NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Ever since Willie Nelson left Nashville in the early 1970s to return to Texas, there's been a large chasm between the "red dirt" country artists working primarily in Texas and Oklahoma and the polished, radio friendly music being produced in Nashville.
Even today, there's a separate country radio chart for Texas stations and the independent country acts that are popular there often get labeled in Nashville as just "regional artists."
Huntsville-raised Cody Johnson spent more than a decade in that musical scene and heard the distrust that many Texas country artists had for Nashville record labels.
"There were a lot of artists from that era who were probably a bit arrogant in the fact that 'I'm from Texas and I've got this and you're not going to tell me what to do,'" Johnson said. "I think there has been something lost on some guys from Texas that maybe thought they were Willie or Waylon."
Johnson, a former rodeo cowboy turned country singer, wants to bridge that gap by straddling the traditional and the modern, Texas and Nashville, and he's finding an audience his own way.
Warner Music Nashville's executive vice president for A&R Cris Lacy tried to sign Johnson for years, but he kept rejecting their offers. Lacy knew that major labels often got stereotyped as being heavy handed with new artists by changing their sound or forcing they work with certain producers. But she was also trying to overcome a cultural challenge.
"There's so much pride in the Texas music scene because it is so special," Lacy said. "They are very protective of it. And each Texas artist has to think about when they move on to the next step, are they going to alienate the people that believed in them?"
As an independent artist, Johnson released two albums that reached the top 10 without major label support or distribution and sold out the Houston Rodeo with 74,000 tickets. But Johnson knew that he couldn't make the next leap without the support of a label and commercial country radio.
Last year, Johnson a signed a deal with Warner Music Nashville in a 50-50 partnership with his own imprint called CoJo Music. He made it clear that he wanted creative control, including choosing his own producer and songs, owning his own publishing and even deciding how he dressed.
"There were a lot of people that wanted to change a lot about me. This being a huge factor for a lot of people," he said, pointing to his cowboy hat.
His debut as a Warner artist, "Ain't Nothin' To It," hit the top of Billboard's country album chart in January, and his first single from that album, "On My Way To You," peaked at No. 11 on Billboard's Country Airplay Chart, his best charting single yet. He's opening up for George Strait and Blake Shelton at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, in August. He also opened for Luke Combs, one of country radio's fastest rising stars, on select dates this summer.
Johnson's album reflects the traditional country he idolizes but adds elements of gospel, rock and blues to sound fresh for younger ears. He chose a honky-tonk blues song written by Chris Stapleton, a rocking Charlie Daniels cover, a couple songs about the rodeo, a gospel song and a cover of Roger Miller's "Husbands and Wives."
But Johnson doesn't hold back his opinion of what he considers a bandwagon approach to contemporary country music — replicating over and over what's popular but lacks real creativity.
"It robs your listeners of authenticity," Johnson said. "I don't want to be bubblegum, and I don't care if there's a $50 million signing bonus to be bubblegum. It's not worth it to me."
He knows that he's not going to change the trend of country music back to the traditional sound he grew up listening to, but he's proving there's still a market for that music.
"I think that Warner is breaking new ground and they are giving power to artists who do know who they are," Johnson said.