The signs of joy and excitement were everywhere on the concourse and in the stands at NRG Stadium on Monday, February 28.
Smiles as wide as Bud Light aluminum cans are tall, RodeoHouston made its triumphant return with an eye-popping 70,554 fans in attendance to take in the opening night of the 2022 season, the 90th anniversary of the annual event. From the ticket takers, to the elevator attendants, to the vendors and seat ushers, it felt pretty darn good to be back enjoying large scale gatherings. After nearly two years, we were all ready to celebrate live music again.
The evening entertainment duties fell to East Texas native Cody Johnson, riding high with his first No. 1 country hit, “‘Til You Can’t” under his outsized, gold-plated belt buckle. Comparatively speaking, RodeoHouston 2022 closer George Strait has 60 No. 1 hits. But the measuring stick of chart-toppers didn’t matter this night, the sheer jubilation of simply being back at the rodeo meant that Johnson could do no wrong over the course of his rapturously received 13-song set.
Few country stars can claim to have lived the cowboy life they so often sing about. But Johnson, raised in Sebastapol, Texas (pop. 120), spent time on the rodeo circuit as a young bull rider before deciding to put his energy into music. To put an even bigger exclamation point on his past credentials, Johnson’s daughter Clara Mae competed in the mutton bustin’ event only minutes before his set.
Coming out to melody of rodeo-themed country tunes, including Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo,” and his own “Welcome to the Rodeo,” Johnson played into the excitement, giving a fierce arm wave and a Texas-sized whoop. Dressed sharply in a crisp blue shirt, blue jeans and black cowboy hat, he opened with “Dear Rodeo,” showing off his classic crooner pipes, pausing briefly to give a shout: “Are you ready to have a party in Houston, Texas?”
The upbeat stomp of “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floors” from his latest album, the 2021 release Human: The Double Album, gave way to “Dance Her Home” from 2014’s Cowboy Like Me. Johnson was sure to use the star-shaped stage to his advantage, the points rising 20-feet in the air towards the rafters several times throughout the show. “Do you still listen to George Jones?” he asked, referring to a line in the hit single, the crowd applauding in the affirmative.
Before “Diamond in My Pocket” from 2011’s A Different Day, Johnson let the crowd in on a major career achievement. “I want you to know you are part of a historical night,” Johnson said. “In 90 years, there are only three artists with the opportunity to sell out the rodeo on opening night. George Strait, Garth Brooks and thanks to you, myself here tonight.”
But a crooner is only as good as his ballads, so he got romantic to celebrate his wife’s Brandi’s birthday. Removing his cap, he belted out “Nothing On You,” from 2019’s Ain’t Nothing to It, leading a massive singalong as thousands held their cell phone flashlights aloft. “We want the rest of the United States to know that country music is alive and well!,” he exclaimed.
Following another heartstring-tugger with “Stronger” from his latest album, Johnson delivered one of the best highlights of the night in “Me and My Kind” from Cowboy Like Me, with its catchy “‘Cause she’s over buckles, over spurs” refrain.
“I told myself I’m going to record an album for every fan that paid $5 for a koozie or paid for a ticket,” Johnson told the crowd about heading to Tennessee to record. “We set foot down in Nashville and said we’re going to deliver country music the way it’s supposed to be delivered.” Rapturous applause ensued, classic country fans showing their approval for the good old days. That opened the door to his first double platinum song on country radio, “On My Way to You” from Ain’t Nothing to It.
True to his rural Texas roots, he took the time to recognize first responders and military, making a point to pay appreciation to those who selflessly put their bodies on the line for others. It was made more poignant by the tireless struggle and heartache many faced over the last two years.
Next up, a fiery version of Ain’t Nothin’ to It cut “Long Haired Country Boy,” an ode to free spirits that would rather take a toke and drink a beer before listening to anyone about how to live. That gave way to a showcase for his extremely tight five-piece band with impressive solos from each player, including a wicked steel guitar freak out from Harrison Yount of Boerne, Texas, before awesomely wrapping up with a few bars from “Tom Sawyer” by Canadian prog-rock legends Rush.
Sitting down on a stool, Johnson recalled going through emergency surgery last December to fix a neck injury sustained during his bull and horse riding days. He faced the very real possibility of losing the use of his right arm, requiring extensive work to his spinal cord and a weeks-long recovery.
“When I say I’m happy to be here tonight, I mean that I’m very happy to be here tonight with you in Houston,” Johnson said, visibly emotional while he thanked Jesus Christ and his wife Brandi for delivering him through dark times. Sitting upon a star point elevated in the air, he performed a somber but inspired “Human.”
That brought on the finale, the aforementioned No. 1 song “‘Til You Can’t.” He acknowledged its chart placement with a grin, enthused to be playing the song on such a big stage. Johnson gave his best vocals of the evening, his band harmonizing perfectly throughout, the message of living for today resonating with those at NRG Stadium.
True to form, the former professional cowboy rode off from the stage on horseback, stopping to wave his cap as the attendance numbers were announced. A fist pump added emphasis to the adoring 70,000-plus fans who were grateful to see him in fine form.
Johnson kept the crowd hyped throughout the night, inviting audience participation, showcasing his talent as a top-tier professional songwriter and performer. No doubt, paying his dues on the Texas honky-tonk circuit helped him hone his live music chops, taking his full-throated twang and stage presence to the next level.
In front of a sold-out crowd, he and his band made an argument they deserve to be mentioned in the same company as the biggest country acts working today.
Make a bet: expect to see Cody Johnson at RodeoHouston many more years to come.
“Honky Tonk Hardwood Floors”
“Dance Her Home”
“Build A Fire”
“With You I Am”
“Nothing On You”
“My and My Kind”
“On My Way to You”
-First responder recognition-
“Long Haired Country Boy”
“‘Til You Can’t”