Cody Johnson Leaves His Mark On Nashville With Record-Breaking Bridgestone Arena Performance
“What you’re doing by sitting right here tonight at the sold-out show at Bridgestone Arena watching me do what I’m doing here tonight, we are changing country music tonight here in Nashville,” Johnson told the sold-out crowd.
Cody Johnson; Photo by Jay Trevino
Cody Johnson made history on the evening of Friday, February 2 when he made his headlining debut at Nashville’s Bridgestone-arena to a sold-out crowd of over 20,000 fans. This marked another stop on the country superstar’s The Leather Tour, which launched in mid-January in support of his latest album, Leather.
The night brought career milestones, special guests, passion-fueled stories, and unforgettable performances that collectively proved Johnson’s undeniable skills as a singer, songwriter, and entertainer. However, the extent of Cody Johnson’s impact on country fans was evident before the show even started because, as he announced mid-set, his Friday night appearance broke the record for the most tickets sold by a male country artist in their Bridgestone Arena debut. On previous tours, the Texas native has sold-out Nashville venues like the historic Ryman Auditorium and First Bank Amphitheater, but this was his first at the home of the Nashville Predators.
Country music fans from Nashville and beyond flooded into the arena shortly after sunset and began to settle in for the highly-anticipated show. At 7:30 PM, the lights in the audience dipped and the stage illuminated in bright spotlights and loud instrumentals as opener Dillon Carmichael kicked off the night, followed by a heart-pounding set from Justin Moore. Both of these artists got the audience warmed up as they rose to their feet and sang along to the mix of small-town tributes, painfully honest love songs, and epic barn burners.
Then at about 9:30 PM, an announcer stepped in front of the Nashville crowd to welcome the platinum-selling recording artist to the stage with an introduction that commenced the start of his nearly two-hour set. The screams that filled to the arena rose to an indescribable volume as Johnson’s signature cowboy hat, button-down shirt, straight-leg blue jeans, and acoustic guitar could be made out even in the darkness of side stage.
Johnson came out blazing with a round of fan-favorite hits from his early collection including “Me and My Kind,” “Dance Her Home,” and “With You I Am.”
He then took a moment to thank all the fans for coming out and declared that the evening was one to celebrate because of the record-breaking attendance numbers as well as the November release of his Leather project. Although the 12-song album has only been out for a few months, this show proved that fans have put in the hours listening to every track and taking in the carefully curated lyrics. The first tune of the evening to come from the project was the title track, which Johnson dubbed “a cowboy song.” The anthem that honors the cowboy lifestyle and serves as the focal point of his latest project set the tone for the remainder of the pride-filled narratives to come.
Fans found out early on that the show would be led solely by Johnson’s powerful vocals and the stellar musicianship of the group behind him, who are known as the Rockin’ CJB. Their collective Texas-bred talent keeps the traditions of country music alive and well through the sounds of the fiddle, steel guitar, keys, and more, without the use of tracks.
This minimalist approach was enough to keep the crowd feeling exhilarated for hours on end, leaving no need for added production of pyrotechnics, flashy light shows, or performance tracks. Eliminating these elements that usually come with a major headlining set didn’t lower the quality of Johnson’s show in any way. In fact, it allowed the audience to feel a closer connection to Johnson and the important stories he was relaying.
“This is what you call live music,” Johnson shared later in his set. “How many of you know what tracks are? For those of you that don’t know, tracks are whenever somebody’s sitting over here on a computer, and they’re just playing stuff, and it’s not really going on onstage. I come from the honky tonks, I come from the bars and the dance halls. There ain’t no tracks on my stage, this is seven guys working our ass off playing real country music for you guys tonight.”
It was evident that Johnson felt that abundant energy and love from the fans that have supported his unconventional journey from professional bull riding to touring as a country music star. Several times throughout the show he stepped away from the mic, took off his cowboy hat and slowly turned to all four sides of the open stage, making sure to absorb every moment of the memorable event. As he did so, a wave of gratitude and pure awe spread across Johnson’s face in the realization that his dreams were coming true right before his very eyes.
“I’ve worked my tail off for the last 17 years. This is not an overnight success so I’m going to send a message out to anybody out there that’s worried about chasing a dream,” he told the crowd. “If you want something, don’t wait for someone to hand it to you. If you want something, go work for it. Here we are tonight 17 years later sold out in Nashville.”
He continued, “All the scarifies in my life have led me here, but there’s a lot of places I could be tonight besides here. Left up to myself, I could have taken my life a completely different direction, but I truly believe God put me on this earth to help make country music sound like country music again.”
This statement served as the perfect introduction to “Dear Rodeo,” the song that Johnson declared “changed my life.”
The show continued with more tunes from his early catalog, such as “Nothin’ On You” and “Fenceposts,” before offering up a few newer releases like “People In The Back,” “Work Boots” and “Double Down.”
Nearly halfway through his 21-song setlist, the 36-year-old country superstar from Texas brought out his first surprise musical guests – Brooks & Dunn.
“I know a couple other guys that worked their ass off growing up playing in the bars and the honky tonks. Their names are Brooks & Dunn, welcome to the stage here tonight,” Johnson said as he invited the pair of award-winning singers to join him.
This iconic duo is featured on a track of Johnson’s Leather album titled “Long Live Country Music,” which they helped bring to life in a whole new way in front of the Bridgestone crowd on Friday. After earning a round of roaring applause, Johnson expressed how in awe he was of the moment that just commenced.
He said, “I just played a song with Brooks & Dunn. If you would’ve told me that [years ago], I would’ve called you a liar right to your face.”
After gushing over that dream-come-true moment with two musical greats, Johnson introduced his next song “On My Way To You” by sharing a story that he had never told on stage before. He recalled the evening he snuck out to play country music in a local bar for the very first time which resulted in some true disappointment from his religious parents. However, two years later their opinions shifted as they started to see the extent of his talent, which in turn led his dad to become the bass player of his band. This true story exposed Johnson’s deep-rooted love of country music and the obstacles he faced on his journey to achieving fame.
“I’ve had music in my DNA since I was born, and I knew that I was meant to play country music. All my heroes were country music singers, but the difference was I was from Texas and I wore a cowboy hat,” Johnson explained. “Very early on when I came to Nashville, I got told that might’ve worked for George Strait or Garth Brooks, but that ain’t happening no more, son. You got to take the hat off. They said, ‘You’re not ever going to make it on national radio out of Nashville because you’re just a Texas artist.’”
He continued, “Fast-forward about a decade, a decade of hard work and being told ‘no,’ I met my friends at Warner Music Nashville. The conversation went something like this. ‘We don’t care what we have to do, we don’t want you to take the hat off, we don’t care where you’re from, you can leave the fiddle, you can leave the steel, we don’t change your producer, we don’t want to do nothing. We just want to be a part of this thing we heard about called the CoJo Nation, changing Country music,’ and they changed my life.”
The background music went completely silent while Johnson rounded out his speech by thanking country radio, his label, and everyone else in the room for their support.
“What you did tonight was more than buying a ticket, it was more than buying a t-shirt, it was more than streaming music. What you’re doing by sitting right here tonight at the sold-out show at Bridgestone Arena watching me do what I’m doing here tonight, we are changing country music tonight here in Nashville. From the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you.”
The remainder of his set list included deliveries of “Human,” a cover of “God Bless America” to honor those in the audience who are first responders, have served in the military or are on active duty, “Long Haired Country Boy,” “Dirt Cheap,” and his current Top 5 single which marked the biggest radio add date of his career, “The Painter.”
Prior to exiting the stage, Johnson treated fans to his No. 1 hit, “’Til You Can’t” and hinted that this would not be the last song of the night. He fulfilled his promise by returning to the stage moments later for an encore of three more songs, two of which featured some very special guests.
Johnson started out by explaining that his fellow country hitmaker Jelly Roll was originally scheduled to join him on stage, but due to his recent GRAMMY nomination, the “Save Me” singer was unable to be in Nashville the night of the show. So instead, Johnson took the opportunity to share a special father-daughter moment on stage with his girls – Clara Mae (8) and Cori (5).
“These are my best buddies in the world right here,” he said while looking over to his little girls. The father of two gave a look into his parenting styles as he shared that one of their favorite activities to do together is watch the classic western stylings of John Wayne movies. Cori declared Rio Bravo to be her favorite John Wayne movie and as a result, they decided to deliver their own rendition of the song “My Rifle, My Pony and Me,” which is originally sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Marking in the 1959 film.
Johnson sang “Diamond In My Pocket” and then closed out the night with his final guest, Randy Houser. Houser, who flew in straight from Australia, joined Johnson in singing an encore of the country classic originally sung by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
This Nashville show without a doubt proved how far Cody Johnson has come since his days of struggling to sell out Music City’s 3rd and Lindsley, a venue that can hold up to a total capacity of 700 people compared to Bridgestone’s approximate 20,000 for concerts. Following in the footsteps of country greats like George Strait, Alan Jackson and George Jones, Cody Johnson’s impressive performance surely left a lasting impression on fans while also solidifying his successful future ahead as a headliner in arenas, stadiums, and beyond.
Cody Johnson’s headlining Leather Tour kicked off on January 19 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, and is scheduled to run through September with more sold-out dates along the way.
The trek features support by Justin Moore, Dillon Carmichael, Chris Janson, and Drake Milligan on select dates.
For more information on upcoming tour dates, visit Cody Johnson’s official website.
Madeleine O’Connell graduated from North Central College with a bachelors degree in Journalism and Broadcast Communications before deciding to pursue her studies further at DePaul University. There, she earned her masters degree in Digital Communication & Media Arts. O’Connell served as a freelance writer for over two years while also interning with the Academy of Country Music, SiriusXM and Circle Media and assisting with Amazon Music’s Country Heat Weekly podcast. In addition to Country Now, she has been published in American Songwriter, Music Mayhem, and Holler.Country. Madeleine O’Connell is a member of the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.