Songwriter Josh Phillips Shares The Story Behind Cody Johnson’s ‘Dirt Cheap’

Phillips is the sole songwriter on the emotional song.

By

Madeleine O’Connell

| Posted on

March 6, 2024

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Josh Phillips; Photo Provided, Cody Johnson’s “Dirt Cheap” Single Art

Behind many great songs is a songwriter who has poured his heart and real-life experiences into a set of lyrics that will hopefully earn approval in the eyes of fans and fellow artists. Warner Chappell Music’s Josh Phillips was able to do just that with an incredibly personal song he wrote called “Dirt Cheap.” This moving tune first got its chance to shine when Cody Johnson cut it for his Leather album and after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response, it has been tapped to impact country radio as Johnson’s next single. 

Where Did The Inspiration For “Dirt Cheap” Come From? 

Sitting down with Country Now, Phillips dove into the story of how the song which he describes as, “one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written,” came to be.

He began by taking things back to his life five years ago when he and his wife, Jordan, were house hunting. At the time, they had hoped to find a farmhouse-style home that looked old but was newly renovated, however, they ended up settling on a farmhouse that was basically “dirt cheap” as it was built in 1904 and needed quite a bit of work done. 

Their initial plan was to stay in that home for only a few years, wait for the market to go up, and then make a good profit on it so that they could then purchase their dream home. 

“The market went up, and the house was valued at about double what we had in it, and we were thinking about selling it,” Phillips said.

“You Can’t Buy This Kind Of Dirt Cheap”

As a professional songwriter, Phillips explained that it’s not uncommon for him to write down song titles as they pop into his head and keep them in his back pocket until he’s ready to form a story around them. The title of “Dirt Cheap” came about during this process and at first, it was just something that he thought “would look cool on the back of a record.” Then in March of 2022, while sitting around the fire in his backyard, he started to reflect on all the memories he had made in that home they purchased five years ago, like proposing to his wife and seeing their kids grow up there. 

“I was just kind of looking at the house and thinking back at all the memories that we had made in it. Not only did we put new doors, and new windows, and new hardwood floors, and all that stuff, but it was also the front yard that I had dropped down on a knee and proposed to her in and it was the house that our 5-year-old little girl, Hunter, the pink bow and her brown hair, that was the little girl that had grown up there,” he shared in reference to the song’s chorus. “It was the house that our little boy, Zack, took his first steps in and the house that our 9-month-old baby girl, Presley, the only house that she’s obviously ever known. And it was like, man, you can’t buy this kind of dirt cheap. As soon as I said it, ‘I went, oh, crap, that’s how you do it.’”

Cody Johnson - Dirt Cheap
Cody Johnson – Dirt Cheap

With this spark of inspiration, Phillips took out his guitar and decided this would be one of the songs that he would just write for himself, as a therapeutic way of documenting his journey with his family.

“It was just something that I wanted to get out and I had plans as a songwriter to just kind of write a couple hundred percent songs a month just by myself and not really care if they got cut, just write them because that’s how I started writing songs nine years ago back home on my parents back porch. Just to kind of get back to that and be a better songwriter. I wrote it that night, went back the next day, and added the bridge to it.”

Two weeks later, he performed the song at Nashville’s Listening Room and received a standing ovation. This response sparked a realization: perhaps there was something very special about this song.

Leather; Cover photo by Chris Douglas, Brad Henderson
Leather; Cover photo by Chris Douglas, Brad Henderson

How Did The Song End Up On Cody Johnson’s Album?

The tune was first pitched to Phillips’ longtime friend Luke Combs, but when that didn’t work out, his wife encouraged him to try it with Cody Johnson. So he sent it to another old friend, Trent Willmon, who happens to work closely alongside Johnson as a producer. Both Willmon and Johnson were incredibly moved by “Dirt Cheap” and as a result, the country star cut the song for his third major label album, Leather, which dropped in November of 2023.

“I didn’t pitch it for the longest time cause we never write songs by ourselves, and it made me underthink it and it was a song for me. So I think it was early ‘23 when I found out, and it was just a really surreal moment of just like, ‘Man, this is so cool.’ I’ve had cuts before, had a lot of cuts on other folks, but this one was different just because it was our story. It wasn’t just something we were writing and putting words to. It was a real story that me and Jordan and my family had lived and breathed. So when Cody cut it and found out that it was also his story, it was just the icing on the cake. It was nuts. This song has been nothing but a series of thanking God. It seems like every other month it takes on a new life, which has been amazing.”

Even though Phillips had initially envisioned Combs telling the story, he says Johnson did the song justice as he used his personal experiences to make it something that listeners have come to love and that they can relate to in their own ways. 

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What Was Josh Phillips’ Reaction When He Heard Cody Johnson’s Recording Of “Dirt Cheap?”

“It’s amazing. I don’t think anybody could have done it just the way that he did it,” he said before adding that both he and his wife got teary-eyed as they listened to the final version in Willmon’s house. “Again, it’s just a Godsend. We cried, and we thanked the Lord for it.”

Witnessing the song get such a strong reaction from the country music industry as well as fans, has been everything Phillips could have hoped for and more. 

“The fact that it got cut and just the initial response of it from my peers on Music Row and from the industry folks, that in itself was enough for me.”

Throughout his career, Phillips has written songs for Luke Combs as well as for other country stars like Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, Chris Young, Michael Ray, and more. While each of these songs are meaningful and make a tremendous impact on his life and his career, “Dirt Cheap” is special in its own way. Not only is it a solo write, but it’s extremely personal to Phillips and it proves that the authentic storytelling of country music is what fans are searching for at the moment. Because of this, the song fits in perfectly with the collection of 12 tracks on Cody Johnson’s Leather album. 

The Resurgence Of Country Music Storytelling

“It’s cool because I think people start listening to your songs a little bit differently, which is nice and obviously monetarily it changes things, but for me it impacted it in a way where it was like, okay, people want to hear these songs again. These songs that tell a story and these songs that you feel something in,” he shared. “Not that there’s anything wrong with songs about cold beer and songs about trucks and all that stuff, but it’s like, man, I love those, like, ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ and ‘When You Say Nothing At All,’ all those old songs. I think it’s cool to see Music Row and country music in general coming back around to those type of songs.”

“Dirt Cheap” will officially impact country radio on Monday, March 11, and has racked up nearly 55 million global streams with an average of 3.4 million streams per week. This tune will also be a part of a double album when the second half of Johnson’s project drops in Fall of 2024. 

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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.