The hard-driving ode to making the most of every day also marks Johnson’s very first No. 1 hit at country radio, besting his former No. 11 peak on Country Airplay with “On My Way To You.” It has been a mountaintop moment for not only Johnson, but for his manager, Durango Artist Management’s Howie Edelman, who earns the title of Billboard‘s Executive of the Week.
“We never search for No. 1 hits. We search for great songs,” Edelman tells Billboard. “We have a group of people — Cody, Scott Gunter here at Durango who worked in publishing for 20 years, [Warner Music Nashville’s executive vp, A&R] Cris Lacy and Cody’s producer Trent Willmon, we are all focused on great songs and building his career.”
Johnson was doggedly building his career for well over a decade on the Texas music scene before inking a joint venture deal with Warner. His debut album for the label, Ain’t Nothin’ To It, debuted at No. 1 on the Country Albums chart in 2019. “‘Til You Can’t” is from Johnson’s latest project, Human: The Double Album. He currently has three CMT Music Awards nominations and will make his debut appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on April 8.
Here, Edelman discusses the success of “‘Til You Can’t,” pivoting during the pandemic, releasing Johnson’s Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story documentary and more.
“‘Til You Can’t” is Cody Johnson’s first No. 1 Country Airplay hit and it is a two-week No. 1 hit. What were some key decisions you and your team made to help make that happen?
Coming out of COVID, it was a no-brainer to release “‘Til You Can’t.” Just the message of the song is so impactful. it was a unanimous decision between all five of us — Cody, me, Scott, Cris and Trent. It was just perfect timing, because that song had been pitched to every artist in town for the past six years or so.
How did you start working with Cody?
I met Cody in 2009 when he was opening a show in Texas. I heard him sing and was amazed by his stage presence. I introduced myself after the show and asked if he was working with anyone, and he said no. Cody was 21 at the time. I called contacts I knew in the bars to ask about him. Everybody said, “He’s very talented, but he’s a bull rider and he’s got an edge.” To me, it wasn’t him being cocky, it was him being confident. I grew up in that world, so I said, “Here’s the doors I can open for you and the people I can introduce you to.” We developed the fan base and slowly developed it nationwide. Everything doesn’t work at radio, that’s obvious. And some stuff that works at radio doesn’t sell hard tickets. So we set on a path to make as much noise as we could.
There used to be a bit of a stigma about Texas artists “going Nashville” to broaden their fan bases. Have you experienced that in your work?
I think the broader your music is, the broader your audience will be. If you are just writing songs about bluebonnets and the Comal River, you’re going to pigeonhole yourself. It wasn’t just our era or our Texas Red Dirt thing. Think about when Willie Nelson didn’t work in Nashville and he came back to Texas and started a movement in Austin. It was no different than that.
You also work with Randall King, another Texas artist who just released an album. It feels like there is a resurgence of ’90s country-inspired, neo-traditional sounds.
There has always been room for it and we’re proving it in hard tickets across the nation. I think Nashville tends to follow trends and with that, when something works, everyone follows it. But for us, we stuck to what we do. We are proving fans want this type of music across the nation. We were selling out 3,000-cap, 4,000-cap seaters before radio jumped on one song. That was the power of the internet. Before we signed with Warner, we were already over a billion streams. There were a lot of radio stations that were playing his music, but they were not monitored. There were tons of secondary stations that helped with our hard ticket sales. But we knew if we wanted radio, we needed to partner with someone who had those relationships. And Warner gives us creative freedom and support to do what we do.
Last year, Cody also released a full-length documentary, Dear Rodeo: The Cody Johnson Story. What was it like working on that project and why did you feel it was important to release that at this point in his career?
That was just supposed to be a music video [for Johnson’s previous single, “Dear Rodeo”]. Shane Tarleton [executive vp at Warner] is the one that came with the idea of the documentary. It was right before the pandemic. We were playing direct to Miranda Lambert in Nashville at the [Bridgestone] Arena. Shane came onto the bus and pitched the idea, and then when we pitched the idea to the producer Shaun Silva, he just laid out this thing that was bigger than “Rodeo” and bigger than just a Cody Johnson story. It impacted so many people.
And Cody’s a little like George [Strait], in that he keeps his family life and personal life more private. He kind of exposed himself in that documentary and that was a big thing for him, to be able to say some of those things. No fan knows the pressure of this business. There aren’t a lot of humans that can deal with the pressure of this business, because the more successful you become, the more difficult it becomes and the harder you have to work.
What is one key aspect to succeeding in the country music business that many people tend to overlook?
Surround yourself with great people. For me, that’s been the most important thing. You can’t do it all yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.