitimacy of of flying the “Saving Country Music” banner, and still others have come out saying point blank Saving Country Music must be a fraud for not discussing the Texas singer. Most requests are punctuated with caps locked proclamations of how Cody Johnson is REAL country, which over the years has unfortunately become a marker for music that tries really hard to prove how country it is, while leaving things like taste and originality behind.

cody-johnson-cowboy-like-meCowboy Like Me is country, yes. This is a Texas artist who grew up in Huntsville and was home schooled and spent much of his time hunting, fishing, and singing at church. Cowboy Like Me utilizes as much or more fiddle and steel guitar as any album released in the last year or so, and Cody’s singing style features a sharp twang punctuating songs dyed in themes of country life.

Cowboy Like Me also features a lot of loud, Stratocaster-style cliché rock guitar, formulaic themes and movements, rising choruses indicative of commercial-oriented music looking for radio play, incessant references to how country Cody Johnson is no different than what can be found on the latest albums from Florida Georgia Line or Jason Aldean, and possibly most disappointing, what sounds like one of the most egregious deployments of Auto-Tune I’ve heard this side of George Strait’s final concert album.

All of this combines to make Cody Johnson and Cowboy Like Me a mixed bag at best, and not wanting to be the bearer of bad news or the one to break the heart of a Cody Johnson fan, I felt avoiding him, especially when there’s so much other music out there to talk about, was probably the best course of action. Because overall, Cody Johnson is not the enemy, he’s an ally. If I turn on my radio, I sure as hell would rather hear Cody Johnson coming out compared to whatever Music Row is peddling, or if I’m in a bar filled with music fans, I’m going to gravitate toward Cody Johnson fans way before the people in Florida Georgia Line T-shirts. But in the face of criticisms for remaining so quiet on this artist, here are my opinions, open and honest, be damned the popularity or reception of them.

I wonder if Dale Watson, Jason Eady, or even Marty Stuart would label Cody Johnson REAL country. When the most striking characteristic of your music is overdriven arena rock guitar and the Auto-Tune is so obvious, it leaves little that is REAL or country except for some of the buried instrumentation and the lyrics. Cowboy Like Me makes a headlong effort to prove how country it is, and for many ears, it worked. But if I had to label this music, I would call it commercial country: More country-sounding than Music Row material, yet still with many of the same sonic hooks and lyrical tropes indicative of the mainstream world.

If you give a cowboy a truck on a Friday night
He’ll pull a $100 bill from a coffee can
Spray the mud off of them tires
Drop $20 in the tank, save the rest for beer
So all you girls in here need to know this

And as much as Cody Johnson fans like to paint him as the scrappy underdog independent artist who needs support from places like Saving Country Music, he’s won big endorsement deals from Bud Light, Wrangler, and other corporate sponsors. Hey, good for him. It’s great Cody has found a way to support himself with his music. But just like many elements of his sound, Cody Johnson’s independent status is not exactly what it’s sold to be.

cody-johnsonOne of the redeeming points for Cody’s music can be found in the writing of his songs. Where some of the bigger numbers not only feel quite cliché, they also feel very stuck in the mid to late 90’s as far as style—not modern enough to feel relevant to today, but not classic or traditional enough to appeal to that crowd either. Meanwhile some of the lyrical hooks and payoffs fall flat, like the line “Even My pain is hurtin'” from the song “Hurtin,'” as if this poor attempt at a double entendre is something to be considered “deep.” Nonetheless, songs like “Bottle It Up,” “Holes,” and even the opening numbers of “Dance Her Home” and “Me and My Kind” are decently-written songs, even if they do have that 90’s-era cheese as a character trait.

Some will vehemently deny that there’s any Auto-Tune on this album whatsoever, and even if this is true, the engineer on this project should still be fired from how ultra-polished and digitized Cody Johnson’s voice sounds on the finished product, whatever enhancements were employed during the mixing and mastering process. Please understand, I’m not criticizing Cody’s prowess as a vocalist whatsoever. By all accounts, whether fronting a band, or going out on stage with just an acoustic guitar, Cody Johnson can send hearts stirring with his voice. But during too many moments to list on this album, the sharp-edged mark left by audio enhancement drains any life in the performance or lyric, and really erodes any authenticity this project tries to convey. Some listeners won’t be able to hear the enhancement, but Cody’s first verse on “Me and My Kind” might be the most blaring example of Auto-Tune, or some other perfecting filter I’ve ever heard on a studio album.

Cowboy Like Me is too polished, too perfect, too pandering to radio to get too excited about as a vehicle to save country music. Should people be embarrassed for liking Cody Johnson or this album? Of course not, because in the end it is undoubtedly a better, healthier country music option than most of what Music Row is serving for dinner. But I would be lying if I said I thought Cowboy Like Me was a good album, or even REAL country.

1 Gun Up for some well-written songs ideas and some good country instrumentation.

1 Gun Down for all the rock guitar, cliché country lyrics and modes, and Auto-Tune.

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Preview & Purchase Tracks for Cowboy Like Me