Writing something about Cody Johnson is long overdue having looked down at my phone so many times to see that a song I was thoroughly enjoying was a Cody Johnson. I decided it made the most sense to consider CJ’s newest album to stay current, etc and expected to find almost exclusively great things to say. But on a closer listening at just the material off Gotta Be Me, the story is a bit more mixed. There are some great moments on the album but there are also some wide misses and a number of songs middling about somewhere in between.
Leading off the category of wide misses, Kiss Goodbye starts off unpleasantly with some spoken-word, country-rap type lyrics. I had brief hopes of redemption after the start of the second verse “I turn off my radio as I turn off your county road/ to pick you up just like I’ve done at least a thousand times/ the gravel underneath these tires/ half mile stretch of ol’ barbed wire”, but this verse didn’t lead anywhere and the rhymes in the song could be seen coming a mile away. CJ’s vocals are solid, but (thankfully) this song doesn’t come off as authentic for Johnson and my primary takeaway is that, artistically and financially, this song could have been more profitably farmed out to a Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean. Ditto for Billy’s Brother. We can see the rollicking Ain’t Going Down ‘Til the Sun Comes Up kind of fun CJ is going for here, but bro-country emptiness overwhelms. I could see this song playing a bit better live.
In the forgettable category, I’d put I Know My Way Back (Clara’s Song) and I Ain’t Going Nowhere Baby. There’s nothing wrong with these songs, and in the modern pop country realm they stack up favorably, but they are just too cookie-cutter. I Know My Way sounds like a mash-up between Uncle Kracker (on account of the opening chords) and then I want to say Easton Corbin or Brett Eldredge (I can’t quite put my finger on why).
Somewhere above forgettable but not quite good is Gotta Be Me, the album’s title track, which has plenty of Texas twang and some great harmonica and steel guitar action. The theme’s a fine one, but the content comes off as superficial (including the cringeworthy rhyme “I had a girl/ her name was Pearl”). Half a Song sounds like a slightly better version of a Blake Shelton song I’ve heard before. It’s not original and at times the vocals are overproduced, but it does make for easy listening.
In the good category I’d first put Chain Drinkin’, solid primarily in the straightforward simplicity of the song. Right from the outset the song establishes itself as good old fashioned feel-good, toe-tapping, upbeat and up-tempo country western swing. And so the song succeeds. Wild as You succeeds for a similar reason: a familiar motif of wild beauty is packaged inside a sweet delivery and taped up with some fitting fiddle, the song doesn’t break any new ground but neither does it try to do too much. In the same category, Grass Stains, not written by CJ, opens up nicely with some steel guitar and two good verses with lyrics like “This white v-neck that I got on/ as clean as a whistle, bright as a day/ I got new spit shine on my old boots/ starched these wranglers just for you, yesterday”. But the roll into the first chorus feels contrived. The choruses themselves bring to mind Paisley’s Ticks, but whereas the tongue-in-cheek chorus deliveries in Ticks allows the listener to play along for some hijinks not meant to be taken seriously, Grass Stains doesn’t display the same self-awareness. Nevertheless I’d rate the song pretty good especially on account of the pleasantly twangy delivery and upbeat tempo and instrumentation including some solid fiddle.
In the great or near-great category I’d put With You I Am, a nice simple love song. The authenticity of the lyrics forgives a delivery that is a bit too intentionally smooth and pop country. The lyrical contrasts of what the narrator isn’t or wasn’t (e.g “I ain’t no Patrick Swayze”, “that guy with the big ol’smile as wide as the Rio Grande”) paired with the deceptively simple title lyric, towards the end with the right amount of electric guitar to match comes together for a very good song. Every Scar Has a Story is another substantive contribution off the album. The song evokes and maintains a cowboy grittiness while tackling the topic of emotional scars from a love lost. I like the contrast of the physical hurts with the emotional, and I like that the nature and timing of the love lost is not made explicit because it absolutely doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t matter the details of the loss, we’re more concerned with the fact of the scar and the lingering hurt and the nostalgic lyrics and tone of delivery almost summon up that these details are omitted because they are too painful and are trying to be forgot. Walk Away is a great song too, notably co-written by Randy Rogers – the purveyor of so much awesome and original material. Walk Away is an original spin on the timeless hard times intersection of love and cheating with the narrator sitting down on a bar stool next to his love’s cheater in crime and addressing the ballad to him, there being no ambiguity that the narrator is prepared to give his love a second chance. There’s no monkey business around the instrumentals or the vocals, the lyrics don’t try to overdeliver and we’re just left with a wonderfully pure song. Lastly, The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life) is my favorite song off the album. It’s a traditional cowboy song that favorably recalls the best of George Strait or Casey Donahew Band, and the sentimental, nostalgic lyrics are original and heartfeltly delivered.
Overall I think the album is a great effort and it’s awesome to see this independent label album make it to No. 2 on the country charts and With You I Am break into the top 50. I don’t begrudge the desire for mainstream success, but as with this album I think Johnson can get there while keeping at least one tip-toe in Texas country territory. This album doesn’t ooze Texas country like an album by Pat Green or CDB does, but the instrumentation and CJ’s authentic cowboy content does enough. While the nods to or outright deviations into bro-country are not at all flattering, Johnson clearly has so much talent and really shines as a cowboy troubadour with the songs that are simple yet substantive.