Cody Johnson Performs Epic Willie Nelson Tribute at the 2023 ACM Awards
Cody Johnson shared his spin on a country classic at the 2023 ACM Awards on Thursday night (May 11). He performed "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," a Willie Nelson tribute made even more special due to Johnson's own background as a rodeo cowboy.
Just before Johnson took the stage, hosts Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks surprised everyone with a FaceTime call from Nelson. He thanked Parton for sending flowers for his 90th birthday and then called out Brooks for forgetting his big day.
"I'm guessing your birthday gift for me is still on the way, right?" he asks from the big screen.
"Oh — uh, yeah, Willie," Brooks says with a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. "Must have forgot my tracking number in my other pants."
After joking about flowers and "other plants" making good gifts, it was time for Johnson to perform. He stepped out on stage in full denim along with his band and carried out the song effortlessly as the steel guitar cried behind him. He even put his own spin on the lyrics.
"Mammas don't let your cowboys grow up to be babies," he sings before proclaiming, "I meant what I said!"
Ahead of the show, Johnson revealed to Taste of Country that it was the ACM's decision for him to tribute Nelson with his performance — but the decision of the exact song was all his.
"When they asked me to perform, I thought, ''Til You Can’t' or 'Human.' And you got your No. 1 and you got one on the way to hopefully No. 1. And they’re like, 'Do a Willie Nelson song,'" he explained. "I'm like, 'Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys?' Do I get to pick?"
Johnson is still a practicing rancher and cowboy, after all, so the lyrics of that song in particular are particularly potent coming from him.
"You know, yesterday or day before yesterday, when I left, we were out chasing stray cattle on my ranch, roping 'em in and castrating calves, and like, that's what I do every day," he noted.
"I'm a cowboy, a rancher, with a part-time musician job now. So to be able to do that song in particular, it means a lot to me," Johnson added.
The 2023 ACM Awards took place from Johnson's home state in Frisco, Texas, at the Ford Center. Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks co-hosted the show.