Boy, we sure had high expectations that Cody Johnson would be bringing his brand of starched Wranglers and printed shirt country to mainstream radio when he partnered his CoJo record label with Warner Music Nashville. Unfortunately, that never really materialized. But it’s probably all for the better. In fact, Cody probably dodged a bullet. Little good can come from chasing radio play, and seeing his sales, streams, and gate numbers, Cody Johnson doesn’t need Music Row’s help. He’s got grassroots fans to support him.
The only trend Cody Johnson is chasing these days is releasing a double album. Called Human, the 18 songs make it more like a long LP instead of a true gatefold, and pulling out some cover songs and working with a host of contributing songwriters and co-writers ensured you didn’t get only one album’s worth of good songs stretched into two records, even if only half of this album might appeal you—which half depending on where you fall on the country music spectrum. Meanwhile, those grassroots CoJo fans will find exactly what they want cover to cover.
Cody Johnson has always been unfairly cast aside by the snobbish Americana crowd and independent country hipsters as “too mainstream,” while the mainstream set sees the cowboy hat, and hears the east Texas drawl and fiddle and is sent packing as well. But they’re both overlooking the effort of Cody Johnson to mix meaningful moments in with country rock mega songs that make his live shows something to behold, and his devout fans willing to run through walls for him.
Cody Johnson is what mainstream country music in 2021 should be: country, but widely appealing and pragmatic, while being unafraid to make you think and feel a little too. Perhaps more than any other Cody Johnson record, Human: The Double Album feels organic. Compared to his first record after partnering with a major label, you can tell Cody is just recording what he wants. Sure, he’s no John Moreland or Hayes Carll. But he’s also not trying to smooth the edges off, or fit into a mold to appeal to an industry or to listeners that probably won’t ever find favor with his more traditional style of country in the first place.
Recording what is the most subtle Music Row kiss off song in country history in Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” with Willie Nelson himself is not what you do when you’re looking to win friends and influence people inside the country music beltway. Neither is dusting off the cleverly-composed Harlan Howard conversation with the moon called “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love” popularized by Conway Twitty. You also don’t emphasize the steel guitar and fiddle an extra notch like Cody Johnson does on this album.
Cody Johnson finds the sweet spot between infectious appeal, country authenticity, and critical acclaim. Where most artists are rushing to one side or the other of the country music cultural divide, Cody’s tilling the rich soil in the in-between. Songs like “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floors” and “Let’s Build a Fire” have all the energy and attitude of those mainstream radio #1 smashes, but with emphatic fiddle and a bit more developed lyricism, they slide just above the “Bro-Country” label.
You wouldn’t ever accused Cody Johnson of being a “Boyfriend Country” star such as Dan + Shay, but songs such as “Known For Loving You,” “Made A Home,” and “Stronger” are written in the popular vein of male performers singing about strong women, just with significantly more of a country-sounding accompaniment.
Then you get into songs like “Human,” “Driveway,” “Treasure,” “I Always Wanted To,” and maybe the best of the set, “‘Til You Can’t,” where Cody Johnson is openly challenging the audience go a little bit deeper than the surface, and feel something those songs on the radio rarely deliver. It’s songs like these why you can’t compare Cody to Morgan Wallen or Luke Bryan.
Cody Johnson knows his fans, and knows his place. He’s a contemporary traditionalist who sings simple poetry set to appealing music for fans who don’t necessarily want to unravel the mysteries of life or grapple with existential questions. They simply want to listen to good music that reminds them of the gifts of life, and imparts simple lessons and rural wisdom. Oh, and they actually want it to sound country. And that’s why Cody Johnson is their guy.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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Purchase Human: The Double Album