Without a doubt one of the biggest pros of the digital era in music is it has allowed the rise and success of independent artists. In country music, Cody Johnson is perhaps one of the best examples. Hailing from the Texas country scene, Johnson has raised his profile steadily in recent years. He has major sponsors, is a fixture on the Texas charts, has great streaming numbers and sells a lot of album. This is without all of the support of a major label or country radio. With his new album Gotta Be Me, he sold 23,000 copies in its first week. To really put this into perspective: Chris Lane just hit #1 at country radio with his pop song “Fix” and only sold just over 6,000 copies of his new album in the first week. Johnson’s sales should have been great enough to land him his first #1 country album, but thanks to Blake Shelton’s 99 cents album deal on Google Play he missed out at the accomplishment (Johnson had the perfect response to this). With all of his chatter around the album, I decided to re-listen to the album after initially deciding not to review it. After more listens it grew on me and I decided to give it a proper review because at times this album can shine pretty bright.
The album’s title track kicks it off and right away you’re greeted with the warm, welcoming sounds of country music. If there’s one thing this album absolutely nails, it’s the instrumentation. This is a true country album through and through. In this song Johnson sings about how he sticks to his guns and always stays true to himself. It’s a solid song to start the album. This is followed by “Grass Stains.” It was kind of predictable where this song was going from the beginning, as it’s about a couple having sex in the grass. It’s pretty close to bro country lyrics and the very least are laundry list and predictable. This isn’t necessarily bad, but the fiddles can’t cover up unimaginative songwriting. One of the better-written songs and one of my favorites on the album is “With You I Am.” It’s a song about a guy telling his woman about how he was never the quarterback of the football team or flashy guy. He was the humble guy who stayed in the background. But now with her in his life he feels like a more confident, better person. Unlike some modern country songs about love, this one actually takes time to explain why this relationship is so meaningful.
Johnson harkens back to 90s country on “Half a Song.” I say 90s country because everything from the lyrics to the instrumentation remind me of something I would hear on the radio in that era. If country radio still actually played country music all the time, I would say this would be a hit single. It’s a love song that you can dance to, but also has heart and connects easy with the listener. “The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life)” is another song where Johnson sings about the kind of person he is and the life he leads. Now when I see most country artists with a song that is about living the cowboy life, I roll my eyes because it feels disingenuous and false. But with Johnson it doesn’t. Not only because he used to be in the rodeo and is from Texas, but also you can hear it in his voice as he sings.
The slower, pedal steel guitar-driven “Walk Away” is next. It by far digs deeper than any other song on this album, as it’s a cheating song about a guy finding out his love is cheating on him. She doesn’t know that he knows, as he finds the guy she’s cheating on him with. He buys the guy a drink and calmly explains to him that he needs to walk away from this affair because he loves her and wants to give her a second chance. It’s rare to hear this in a cheating song and see the cheated person give the cheater a second chance. It’s kind of refreshing to hear another take on a cheating song and I applaud Johnson for it. I would say this is the best song on the album. Johnson swerves back into cliché/laundry list territory on “Kiss Goodbye.” It’s another cheating song with a more modern instrumentation feel and features some spoken word from Johnson. The spoken word isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s kind of awkward and doesn’t improve the song. This song is just sort of there for me.
“Chain Drinkin’” is another song that you can tell where it’s going by the title of it. But predictable isn’t always bad. While this drinking song isn’t bursting with creativity, it’s easy to enjoy and tap your feet along with as you listen. What helps is it doesn’t take itself seriously and errs more on the light-hearted, humorous side. While ballads and cheating songs are the bedrock of country music, you need these fun songs to break it up too. Johnson relies on the old trope, “If you love something, set it free,” on “Wild as You.” Just like “Kiss Goodbye,” it’s a lightweight song and one of the more forgettable moments on this album. The same can be said of the next track, “I Know My Way Back (Clara’s Song).” Again not a bad love song, it’s just okay and not something I would go out of my way to hear. “Billy’s Brother” is about a man getting drunk in bar and a man remembering not to fight Billy. This is because of Billy’s brother, who sounds like he could kick anyone’s ass. The entire song revolves around getting drunk and the man hoping he can keep his hands off Billy. Predictably he doesn’t and I’m assuming Billy’s brother won another fight. This is the type of song I can imagine connects much better live than on an album.
After a streak of lighter songs, Johnson digs back deeper again with “Every Scar Has a Story.” He sings about all of the scars on his body, both physical and emotional, all tell a story about something that has happened in his life. This is from going headfirst off a motorcycle to getting his heart broke. Again in a more just world, this song is a hit. “I Ain’t Going Nowhere Baby” is about a man reaffirming to his love that he isn’t going anywhere and that he’ll always have a shoulder there for her to cry on. With already numerous love songs on this album and the record being 14 songs long, you kind of run out of steam by this point (more on that in a second). Gotta Be Me ends with another highlight of the album, “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand).” It’s an acoustic bonus track that features both of his parents and it’s a really touching song. Normally I don’t review bonus tracks in my album reviews, but this song is so great I had to include it. It’s probably one of the coolest outros I’ve heard on an album and ends the record on a high note.
Cody Johnson’s Gotta Be Me is a solid country album. Is it one of the year’s best? No. What ultimately holds this album back is the songwriting and the album length. While there are a few moments of a good songwriting, too many times there are songs that have a been there, done that feel. In the case of a song like “Grass Stains,” it reminded me a little too much of the not so distant bro country era. At 14 songs, this album is just too long and can drag towards the end. This album would have been so much better if you cut the four worst songs. It would be an easier listen and the songwriting would be more forgivable. I will say though that this is a step up from Cowboy Like Me and I think it’s the perfect album for a mainstream country fan looking to get into Texas and/or independent country music.