The short version: Cody Johnson’s Ain’t Nothin’ To It is an album made solely for his fans, and whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on your past opinions of his work.
- Favorite tracks: “Monday Morning Merle,” “Dear Rodeo,” “Fenceposts,” “Noise,” “Long Haired Country Boy (w/ The Rockin’ CJB)”
- Least favorite track: “Doubt Me Now”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: The only bad part about Cody Johnson releasing a new album is that some people will think Nothin’ To It is his debut.
Granted, we’ve seen this before with Aaron Watson, a fellow Texas-country artist who also broke out into the mainstream a few years ago. While Watson has somewhat catered his sound to fit a mainstream mold (which isn’t a bad thing in his case), Johnson has relatively remained the same. “On My Way To You” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio, and his newest album, Ain’t Nothin’ To It was recorded before he even signed his major label record deal with Warner Nashville.
In other words, the only difference between this release and Johnson’s last release, Gotta Be Me, is that this time, he had a bigger promotional muscle behind him. At its core, Ain’t Nothin’ To It is another Johnson album, and whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on your past opinions of his work.
For me, while I wouldn’t say this is as strong as his last album, Ain’t Nothin’ To It is a relatively solid listen. It’s not an album made for critical analysis, and I suspect this review will be shorter than most. Ain’t Nothin’ To It is an album made for fans first and foremost though.
If there’s any note to be made about this album, it’s that it feels like a more mature offering as a whole, save for a few tracks. This may be his mainstream debut, but Ain’t Nothin’ To It feels like an album where Johnson has settled into his niche. He’s not a young hell-raiser anymore. It’s why the more mature offerings such as the title track, “Fenceposts,” “Monday Morning Merle” and “Dear Rodeo” come across so well, because they’ve got a grounded sincerity to them. On the other hand, while the throwback electric guitar on “Honky Tonk Mood” is a nice touch, this feels like the type of song Johnson could knock out in his sleep at this point.
If anything, Ain’t Nothin’ To It feels like a journey through this next phase in his life too. It starts off with the sage advice offered on the title track and ends with the turning of a page on “Dear Rodeo,” where the next chapter is waiting to be written.
Sonically, this album feels like a long lost friend from the 90s and early 2000s, with plenty of warm acoustics, fiddle, steel guitar, banjo and dobro supplementing the mix. Some songs don’t always begin in the best way though. The warped electric guitar on “Noise” sounds jarring, as do the canned drums pushed to the front of the mix on “Understand Why.” Still, these are minor imperfections that manage to ebb out over time. Even with the former track, it does feature one of the more underrated melodic foundations on the album.
What’s surprising about Ain’t Nothin’ To It is how varied it is for a neo-traditional country album. “Fenceposts” is an absolutely gorgeous sounding song that tips it hat toward bluegrass with the fiddle and dobro combination. His cover of the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Long Haired Country Boy” is an odd choice for a cover that doesn’t really seem to fit (especially when Johnson is nearly the antithesis of the title character), but it’s also a nice change of pace and offers something with a little more juice. It also showcases a surprisingly solid vocal performance from Johnson.
On that note too, Ain’t Nothin’ To It is probably the most impressive Johnson has ever sounded vocally. He’s good on a technical level, but there’s moments you just don’t expect to hear the level of raw passion you do from him. There’s several moments on the lead single, “On My Way To You” that bolster this claim, but other moments like “Nothin’ On You” and “Honky Tonk Mood” also serve as evidence.
If there’s one element on this album that can be fairly hit or miss however, it’s the lyrics. For as mature of an offering as this album is for the most part, there’s more than a few moments that drag it down. The most egregious example is “Doubt Me Now,” a track that speaks to the same sentiment as the aforementioned Aaron Watson’s “Fence Post” from 2015. This track lacks the class, nuance and finer details of that track though (or even the good framing of Taylor Swift’s “Mean” to give another example), with Johnson addressing his “haters” (really?) and telling everyone to hop onto the bandwagon now. It’s honestly a little egotistical in sentiment and delivery, and the ending itself is horribly obnoxious. Johnson has ascended to where he is by recording good country songs, not garbage like this.
Johnson also takes a stab at the flavor of the month in East Nashville with the soul leaning, “Nothin’ On You,” a track that is admittedly impressive vocally. Still, it’s the kind of track that plays to similar sentiments in mainstream country music as of late (“Speechless,” “Woman, Amen” for examples), placing his spouse on a pedestal and making her the star of the show. While not bad, it really only focuses on her looks rather than any other interesting attributes about her.
While I also respect the choice to include a song for his fans with “Y’all People,” it’s probably the most checklist, generic track on the entire album. “Understand Why” is another track where the idea and execution is really solid, but the finer details are missing. The narrator tells us we’d understand why he’s blowing off steam if we knew his spouse, but all we really do find out about her is limited to vague metaphors during the chorus. The same problem extends toward “On My Way To You,” another track with impressive vocals and production alongside vague lyrics.
Still, for as harsh as I’ve been on this particular department, this album also boasts what will likely be one of the finest songs of the year. “Monday Morning Merle” is pure country music goodness, showcasing the dichotomy between finding comfort and solace in music before having to face the real world once again. It’s also a highly relatable track, as it’s not uncommon to wear out the same song or album, especially when it’s what we’re leaning on through hard times. Everything about this is executed perfectly. “Dear Rodeo” is also a fitting closer for the album, and “Fenceposts” impressively finds Johnson guiding the listener through the story taking place.
I love supporting the underdog, and that’s why I’d root for Ain’t Nothin’ To It regardless, especially with this sound in country music. Still, while it’s a solid listen, it’s not an album without its flaws, and while I wouldn’t say it’s his best album, Johnson is doing what he’s done best all along. He’s giving the fans the album they wanted, and if nothing else, I can at least respect that, especially now that I’m comparing Johnson to his mainstream peers. In that case, he’s still blowing them out of the water on Ain’t Nothin’ To It.