Cody Johnson's 'With You I Am' Sets Up a Trad-Country Contender
The Texas singer-songwriter lofted his last album into country's top 10.
When Cody Johnson’s last project, Cowboy Like Me, debuted at No. 7 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, there were plenty of country fans who had no idea who the guy was.
But those who do are enthusiastic about him. He has had a handful of No. 1 singles on the Texas Regional Radio Report, he makes a nice living as an in-demand live act on the red-dirt circuit and beyond, and his songs have been streamed more than 60 million times on Pandora and Spotify. He has built enough of an audience that major labels have had discussions with him, though so far, he hasn’t signed away any of his rights.
Johnson has managed to build a career through hard work and word-of-mouth, but it wouldn’t be happening without a bundle of talent. It’s on full display in “With You I Am,” a melodic single released to radio via Play MPE on May 17 through his own CoJo label. The song is nicely balanced on several fronts: It matches his ’90s-influenced country with a modern-sounding drum track; it shows plenty of vocal restraint until the last run-through of the chorus, when Johnson goes full-throttle with conviction; and it delivers a female-friendly romantic message in a way that guys can relate to as well.
“Every guy wants the girl to think he is that masculine, tougher-than-life kind of thing, but that girl also wants a guy with a softer side that nobody else gets to see but her,” observes Johnson. “When you truly find [the right] one, as a guy, you do give her that side, you know, whenever it’s just the two of you.”
There wasn’t a woman in the room when Johnson and his two co-writers — David Lee (“Hello World,” “Roll With It”) and Trent Willmon (“Back When I Knew It All,” “Keep On Lovin’ You”) — authored “With You I Am” at Nashville’s Ten Ten Music in the fall of 2014. But a female influence was definitely there. Johnson had been married a little more than three years at the time, and his wife, Brandi, was pregnant with their daughter, Clara Mae Johnson, who was born Jan. 5, 2015. A former rodeo pro, Johnson felt he had changed significantly since getting married, and Lee and Willmon had similarly become better men because of their relationships.
“I was one of them that, nobody could break my heart, nobody could have control of me,” recalls Lee. “All the sudden, you meet this girl and she’s the sweetest thing on earth, and you find yourself doing the gooey stuff, like dancing and dressing up, things that you wouldn’t normally do, and people see you and go, ‘Man, you’ve changed.’ ”
Willmon had the title and the idea, says Lee, of essentially listing a bunch of the things that the guy is not, only to come back in the chorus and show all the ways that she completes him. The opening verses make the point. The singer has never been Cool Hand Luke, a winning quarterback or Patrick Swayze. He seems to come up short as he compares himself with some of the cultural standards for men.
“The entire verses are focused around the guy, until you get to the hook line in the chorus,” says Johnson. “You hear, ‘With you I am,’ then you’re going, ‘Oh, this song’s not about him at all. It’s about the girl.’ That’s what I think is cool about it.”
More specifically, it’s about the transformation the woman inspired. He’s portrayed in the chorus as “Strong as an oak, soft like leather/High as a pine and light as a feather” — a description attributed to Lee.
“It was one of the most fun three-way songwrites that I’ve ever had because literally, as one guy would get through saying something, the next guy would be starting the line after it,” recalls Johnson. “It just rotated around the room.”
Still, the writing session was a bit of a challenge. Johnson prides himself on the traditional bent in his music, but after they had dug in, Willmon — who’s also Johnson’s producer — pulled up a drum track to write over.
“It just freaked me out,” admits Johnson. “This little country boy here had never played with electronics in the writing room.”
That was part of Willmon’s motivation for introducing the item. “A producer’s job is to get an artist out of their comfort zone,” he says. “If we don’t do that, we’re just going to keep making the same song over and over again. That’s not going to help his career.”
Johnson didn’t initially think of it as a song for himself. He sang on the demo, and it got pitched around town. Nobody picked it up, which was fortunate, since Johnson eventually saw it as a song he should keep, even if it needed to be revised. “We made a very plastic track,” he says.
They recorded “With You I Am” at Ronnie’s Place on Music Row while cutting 14 songs for the album in two short days. Willmon and Johnson encouraged the musicians to think more organically as they transformed the demo, balancing its tech elements against the traditional sound that’s more authentic to Johnson.
He struggled a bit. Johnson had discovered he had a deviated septum, an abnormal blockage in his nasal passage.
“When I sang with the band, I was literally on my last leg trying to sing,” says Johnson. “I gave it everything I had, and I barely had a voice left.”
He had surgery shortly after, and four months later, he returned to Nashville to do vocals at Station West. When they tackled “With You I Am,” Johnson was able to pack an extra amount of intensity into the performance, particularly when he belted out a key line in the final chorus.
“When he came back and sang, it was like, ‘Holy cow,’ ” says Willmon. “Now we’re finally consistently hearing the Cody that we used to only hear every now and then.”
Johnson played “With You I Am” acoustically in his live sets and was impressed with the crowd response. He also performed it when his drummer, Miles Stone, got married Aug. 15, 2015, and decided it was worthy of being the lead single from Gotta Be Me. Though he says he has continued to have conversations with major labels, Johnson went ahead with the single rather than waiting to see if a deal actually comes together, intent on keeping his fans supplied with new music.
“He could actually be the future face of what traditional country music looks like,” says Lee. “He’s got enough rock in him, but he’s still country, you know. It still resonates with those people that aren’t being fed right now. And I think there’s a bunch of them out there that are not being fed the music that they want.”
Whether “With You I Am” takes him to the next level or simply keeps his current fan base satisfied, it’s still a creative success. It’s a strong post-surgery vocal of a commercial melody that provides a constant reminder of how much his life was changed when Johnson tied the knot five years ago.
“Whenever I play it, I always think about how cool I thought I was before I met my wife,” he says. “In my mind, my cocky ego, I was Cool Hand Luke, and I was the winning quarterback, and I was all those things. Then I meet her and go, ‘Wow, I really wasn’t. I just thought I was.’ Now, I am.”