Addison Johnson's second project, "Cherokee Blues," releases on Feb. 15.

Addison Johnson's second project, "Cherokee Blues," releases on Feb. 15.

Addison Johnson knows that it's cliché, but the aspiring musician arrived in Middle Tennessee eight years ago with little more than his possessions.

"I moved to town with about $100 in my pocket," Johnson said. "I was going to MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University), and I did not know a soul here. That created for a lonely time getting started."

It took its toll as the North Carolina native found his direction.

"When I moved to town, I weighed 215 pounds," Johnson said. "Within five months, I weighed 170 … that's the definition of a starving artist."

Johnson is far from that place now. However, it's been a journey.

"Even throughout, it's the absolute grind of banging your head against the wall, trying to break through to the next step," Johnson said. "Unlike other jobs, there is no flat, drawn-out plan of a next step. You have to create your own next step. Figuring that out can be frustrating … but when you do figure it out, it's very rewarding."

He arrived in the area as a songwriter.

"That's my first love (songwriting)," Johnson said. "I really love to write."

Songwriting was Johnson's passion from the beginning of his musical journey.

"They have pictures of me when I was really little, when I was 4 and 5 years old, getting into it," Johnson said of the music. "I really never picked up a guitar until I was 16. As soon as I did, writing was easy. It wasn't that the songs were that great, but the idea of doing things differently than others were doing it came easy. It gave me that drive to keep doing it."

However, a change in focus has taken Johnson down a different path as he has transitioned from a songwriter to a performing artist.

"I decided to make a career change and get into the artist side," Johnson said. "We had a book full of songs. We broke it down and put out my first record ('I'm Just a Song'). We were lucky enough as an independent (artist) for it to go to No. 11. That was good for me to let me know I was doing the right thing."

His brand of country is unique.

"Country music is music that is meant for the working man," Johnson said. "It's meant for the common person, that blue-collar person. I really inspire to write like that. I don't think there's anything wrong with the beer, girl, and every day is a party. That's not reality though. That's not a normal day.

"My style is more old-school. I like to think of it as transparent to today's times. You're always going to hear a pedal steel, a steel guitar … you might hear some bluegrass, but I hope it translates to the working man."

No one knows Johnson's music better than David Flint, who has produced both of Johnson's CDs.

"You can tell by his music that he's kind of retro," Flint said. "He has his own style. He writes really cool stuff. He's found himself on the last two projects really well. He just sings it the way he sings it. He doesn't imitate anybody."

Johnson, John Griffin and David Evans wrote "It's All Over but the Crying," which is on Johnson's upcoming project. "Cherokee Blues" - which is Johnson's second CD - is an eight-song project that releases on Feb. 15.

"I've known Addison since before he moved to Nashville," Griffin said. "I'm from North Carolina as well. I've been in Nashville for over 23 years working in the music business. I met Addison over 10 years ago in North Carolina. He knew I lived in Nashville and was a songwriter. He started playing me song after song. I never tell people to move to Nashville to pursue music, but I told him, 'Your songs are so good that you should move to Nashville to pursue it.'

"He has a great respect for traditional country music. Country music has turned very pop. It's nice to have that counterbalance with what he does. When you first move to town, it's hard to find your niche. A lot of people will see what's popular right now and try to write that style. Addison has always stayed true to traditional country music … and he's such a great kid."

A variety of artists influenced Johnson's style.

"Growing up, I loved Alan Jackson," the 28-year-old Johnson said. "He was definitely someone I looked up to. I loved how he produced his music, sang his music and what he was singing about.

"I got into George Jones and Merle Haggard. I know that's stereotypical of what people say. I really dug into their library of their songs and really tried to break down everything they were doing. It was Merle Haggard's songwriting and George Jones' melody."

The new project differs from his earlier CD, in which every song was penned by Johnson.

"'I'm Just a Song' … it was more of a singer-songwriters record than just a country record," Johnson said. "This is more in the direction of a country record. What kind of country … I'll let people decide on that.

"I kind of pull on all of my influences. I have some honky tonk music and some tough ballads as well. It's a more mature version of 'I'm Just a Song.'"

Flint added, "It's continuing on his direction. We've gotten more precise in his sound. It's gotten a little more into his style. He figures out a little more of who he is with each one."

Johnson has only been a full-time artist for the past year, having balanced other employment with his passion for many years.

"It's kind of give and take," Johnson said of the transition. "When I was a songwriter, I worked every odd-end job you can think of. I worked at Sears making $7.25 (per hour). I worked at Lumber Liquidators. I would work five days a week, and I would play four nights a week. Every free moment, I would write.

"Now, I'm growing the brand. The opportunity is still there."

He admits that it has been his aim to be able to focus solely on his music.

"I'm full-time music," Johnson said. "That was really kind of a goal when I started touring. That was a big focus. Last year, I probably worked the month of January and didn't work (another job) the rest of the year.

"It has its struggles like any job though. It has its opportunities too. It's my own business."

One of the highlights for Johnson was playing on WSM-AM 650.

"WSM, the Grand Ole Opry station … it has always been my dream to play the Opry but also to work with those people over there," Johnson said. "That's been one of the greatest things I've gotten to accomplish, to go on 650 AM and play. I'll never forget the first time to play my song, 'Can't Go to Heaven.' Man, I was shaking like a leaf.

"The Merle Haggards and Waylon Jennings have all played in that same chair, and my song was going to play over the same airwaves. It was a surreal feeling. It was an oh-my-gosh kind of moment."

Johnson has taken a non-traditional approach to popularizing his music.

"The thing about music, and I tell a lot of artists who I work with, if you're looking for that golden ticket of a record label signing you, you're really just wishing on stuff," Griffin said. "Those things are few and far between. If you're talented, you can create a career for yourself. There's a way to build a career in music that is outside of having radio success and outside of having a record label behind you. It just takes time to build that up.

"That's the path I see Addison on. Every time, you try to put out a better album and try to reach more people. Mark my words, he'll be top 10 on iTunes when it releases."

Johnson added, "I'm a lifer, hands down. I will probably forever play. Not going after the record deal right now doesn't mean it won't come in the future. I've treated this thing since the beginning as a marathon. When people come to town and treat it like a sprint, they get sprinted out of town really fast. That's not how this industry works. It's a process of building fans. You want them to get you instead of you chasing them. I want to get to where the label is wanting me instead of me chasing them."

As Griffin indicated might occur when the upcoming project releases, it has had a positive showing on the pre-order list. In addition to iTunes, Johnson's music can be found on Amazon, Spotify and Pandora.

"We sold in the first week what the whole record did last time," Johnson said. "We had a great start. We debuted at No. 3 on the pre-order chart. It's really good to see, especially since we're going against some of the biggest guys in the business who have a lot of funding."

One of the songs that Johnson is most fond of from the upcoming project has a personal connection.

"My last single that I put out, the first single off this record, is, 'Where I Go to Pray,'" Johnson said. "I wrote it for my grandfather in North Carolina. He passed away early last year. It has a personal connection to me. The breakdown of the song is that having a connection with God in the outdoors, somewhere else than a church pew but where they can find their peace at. I never saw him go to church, but he would find it out there. That song stemmed from that."

Johnson has been seeing some of the fruits of his labors as he tours.

"We've spent a lot of time playing a lot of dates up around the Indianapolis region," Johnson said. "We've done a lot of work there. Going back there and seeing people show up who I have never met and never seen, and they know my songs … that's something really, really cool. It's kind of hard to even put into words. They went and did their homework on some guy who is not on the radio. That's the ultimate high for a guy who has to be on the road doing this. When you get new people to come in who already know what is going on (with your music), that is really cool."

Of Johnson's appearances, approximately 70 percent are acoustic shows just involving him, while the rest consist of Johnson with a full band.

"We are looking to get into some bigger venues and openings, but we are going to try to stay around that 130-140 amount of dates (in 2019)," Johnson said. "We're really focused on where we spend that time at. Anybody can go do 140 dates on Broadway (in Nashville, playing in clubs and bars).

"Last year, I was going from Boston to Pittsburgh to Texas. We wanted to get around to different people, not only for them to hear country music but to also hear my brand of country music. We want to stay the course but to take that next step as well."

When he's off the road, Johnson has resided here in Lafayette for the past eight months.

"I was kind of looking for something that was what I used to have back home, a little out of the city," Johnson said. "After living in Nashville for so long and watching this place absolutely explode over the last seven years, I wanted to kind of get away and get out in the country. That's when I'm happiest, when I can get out and go fishing … I love that. I didn't want to be bogged down by city life."

He's enjoying it so far.

"I really love the people around there," Johnson said. "It has that small-town feel without being too small. I've enjoyed it there.

"There's so many water systems around here. There's so many places to go and do things. It's just a great place to live, where you have different opportunities to do things. You're an hour away from the city, and you can be out in the country where nobody can ever find you."