While acts like the Randy Rogers Band and Wade Bowen rule the Texas country roost in Central Texas, and acts from Oklahoma like the Turnpike Troubadours and Ft. Worth natives such as Cody Jinks rule the northern regions, Cody Johnson is the Texas country king of the east. The Huntsville, TX-native has a huge following in Houston, College Station, and similar places, and has amassed himself one hell of a music career including multiple corporate endorsements, not allowing the fact that mainstream country radio has no clue who he is to get in his way from earning a healthy living from his name and music.
In many sectors of Texas country, and among many Texas country and traditional country fans, a new record from Cody Johnson is a highly-anticipated event, and for good reason. Cody Johnson is a squared-away, clean cut, simple, down-to-earth, good ol’ American boy in Wranglers and starched shirts singing undeniably country songs about everyday themes. This should be something right down Saving Country Music’s alley you may suspect.
But not necessarily. A governing maxim here has always been that just because something is country doesn’t make it good. Though Cody Johnson’s country cred is pretty undeniable, his last record Cowboy Like Me might have been the most egregious example of Auto-tune oversaturation ever employed on a country album in history, rivaled only by the controversial George Strait Live album from his final concert. Was it country? Sure. But the unabashed and aggressive slathering of Auto-tune all over the vocal track made Cowboy Like Me unlistenable for this cowpoke, while the songwriting frankly left much to be desired, and even the music was more dependent on blazing rock guitar than steel and fiddle like a traditional country record should be.
This unpopular opinion on Cody Johnson had some questioning Saving Country Music’s charter and legitimacy, just as attempting to ignore Johnson’s Cowboy Like Me well after the release for not wanting to turn the poison pen on a traditional country artist led to long-winded diatribes about Saving Country Music’s dereliction of duty. How could one fly such a flag without singing the praises of Cody Johnson? But are opinions are just that, and when regular east Texas running buddy and fellow Bud Light/Wrangler/Resistol endorsee Kyle Park released his latest record, the ridiculous Blue Roof Sessions with it’s futuristic treatment and Billy Squier cover, it seemed like the end of all hope, the proverbial nail in the coffin for the Kyle Park/Cody Johnson dynamic duo to do anying more than sell lots of Bud Light to shallow Houstonians playing cowboy in their Resistols on Saturday nights.
Yet isn’t it funny how sometimes when you think you have someone pegged and hung up all hope on their future, they’ll haul off and surprise you. That’s exactly what Cody Johnson has done with his latest record, Gotta Be Me. Don’t get me wrong, the songwriting of the effort still leaves some to be desired, and this is in no way a slam dunk stellar Texas country release. But the Auto-tune that saddled his previous record was not just dialed back, it sounds virtually non existent, while the instrumentation veers much closer to what people consider traditional country throughout the track list.
If Cowboys Like Me was Cody Johnson selling out in an attempt to garner more national attention with a super-polished and radio-friendly product, the appropriately-titled Gotta Be Me is Johnson reeling it all back in and being truthful about who he is, where his sound lies, and what his prospects are. Gotta Be Me is Cody Johnson being Cody Johnson again. If anything, you wonder if it’s too traditional and straight-laced for passive fans to find enough to latch on to.
The problem that still remains is that Cody Johnson just doesn’t have a lot of insight to offer through his songs. There are a few moments though, like the final song “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand),” or “Every Scar Has a Story.” Yet beyond the production issues, Cowboy Like Me may have been a better selection of tunes. But not every songwriter has to be like Townes Van Zandt, and that’s not Cody Johnson’s bag anyway. As Johnson says himself, “I’m a God-fearin’, hard-workin’, beer-drinkin’, fightin’, lovin’ cowboy from Texas. That’s about it.” He writes and performs simple songs because he’s a simple guy. It may not be what pointy-nosed critics love to condone, but it doesn’t make it bad. It just doesn’t make it singular in the music marketplace.
Ultimately, if a performer is being himself and making the best of his God-given abilities, it doesn’t leave much to quibble with. Gotta Be Me isn’t great, but it’s Cody Johnson, and it show an attention to details and an honesty that illustrates solid improvement, which is also all you can ask from an artist. Cody Johnson was never the problem in country music. It’s just that now he takes his place back as part of the solution.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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