by Julian Spivey
Cody Johnson brought his Leather Tour to Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock, Ark. on Saturday, February 10 for a fantastic night of country music that included many tracks off his 2023 album that shares the tour’s name.
Johnson is an interesting and truly rare case of an artist who got his start in the sort of subgenre of Texas Country Music and eventually found success in the Nashville mainstream after years of hard work because his music was both just too good to continue being hidden away and had enough of that mainstream shine to it to appeal to a wider swath of fans. He spoke often about work ethic – both of his own and that of Americans in general during his show on Saturday – and while I don’t necessarily believe him when he claims a lack of work ethic in today’s world in general, I do believe his hard work through nearly two decades of performing in smaller venues had led to today where he’s able to sell out the state’s largest venue.
Johnson began his set on Saturday night with a couple of my favorite tracks from his 2014 album Cowboy Like Me, which was the first album of his that I bought and made me pay attention to his music – this was back when he was a budding star in the Texas Country Music scene. Those songs were “Me and My Kind,” about a girl who’s had enough with cowboy exes that she’s sworn them off for good, and the lovely “Dance Her Home,” about finding love in a honky tonk. They were two of my favorite performances of the set.
One thing I learned from Johnson’s set is I didn’t give his most recent release Leather all that much of a listen-to after it was released in November of last year – late-year releases tend to fly a bit under my radar. He performed six songs off the album on Saturday night, including real gems like the title track and “Work Boots.” But it’s the song “Dirt Cheap,” about an older gentleman’s refusal to sell his farm and the reasons why, that has me believing it to not only be the best track on the album, but an instant classic in Johnson’s repertoire.
Some of my other favorite performances from Johnson’s set included the beautiful love song “With You I Am,” from his 2016 album Gotta Be Me, and “On My Way to You” and “Dear Rodeo,” both on 2019’s Ain’t Nothin’ to It.
I enjoyed Johnson and his talented backing back The Rockin’ CJB’s rip-roaring cover of the Charlie Daniels Band classic “Long Haired Country Boy.”
The moment that truly made the entire night was when Johnson saved his best for last with his first No. 1 hit “’Til You Can’t,” off his 2021 double-album Human. “’Til You Can’t,” which won Song of the Year at the 65th annual Grammy Awards in 2023 for its writers Ben Stennis and Matt Rogers, and Single of the Year at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards for Johnson, is a terrific reminder of all of the important things you shouldn’t put off until tomorrow because tomorrows are never promised.
It was truly an amazing concert moment seeing and hearing the sold-out audience singing along with Johnson on the song.
After the song finished, Johnson took the time to sign many autographs for fans along the front rows of the arena, which you rarely see from artists at these types of venues. He would come out for a great two-song encore that included the fantastic “Diamond In My Pocket,” from his 2011 album A Different Day, the oldest song of his discography performed on Saturday night. He ended the evening with a nice rendition of the Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings classic “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
Johnson’s set was fantastic, but having to endure the performance of Chris Janson before him took a lot of mental fortitude on my part – though it honestly became so ridiculous that my wife and I just basically made a joke out of the whole thing.
The great thing about Johnson is his authenticity. You can tell he’s for real. Janson, on the other hand, felt like if Larry the Cable Guy was a country singer – it was every dumbass redneck stereotype you could think of rolled into one. The guy broke into the Pledge of Allegiance abruptly, he got down on one knee as if to pray to show his appreciation for the crowd, he had his son come out to sing a song with him in which the young boy sang about loving beer, he had his “smoking hot wife” come out and after she left made a joke about how much time he spent “doing that.” It was like “Hee Haw” on meth.
Janson went through his “hits” and also seemed to enjoy throwing much better classic country songs into his set willy-nilly like he couldn’t get through one of his own without playing someone else’s better song. Among the biggest hits of his career that he performed on Saturday were “Drunk Girl,” “Fix a Drink,” “Good Vibes” and his biggest hit from 2015, “Buy Me a Boat.”
Dillon Carmichael opened the evening and if you enjoy country songs about beer and trucks you’ll probably enjoy his stuff, but I know from hearing some of his earlier stuff that he’s a bit better than what he appeared to be on Saturday night.