By Geoffrey Rowlands
Cody Johnson has always been regarded as the underdog. Despite a string of contract offers from major labels, the 31-year-old country music singer, songwriter and musician always insisted on remaining an unsigned independent artiste who took on the big boys at their own game and came out a winner.
So, what changed? What made him decide to ink his deal with Warner Music Nashville?
“I had nothing against the major labels,” Cody smiled. “I didn’t see them as part of an evil empire or anything like that. I had several friends who loved being with major labels. They were happy, had great lives and were treated very well.
“I received a number of very good offers which I politely declined. I just felt like I’d spent all those years building my career from nothing. I’d got my fan following from putting my songs online and performing so many shows. I just felt like if I worked a little harder, I could promote my albums myself and also hire the right people to do the same kind of things as a record label.
“I finally decided to sign with a label because I thought I might have taken things as far as I could as an independent artiste. I felt like I needed the expertise and power of a major label if I was going to progress to the next level.
Offers came in from numerous labels. I chose Warner Music Nashville because of my relationship with president and CEO John Esposito. He had tried to sign me on two previous occasions and made very good offers. But the new offer was much more generous than in the past. This, along with everything John promised the label could do for me, was why I signed with WMN.”
Cody’s own life story could easily form the basis of a country song. Indeed, his final independent album, 2016’s Gotta Be Me, contained tracks which were clearly autobiographical.
He was born and raised in the east Texas town of Sebastopol. He began singing and playing guitar at the age of 12. His first band was formed in 2006. Cody was on guitar, his dad Carl on bass and his friend Nathan Reedy on drums.
“We went to a local radio station to do an in-studio performance and they asked us our name. We hadn’t settled on a name but virtually everyone on the young Texas music scene is in a something band so we just said we were The Cody Johnson Band.”
More musicians were added to the line-up with the passing years seeing several personnel changes.
Cody and his backing musicians released four independent albums between 2006 and 2011. But music was initially just a part-time activity. Cody was a professional rodeo rider.
“I guess I had twin dreams of becoming a country music star and the bull riding world champion. I used to do both things on the rodeo circuit. I played my music on the days when I wasn’t competing.”
Too many injuries caused Cody to give up on his bull riding dream. But he still didn’t opt for a full-time music career. He became a prison supervisor with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville.
“I didn’t think I had enough of a fan following to give up the financial security of a regular job. That didn’t happen until after the release of my fourth independent album, A Different Day, in 2011.
“The album did well in the Texas charts and I won the Texas Regional Music Award for New Male Vocalist of the Year. It was this, along with getting the go-ahead from my wife, which made me decide to quit my job and go with my music full-time.”
Touring took up much of the following two years.
I became friends with Kyle Park. We teamed up for what was for me a very important tour. Kyle was also an independent artiste but he was much more established than me. His fans got to hear me and I’d like to think a fair number of them also became my fans.”
Cody quickly found he was able to sell out larger venues for his solo concerts. The demand to see him grew to such a degree that the national chart success of his fifth album, Cowboy Like Me, came as no surprise. Released on January 14, 2014, it peaked at number seven on the Top Country Albums chart and number 33 on the Billboard 200.
More solid rounds of touring saw a continued increase in Cody’s fan following. His sixth independent LP, Gotta Be Me, hit number two on the Top Country Albums chart and number 11 on the Billboard 200. He also became the only independent artiste to play a sold out concert at Houston’s massive NRG Stadium.
“That was pretty amazing. More people came to see me than big name artistes such as Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Chris Stapleton. Looking out at all those people and remembering the kind of audiences I played to when I first started made me feel very grateful and very humble.”
As Cody had hoped, the backing of Warner Music Nashville has taken him to the next level. Ain’t Nothin’ To It, his newly released major label debut album, has given Cody his first number one on the Top Country Albums chart and a number nine spot on the Billboard 200.
He is also enjoying singles success. On My Way To You has become both his first top 20 hit on the Hot Country Songs chart and his debut entry on Billboard’s Hot 100.
“I couldn’t be happier about how things have worked out. The label didn’t want me to change anything. They just wanted to help me in the areas where I needed help. Things like getting my music on to major market radio stations outside of the Texas Regional Radio Report. They’ve done everything they said they would do, and even more. It’s been great.”
Numerous hip hop stars have leapt to the defence of rapper 21 Savage.
Real name Sheyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, he claimed to have been born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. But it transpires that 21 Savage is actually British. Now 26, he entered America legally in 2005 but failed to leave when his visa expired 12 months later.
Despite going through the Atlanta school system and being convicted of drugs offences in 2014, 21’s illegal immigrant status has apparently only just been brought to light. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency now insist he should be deported to Britain.
He hardly represents a drain on the US economy. 21’s last album, I Am > I Was, topped the Billboard 200 in the first two weeks of this year. Cardi B, Meek Mill and Rich The Kid are just a few of the artistes who are protesting the deportation order.
21 was obviously aware of his situation and attempted to become legal by applying for a U-Visa. This is a means by which those in America illegally can become legal citizens if they have a qualifying US relative. 21 has three children which, at least in theory, would make him eligible. It appears this U-Visa application is what set the Immigration and Customs people on to him.
Ironically, 21 has become a positive role model within the Atlanta hip hop community. His days of legal troubles seemed to be behind him. He has engaged in several acts of philanthropy to help young people in Atlanta and part-funded an anti-bullying campaign.
His legal team is working to ensure 21 remains in America. The outcome will be determined by a federal immigration judge.
Kimbra Johnson has made little impression on the international music market since the New Zealand-born singer / songwriter featured on Somebody That I Used To Know, Gotye’s massive 2011 world-wide hit single.
Her 2011 debut studio album, Vows, fared well on the back of Kimbra’s success with Gotye. It reached number 14 on the Billboard 200 and was a top five hit in both New Zealand and Australia. Her second album, 2014’s The Golden Echo, achieved similar success ‘down under’ but peaked at number 43 in America.
Kimbra’s latest album, last year’s Primal Heart, proved nothing like so successful. It scraped into the Billboard 200 at number 179, reached number 12 in New Zealand and number 31 in Australia. As with The Golden Echo, world-wide sales were insignificant.
Even at the height of her popularity, Kimbra’s singles sales did not amount to much. She has had one top 40 hit in Japan, one top 100 single in Australia and a pair of top 40 hits in her homeland.
Apart from being part of a charity single, her biggest New Zealand hit was 2012’s Warrior. But this was a collaboration rather than solo effort. The song also features Canadian electronic dance music star A-Trak and Foster The People lead singer Mark Foster. It was part of the Three Artists, One Song series sponsored by the Converse shoe company.
Perhaps Kimbra will have better luck with her new single, Lightyears. Originally a track on Primal Heart, the single has been remixed by New York-based producer / engineer Chris Tabron. The accompanying video is posted at www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXmoxei8TXY
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