As a historically adult genre, country has grappled with sex and nudity for decades. Chris Young’s “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)” and Gene Watson’s “Nothing Sure Looked Good on You” have the most in common lyrically with Johnson’s new nude entry. But the topic also has been explored in Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down,” Faith Hill’s “Breathe,” Conway Twitty’s “I’d Love to Lay You Down,” Alabama’s “Face to Face,” Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and Florida Georgia Line’s current “Talk You Out of It,” just for starters.
There’s a vulnerability involved any time someone bares their full body. Thus, most of the songs about nudity -- Ray Steven’s comedic “The Streak” being a rare exception -- offer some sort of positive feedback, and that’s part of the realness in Johnson’s performance of “Nothin’ On You.” It refers to the woman as “a work of fine art” and says she’s more impressive than Paris or “the Grand Canyon on a full moon.”
“I do feel that way about my wife,” says Johnson. “She doesn’t have to get dressed in pearls and diamonds for me to see how beautiful she is. She can be around the house in shorts and a T-shirt and gardening and look just as good to me. I think that’s something that’s in the song without saying that.”
It’s a great sentiment, but it was developed in what could have been an awkward setting. Barrett Baber, who finished among the top three as a member of Blake Shelton’s team on the fall 2015 edition of NBC’s The Voice, found the idea logged in his phone the night before a scheduled co-write with Trent Willmon (“Back When I Knew It All,” “Keep on Lovin’ You”), whom he had never met.
Baber had written “Nothin’ on You” with a parenthetical phrase next to it -- “Nothin’ ain’t got nothin’” -- and he matched it to a waltz tempo. It was one of several song ideas he brought with him to Warner Chappell Nashville, where the oversize photos of the label’s star acts, including Shelton and Dan + Shay, were a tad intimidating. “I was kind of psyched and nervous all at the same time,” remembers Baber.
Willmon had done his homework, too. He found YouTube clips of Baber performing, expecting that they were writing a song for Baber to record. “He’s like Chris Stapleton,” says Willmon, “and he’s got this bluesy, sexy thing going on.”
Willmon showed up in overalls, and when he greeted Baber, he caught him slightly off guard. “He said, ‘You got a real sexy voice, man. We’ve got to write something sexy today,’” remembers Baber. “It’s an odd feeling when a guy in overalls looks deep into your eyes and says, ‘We need to write something sexy.’”
“Nothin’ on You” was the second idea Baber suggested. The basic hook and overall concept were already in place, as was the bulk of the melodic structure. It didn’t take long to get past the two-dudes-in-a-room aspect as they dug into the meat of the song. The key to making it acceptable was to walk the same fine line that Kenny O’Dell navigated in writing Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” casting the sex in the context of a stable relationship.
“I do remember us discussing that because the song is so sensual, sexy -- graphic even -- that it would make it sound less slutty to the listener if it was a couple,” notes Willmon. “We wanted it to be an intimate conversation between a man and his woman as opposed to a man and a random woman. That way it becomes a love song and not a let’s-just-have-sex song.”
They accomplished that with three words in the third line (“You always impress”), indicating that he has been with her long enough to know the black dress and know the reaction that it creates. Thus, by the time it gets to the chorus, his impassioned praise (“When you got nothing on/There ain’t nothing wrong”) clearly comes from someone who has experienced this scenario with her before.
But, maintains Baber, the distinction between lifetime squeeze and one-night stand isn’t made solely with the words.
“It’s got a lot more to do with the groove and the melody than it does with the lyric,” he says. “And there’s something about that three-quarter time and really stark kind of production, especially the way the song starts. I think that makes it honest and makes it sweet. It’s still sexy, but it carries that feeling of somebody who’s singing to somebody that they’re in love with, not just somebody they want to make out with.”
Baber sang the heck out of the demo, and when Willmon played it for his wife, Lizzie May Willmon, she thought Johnson would be ideal for it. Her instincts were good. Once Brandi gave it her approval, Johnson helped reshape “Nothin’ on You” when they cut it at Starstruck Studios in Nashville, heightening the sexual connotations with the arrangement.
“I approached this song as if I would approach making love to my wife in that I wanted it to kind of take this thing slow and no production until after the first chorus,” he says. “It needed to be very stripped-down in a sense and keep that sexy vibe going. It needs to be climactic. It needs to have a point where you know that this is it. This is the spot. I think we accomplished all of it.”
The instruments drop out completely for several beats in the second verse, leaving Johnson’s voice naked and exposed, and Justin Ostrader added a teasing guitar solo during an overdub a few weeks later. “We kind of wanted to be a little ballsy with the vocals, to let them hang out there and let the listener know that the song hinged on the vocals,” Johnson says. “The soul was not coming out of the [Hammond] B3 or the guitar. The soul is coming out of me, and I think you have to take chances like that and strip down some parts of those songs just to let people know.”
“Nothin’ On You” bears a sonic resemblance to Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color” and Jason Aldean’s “You Make It Easy” (“Those guys are making country sexy,” says Willmon, “and I think that’s a great thing for country music.”), and it’s become a big concert moment for Johnson. That, in turn, helped Warner Music decide to make it a single, so the label released it to country radio via PlayMPE on June 24.
If it performs on the airwaves the same way it does in concert, Johnson might well peak at an enviable chart position before its run is over. “When you play it out for people, you see firsthand what makes people happy, what makes them move, and there’s just something that I can’t explain,” Johnson says. “It just gets people. It got me.”
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.