Cody Johnson returns to Chilifest

Cody Johnson joins other performers Saturday with doors opening at 10 a.m. and music starting at 12:50 p.m.

Cody Johnson put an exclamation point at the end of his Chilifest performance in 2014. It just didn't turn out quite the way he wanted.

The Huntsville singer-songwriter recalled in a recent phone interview that he had a "dummy guitar" onstage, painted maroon, with "Gig 'em" plastered on it. And in the rock 'n' roll tradition, he aimed for a bit of spirited onstage destruction.

"At the end of it, we said, 'Thank you, Aggieland,' and I smashed it," he said. "And I didn't do a very good job of it, either. It just kind of cracked in half."

Saturday night will bring Johnson back to the Chilifest stage in Snook, which he calls "one of the biggest parties of the year." Johnson is on a career high. His album Gotta Be Me debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard country albums chart in August, and No. 11 on the overall albums chart. Rolling Stone ranked the disc, which includes the earnest breakout ballad With You I Am, as No. 24 on its list of the 40 best country albums of 2016.

"It was an honor," he said of the album's chart triumph. "… As you can imagine, I was pretty humbled by it. I worked for 10 years at this. It felt good to see it. It shows that we've got room to grow, and we've come miles and miles. So I couldn't be happier."

Country success is a long way from one of Johnson's previous gigs. He hails from Sebastopol by Lake Livingston, and his father worked at the Huntsville prison. Johnson says he grew up around the prison because of it, and on his 18th birthday he went through training to be a guard.

"It is what it is, it's a prison," he says of the work experience. "You have good days where it's just as cush as any other job, and then you have those that are not so good. Corrections officers, I feel like that's an industry that doesn't get enough credit a lot of the time."

(Johnson counts Merle Haggard's Huntsville as his favorite prison song, and he has his own, called Guilty As Can Be.)

Along with that chapter in his career, Johnson can also boast cowboy credentials that few performers can match, with the exception of artists including George Strait and the late Chris LeDoux. He started rodeo competitions in his late teens, though he acknowledges he "was not that great." He still does some roping when he's not out on the road.

"I was one of those guys that was good enough and gritty enough and tough enough to kind of get by," Johnson says. "But my friends that I rode around with were really the talented guys. A lot of those guys are still riding in the PRCA and the PBR now. But it was fun. It taught me everything about being on your own and sacrificing everything you got for an end goal."

That experience came in handy during Johnson's recent performance before a crowd of 60,000 at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Organizers suggested he leave the stage at the show's end and hop on a horse to ride out of the arena, he says. Just a slow trot, like Strait had done at the rodeo.

He was initially hesitant to copy the country legend, but he put his own "rambunctious" spin on it. Video clips online show Johnson and the horse starting out at a gentle pace while he doffs his cowboy hat to thank the audience. Then they start tearing around the dirt in anything but a slow trot, before disappearing into the NRG Stadium halls.

"It was a solid roar," he says of the crowd reaction. "It was loud. … My adrenaline was pumped at that point."

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