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Cody Johnson rides again at RodeoHouston

Chron logo Chron 3/7/2018 By Joey Guerra
Jason Aldean. © RodeoHouston Jason Aldean.

Cody Johnson had just three days to prepare for his RodeoHouston debut.

The Huntsville native, who grew up in a rural community outside of Lake Livingston called Sebastopol, was a last-minute replacement in 2017 for country band Old Dominion.

And it left Johnson, who worked as a prison guard and did some bull riding, little time to rehearse or even consider the magnitude of the situation.

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"I liked the not being prepared. That's when I thrive," Johnson says. "It doesn't give you any time to get nervous, but it also doesn't give you any time to come up with any pretenses about how you think it's gonna be or the feeling you should have.

OneRepublic. © RodeoHouston OneRepublic. Chris Young. © RodeoHouston Chris Young.

"All I knew was that I had to get a shirt from Cavender's, something different that I hadn't been wearing onstage. I wanted to make sure I had a pair of nice boots polished. Everything was dirty. I was just starting with the simple stuff, not letting it get to me, not really thinking about what was gonna go on."

Garth Brooks takes pictures with fans after a press conference announcing that he will play the opening and closing nights of the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Houston. ( Jon Shapley / Houston Chronicle ) © Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle Garth Brooks takes pictures with fans after a press conference announcing that he will play the opening and closing nights of the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Houston. ( Jon Shapley / Houston Chronicle )

That 2017 performance drew more than 60,000 fans to NRG Stadium. And despite his best efforts to play it cool, the Texas country star found himself getting caught up in the emotion.

Cody Johnson performs at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, at NRG Park, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in Houston. ( Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle )

Cody Johnson performs at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, at NRG Park, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in Houston. ( Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle )
© Karen Warren, Staff Photographer

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"When we played 'Texas Kind of Way,' and everybody sang all the words, that was the one moment in the night where I choked up because I let those emotions take over just a little bit to remind myself," he says.

Zac Brown Band. © RodeoHouston Zac Brown Band. Leon Bridges. © RodeoHouston Leon Bridges.

"I remember playing that first gig. I remember writing that first song. Shoot, it's a little emotional to talk to you about it right now, honestly."

That performance was a good enough showing to earn Johnson an invitation to return this year. And this one is on track for an even bigger payoff. Only standing-room tickets remain for Johnson's Tuesday performance, making it one of the season's best-selling shows.

Even the star attraction had trouble trying to find seats.

"I tried to buy tickets at dinner the other night, myself, to my show. It was really, really hard to find a spot that had more than one seat," Johnson says. "For a brief moment, the little kid in me started laughing and getting all giddy."

Alessia Cara. © RodeoHouston Alessia Cara.

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Kelsea Ballerini

Kelsea Ballerini
© RodeoHouston

Johnson's entire career seems to have been building to this moment.

Cody Johnson. © RodeoHouston Cody Johnson. Cody Johnson. Photo by Jay Trevino © Hearst Newspapers Cody Johnson. Photo by Jay Trevino

He's spent the past several years touring throughout Texas, mining a genuine country sound that seems revelatory in the face of current trends. No bro-isms. No lazy metaphors. No pop crossover duets.

Chris Stapleton. © RodeoHouston Chris Stapleton.

He sold more than 300,000 tickets to 107 shows in 2017 alone. And he tallies more than 600,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.

His past two albums, 2014's "Cowboy Like Me" and 2016's "Gotta Be Me," debuted in the top 10 on Billboard's Country Albums chart without major label support or substantial radio play. Johnson releases his albums via his own CoJo imprint.

Garth Brooks.

Garth Brooks.
© RodeoHouston

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He co-wrote most of the songs on "Gotta Be Me," a national breakout that he describes as a "strategic" platform to prove "who I am" and "what I'm about." But he's turned to outside songwriters for a new album due this year, largely because of a new rule by The Copyright Royalty Board to increase songwriter rates for interactive streaming by 50-percent.

Luke Bryan. © RodeoHouston Luke Bryan.

"This time around has been, 'Let's just pick the very best songs that I wanna play, the most creative, fun songs and just play music and not think about how it's gonna turn out,' " Johnson says. "Man, I can't tell you what that did for my creative process. It's probably the most 'Cody' record that you've ever heard."

Keith Urban.

Keith Urban.
© RodeoHouston

It's a sentiment that's similar to the way Johnson approached his first RodeoHouston show. And now that he's truly, finally had time to prepare, the good ol' boy from Texas is going to make the most of his moment.

Rascal Flatts. © RodeoHouston Rascal Flatts. Calibre 50 pose in the press room during the 14th annual Latin Grammy Awards on November 21, 2013 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. AFP PHOTO / Valerie Macon © VALERIE MACON, Getty Images Calibre 50 pose in the press room during the 14th annual Latin Grammy Awards on November 21, 2013 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. AFP PHOTO / Valerie Macon

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"I always looked at it from my rodeo background. I always wanted to ride in Houston when I rode bulls. I wanted to do something," Johnson says before breaking into a chorus of the Gatlin Brothers' "Houston (Means I'm One Day Closer to You)."

"I wanted that. This is where the cowboy rides away. I feel like I've got my foot in the right place right now to grab ahold and make the mark that I've always wanted to make. It's gonna be so great getting to use RodeoHouston as a catalyst to help make that mark on country music."

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