He also created a dilemma: What comes next? Johnson and his team considered numerous factors for the follow-up single – tempo, how much the new song varied from the last, what the research looked like – and Johnson finally decided they were thinking too much about the market and not enough about the art. They narrowed it down to two songs, but if either choice lived up to expectations, he was looking at a can’t-lose proposition.
“Three different people said this exact same thing: ‘God Bless the Boy’ is a CMT award; ‘Human’ is a Grammy award,” Johnson recalls. “I think that taking that chance of releasing ‘Human’ and saying, ‘Look, I’m gonna be vulnerable in front of the world’ [is the right one]. I’m man enough. I’m tough enough to say, ‘Look, this is how I feel.’”
“Human” is a reflection of one of life’s most powerful paradoxes, that the strongest people are those who are able to recognize and confront their weaknesses. The song weighs the temptations and rigors of life on the road against the difficulties that it creates for a spouse back home. It addresses it with incredible humility.
“The biggest job is keeping under control, making sure that you’re not gonna turn into ‘that person,’” he says. “The more fame and the more money – you watch people and you watch their careers, where they change and they turn into different people. And then you see their lives fall apart, their careers fall apart, and it’s like they were a detriment under themselves. Keeping that at bay is really the job, and realizing that there are other things that are more important, I think, is the big takeaway.”
The humility in “Human” is a stark representation of its writers, particularly Travis Meadows (“What We Ain’t Got,” “Better Boat”), who has been unwaveringly open about a battle with addiction that his driven his songwriting.
“After really struggling to get sober, I almost lost everything,” he says. “My name was all I had, and I did not wanna put my name on something ridiculous. I was trying to build a legacy. I was trying to get sober and trying to say something worth saying, and trying to leave my son something, because it was obvious it wasn’t gonna be money. So maybe he could listen back to some of those songs and learn some lessons about how to be alive, be human.”
Meadows and Tony Lane (“Hello World,” “On My Way to You”) penned “Human” at the Firehall in Nashville on Jan. 16, 2014, working from a couple of phrases – “All the headlights/ All the midnights” – that Lane had sketched out, not knowing where they would lead. “Human” was a word Meadows had in his list of potential titles, and he didn’t know what it was about either, but they started mumbling through different syllables and phrases, working toward some nebulous finish line.
“I think more of the sound of words than I do the philosophical nature behind them,” Lane says. “To me, it’s always clicking words together, and if it feels right, then it’s right for me. Usually, the philosophy comes after the writing of the words.”
Lane and Meadows both played guitar with open tunings, a technique that allows the strings to reverberate more. That rich foundational bed is one of the reasons they could leave significant space between many of the lines, beginning with the opening observation: “I thought by now I’d have it figured out/ How not to make the easy things so hard to do.”
“I learned a long time ago that sometimes the best editing gets done with an eraser,” Meadows says. “And if you’re hanging pictures on the wall and you cover the whole thing with nothing but pictures and there’s no space on the wall, that just starts looking tacky and over-full. You kind of have to pace it.”
They painted the protagonist as a once-aspiring cowboy who now makes his living with a guitar and feels the need to apologize to his mate for getting “careless with your heart.”
“I call ‘em left-handed love songs,” Lane says. “They’re kind of the imperfect cowboy, the broken guy, but it’s still a love song.”
By the end of the first chorus, the guy confessed his internal uncertainties and self-doubts, and the hook became clear: “I’m still learning to be human.” The second verse and the final chorus introduced more imagery – his knack for burning bridges, and his tendencies toward crazy behavior and whiskey; her steady support without trying to reshape his personality. They provided just enough specifics to give the listener a sense of the characters’ inner world but left it open enough for the consumer to insert their own experiences into the storyline.
“We’re both pretty keen on the economy of words,” Meadows says. “I would rather say three really good ones than 20 trying to make a point. And I know Tony is the same way.”
They recorded a spare guitar/vocal at the Brentwood studio of Sal Oliveri, who dropped the faintest of keyboard pads underneath Meadows’ world-worn vocal and buzzing acoustic guitar. The demo subsequently bounced around Music Row for the next seven years with several artists expressing admiration for the work. Still, none of them grabbed it — at least, until producer Trent Willmon played it for Johnson, who thought “Human” was an ideal representation of his life and his relationship with his wife, Brandi Johnson.
“It’s a positive outlook on the dark stuff and being grateful for a woman that will put up with your s–t,” Willmon says. “We can all relate to that.”
They recorded it during the summer of 2021 at Nashville’s Starstruck Studios, with the musicians offering the lightest of touches: drummer Jerry Roe’s subtle kick drum paces the track, while steel guitarist Mike Johnson and fiddler Jenee Fleenor inject counter-lines into the canyons between the singer’s phrases without filling every second. Keyboardist Alex Wright drops in a pulsing synth tone every so often, modernizing the performance just a hair while allowing it to keep its earthy honesty.
“You could be the best guitar player and the best fiddle player, the best steel player in the world, but if you’re playing on top of the singer, that’s the most frustrating thing for a singer,” Willmon notes. “And in country music, it’s all about stories. It’s all about that lyric.”
Johnson delivered the vocal with perceptible conviction – “It’s easy to tell a story when you’ve walked that path,” he says – and Willmon enlisted a female vocalist to represent Brandi’s harmony in Cody’s real-life relationship. Miranda Lambert was interested but unavailable at the time they needed her. Texan Kylie Frey took the part instead, and provided the right energy. “She was a great addition,” Johnson says. “It softened it up just enough, but not to where it changed the feel. It didn’t rob the song of its masculinity.”
Warner Music Nashville released “Human” to country radio via PlayMPE on May 3. It goes for adds on June 6.
“It’s just such a beautiful picture of what we all do,” Johnson suggests. “We all are born, we all die, and we are space in between. We all go through the same process of being human.”