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Cody Johnson on the Songs Behind New Album ‘Leather’ and Working With Jelly Roll and Brooks & Dunn: ‘People Appreciate Authenticity’

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The cover art for Cody Johnson’s album, Leather, out Nov. 3 on COJO Music/Warner Music Nashville, features a closeup of the singer’s tattooed hands, work-worn and slightly bloodied, holding tightly to a strip of leather.

A former bull rider, the Texan is better known nowadays for his energetic showmanship, and his nine-week Billboard Hot Country Songs No. 1 “’Til You Can’t.” But when the 2023 CMA male vocalist of the year nominee is not making music, Johnson is riding, roping and training horses and raising cattle — as he was the day the album cover was shot.

“I was working at the ranch that day, so I told my photographer Chris Douglas to come over,” Johnson tells Billboard. “That’s blood and hair in that picture from castrating bulls and giving them shots that day. We didn’t stage any of that. We got started at 5:00 a.m. and worked all day and he ended up getting some incredible photos while we were working.”

The cover image conveys a sense of work ethic, grit, and an uncompromising sense of self, all of which are apparent on this 12-song project, the follow-up to 2021’s Human: The Double Album. As with his previous albums, Johnson’s mission wasn’t to simply find the best songs, but to record songs that reveal nuances of his own artistry.

“People appreciate authenticity, whether it’s me being a cowboy and singing something that reminds people of ‘90s country stuff they grew up on, or someone like the Zach Bryans and guys that are more like what probably is considered Americana, or Jelly Roll, who is completely the opposite of me, musically,” Johnson says. “But authenticity is the common thread.”

Aiding Johnson in keeping it real are his producer Trent Willmon, manager Scott Gunter and WMN co-chair/co-president Cris Lacy. “They filter through thousands songs before they come up with enough to bring to me,” Johnson says. “They come out on the road for three or four days at a time. We get up, have coffee and breakfast and we start listening all the way up until showtime.”

The songs that made the cut on Leather are odes to the Lone Star State (“That’s Texas”) and country music (“Long Live Country Music,” with iconic ‘90s country duo Brooks & Dunn), arena rockers (“People in the Back,” “Double Down”), love (“The Painter”) and redemption (“Whiskey Bent” with Jelly Roll).

But it’s the title track, written by Johnson’s WMN labelmate Ian Munsick with Rivers Rutherford and Jeremy Spillman, that marks the heart of the album. Lyrically, the song employs the essential material working cowboys have long depended on for saddles and boots, as an apt metaphor for a cowboy himself. Munsick played Johnson the song while the two were touring together.

“My jaw dropped,” Johnson recalls. “Everything about a cowboy has to do with leather, so lines about it taking ‘Years of work and dirt and hurt to make him,’ or ‘He’ll start out stiff and rough, but give him time and he’ll soften up/ And that just makes him twice as tough’… It is so well-written. It also has this cool yodel thing; I almost took that out, but Trent said, ‘You have to do that. That’s cowboy.’”

A deluxe version of the album (featuring another 12 songs) is on the way next year. And yes, Johnson says the deluxe project will feature more collaborations. “Those are the ones I can’t mention,” he says with a laugh. He was more forthcoming about some of the songs that make up Leather, offering his first in-depth look at some of the songs from the album.

“The Painter”

Leather’s first single, the heartfelt, romantic “The Painter,” which has risen to No. 28 on the Country Airplay chart, was written by Kat Higgins, Benjy Davis and Ryan Larkins.

“I think it’s the first song I’ve ever recorded where I sing it in my talking voice,” Johnson says. “I intentionally tried to stay out of the way of the song, so the listener could paint their own image, and have their own interpretation of it. But for me, obviously, it’s about my wife [Brandi]. Without her, my world wouldn’t be what it is. We’ve been together for 15 years, so we’ve had some real highs, had some real lows. We’ve been through a lot together. She has stuck with me through thick and thin, and I think she deserves for me to be able to say this song is for her.”

“Whiskey Bent” (feat. Jelly Roll)

“I hated the title,” Johnson says of first being introduced to “Whiskey Bent,” written by Adam James, Mikey Reaves and Rocky Block. “They told me the title and I said, ‘I hate it already because it sounds like an old cliché; I’m not singing that song. But then I heard the lyrics about trying to put a life and a love back together—especially the hook, ‘I’m still trying to straighten out what whiskey bent.’”

Originally, “Need a Favor” hitmaker Jelly Roll was slated to perform another track on the album, “Jesus Loves You” — until they got into the studio to record the song.

“He asked me what else I was working on and I played him ‘Whiskey Bent.’ He just started crying and was like, ‘Bro, I ain’t never heard a song like that. If I’m gonna be on a song, can it be that one?’ I gave him the entire second verse. It didn’t take him long to learn the song and he did incredibly.”

Though Jelly Roll and Johnson outwardly seem like opposites, Johnson says they both related deeply to the song’s message of redemption. “I think we’ve both lived that song in our own ways. People look at me as this clean-cut, wholesome guy, but I’m no different than anybody else,” Johnson continues. “I’ve got demons in my closet and things in my past that are hard to deal with, that I go to therapy sometimes to deal with. I’ve lived a very fast-paced, lot-of-pressure kind of life and I’ve made mistakes. I haven’t started doing regular sessions; I need to talk in the moment. I’m slowly but surely softening up, just like the song ‘Leather.’ I know it takes time to open up and not be so hard-edged on that. But just recognizing it is the hard part.”

“Watching My Old Flame”

“It’s a great play on words,” Johnson says of this Kat Higgins/Wynn Varble/Clint Daniels composition. “Usually when I hear a song, I don’t want to know who the writers are on it, because a lot of times you get surprised. But here, I know Clint personally and he pitched me the song and it was very personal for him because it was about his divorce. He explained, ‘We knew we were going to divorce but we were still living together while we sorted it out and she was seeing somebody else.’ I went, ‘Wow.’ He was literally watching his old flame go out.”

“Long Live Country Music” (feat. Brooks & Dunn)

In 2022, Johnson took home two trophies at the CMT Music Awards, including digital-first performance of the year and male video of the year (for “’Til You Can’t”). It was his male video of the year award acceptance speech that led to this Brooks & Dunn collaboration (Johnson previously teamed with B&D’s Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks on the duo’s Reboot album).

“At the end of the speech, I said, ‘Long live country music,’ and that night Trent called me about writing a song with that title.” Willmon wrote the tune with Phil O’Donnell and Wade Kirby and then played it for Johnson. “It ended up being a perfect fit for me. I reached out to Ronnie and said, ‘Would you and Kix be cool with doing this? We have a country music anthem here and if anybody can fly the flag of ‘Long Live Country Music,’ it’s Brooks & Dunn.’ We recorded this the same day I recorded with Jelly Roll. We also did a track with Randy Houser that day, and I think he might be holding onto that song.”

“Jesus Loves You”

“I think this song will raise some eyebrows, but you don’t get to sing about anger very often,” Johnson says. Rage and restraint drive this story song about divine second chances, written by HARDY, Michael Holman and Chase McGill. The general sonic tone, content and the use of a choir feels similar to HARDY’s hit Lainey Wilson collaboration “Wait in the Truck.” “It’s about a guy whose home is broken into, and he basically tells the person who broke into their home that he’s lucky he wasn’t killed while trying to break in. He’s basically saying, ‘God must’ve been looking out for you, but if you try that again, it’s over for you,’” Johnson says.

“Make Me a Mop”

As many country artists have done before him, Johnson closes the album with this spiritual-minded track, written by Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Allen Shamblin.

“I think it’s highly ironic that there’s a song called ‘Jesus Loves You’ and it’s nowhere near a gospel song, and then there’s a gospel song, but it’s called ‘Make Me a Mop.’ But I got four lines into this song and just started weeping,” Johnson says, noting the lyric, “Make me a spoon, smooth on the edges/ When my words want to reach for a knife.”

He added, “This song was kind of my first step toward saying, ‘I do need to be more malleable and loosen the reins a bit, and let God shape me, my family and career and address those things in my past that I’ve never forgiven myself for. When I recorded this, for me it was a prayer, not a song.”

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