Singer songwriter Ray Johnston is a man fully aware of his stengths and weaknesses. After having to abandon his dreams of playing professional basketball due to a leukemia diagnosis, the relentless optimist shifted his focus to pursue another passion: music. His most recent release, No Bad Days, showcases his happy and hopeful spirit. As in his personal life, Ray is determined not only to survive, but to thrive and succeed in the music business. Johnston graciously took some time during his radio tour to talk about No Bad Days, his latest single, songwriting and more.
Sports, in particular basketball, have always been a huge part of your life. Was music always present as well?
Oh yes ma’am. I sang, pretty terribly, in a sixth grade play and then I sang in church. In about tenth grade, I started playing drums in a southern rock jam band. I noticed the guitar player doing some of the same motions with his hands that I was doing playing the drums, and my arrogant self thought "Hey, I think I can do that!" So that, in combination with my Dad telling me that he wouldn’t allow me to take drums to college, prompted me to learn guitar in my senior year of high school. During college, I played in a cover band and after graduation, I moved to Dallas. I was working corporate, but always played music whether it was at the start of the day, in a cover band or at the end of the day after a date--I could always cover a Dave Matthews Band song and that would either ruin the night or help it! (laughing)
You are originally from Montgomery, Alabama; did your desire to play professional basketball, music or something different bring you to Texas?
I was always taught to have goals and dreams. My goal was to play college basketball and my dream was to play for the NBA, either in the states or overseas so I could see the world. My back up plan was my college degree. I graduated from Alabama and tried out for the NBDL [NBA D-League], which is the minor leagues for the NBA. I got cut and didn’t have any good overseas offers, so I used my degree and worked corporate as a mortgage banker for two years. All the while I played in a semi-pro league. In 2004, the Mavericks saw me play and signed me as a free agent. I was to be their third string point guard; a position that requires someone dependable, who, when worse comes to worse, can go into the game for a few minutes without the team taking a complete tank dive. I kind of went about it the weird way by not making the team right out of college and signing later as a free agent, but much like with music, sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time.
Ray’s basketball career got sidelined when he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after signing with the Mavericks. He sustained a pickup game shin injury that landed him in the emergency room. Within 24 hours, doctors had placed him in a coma to begin battling the leukemia they discovered attacking his body. When they woke him up seventy-one days later, he learned he’d almost bled to death, had seven fewer toes and would never play pro ball again. Since then, Ray has battled the disease five times, ultimately receiving a bone marrow transplant, and has been in remission for five years.
Georgia raised Ty Bates grew up on Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and Alabama. Now, the singer songwriter infuses the same style of storytelling in his own music, touching his fans with meaningful, relatable songs. His self titled EP was released in 2014 and contains five tracks including his latest single "Runnin'." With plans for a busy year ahead, Ty graciously took the time to talk about songwriting, the single and more.
When you were young, your father, a Ford employee, took you to the plant’s company party. It was there that you saw Alan Jackson perform. Is it true that seeing him perform spurred an interest in music?
I was so young at the time, and I remember seeing him perform, but I don’t know if that was what spurred an interest in music. Growing up, I would always listen to tapes and memorize songs. When my Dad took me to the event, it was the first time I actually saw someone sing live, and it made an impression.
I grew up with two brothers and a sister. We played whatever sport fit the season, whether it was golf, football, basketball, tennis or whatever. I caught on fire as a child and that put me out of commission to play sports for a little while. (Ty and his brothers were playing with gasoline too close to the camp fire and gas spilled on his basketball shorts). During that time, when I was probably eight or nine, I was singing a lot more by myself in my room. I knew that I was probably never going to play for the NBA, so it was then when we really made the connection that I can do more than just shoot a basketball, and that’s when the music took off.
Your mom played a big role by encouraging and supporting you to sing.
My mom was the first one who encouraged me to sing. We had an intercom system in house and she would be sneaky and turn it up while I was in my room singing. She would listen downstairs and later on would tell me stories where she would say to my dad “listen to this, Ty’s up there singing, and he’s pretty good!” My mom is very strong and once she gets going on something she’s super supportive, even when it gets hard. When you’re a kid you want to go hang out or play sports, but she kept me going and focused on the music.
Hailing from Colorado, Kristi Hoopes is a singer songwriter whose emotionally charged song "At Least It's Something" won Lyricord's first ever mobile songwriting contest. At only sixteen years old and still in school, Kristi's future certainly looks bright. Kristi recently took the time to tell us about balancing school and music, her winning song, and more.
At sixteen years old, did you know from an even younger age that music was something that you would be doing?
When I was around three years old I would stand on the coffee table and sing Barney songs and say "again, again" and just sing over and over. In the third grade, my then music teacher suggested I participate in the talent show. I sang "These Boots Are Made for Walking" and well, the rest is history.
Music was something I don't think anyone expected. My parents are both in the architectural field, so the music business is something completely foreign to them. They were willing to take a chance with me and said "let's run with it." I know for a fact that I would not be where I am today if it wasn't for the support of my family. I am incredibly lucky to have them!
Was country music the genre of music you were always interested in?
You know, not necessarily. When I was ten I was recruited to join a song and dance troupe called On Stage Productions. We did a lot of songs from various Broadway shows such as Beauty and the Beast and Seussical. We toured for a year throughout Colorado and in Universal Studios, Florida and had the wonderful opportunity to perform on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship in Nassau, Bahamas.
Debbie Williams is a singer/songwriter from New York who graduated college with degrees in musical theatre and dance. After graduation, she relocated to New York City to pursue her dreams. She released her EP, For This War and For This Home, in September of 2014 and was featured in the Country New and Noteworthy Section of iTunes. Her music can be heard on the radio in the US and online stations. Debbie recently took the time to talk about her latest single, the importance of being a positive role model in her music and what's ahead.
You graduated from SUNY with a degree in musical theatre and a dance minor. Did you originally want to pursue Broadway?
To be honest, when I was really little, like around three, I told my parents that I was either going to sing country music or be on Broadway. I have always loved a variety of music, but country is really where my heart lies. I like telling stories to an audience and having people be affected by my songs in a positive manner.
You have said that you want to be a role model and to make a difference in this world. You want your music to help people realize they aren’t alone in life, that there is good in the world and that we are the good if we let ourselves be. Why is this so important to you?
I’ve worked with kids and taught music and I think a lot of the mainstream music that is out there now isn’t always geared towards children; it’s more geared towards making a profit. I want to make music that encourages positive energy and tells children that even though they’re growing up in a big world, they are not alone. There is so much available to kids these days through social media; they have access to so much more, at such an early age, than I did. I think now more than never they need a positive role model in their lives, especially in music.
Hailing from Maryland, Jason Morton and Brett Wilmer of The Cheaters have made the trek to Tennessee bringing with them their blend of rock and country as well as their tight harmonies. Having released their fourth EP in 2014, the duo released their recent single, "She Got A Way," as well as accompanying video that has so far logged over 40,000 views online. Jason and Brett graciously took the time to talk about their evolving sound, "She Got A Way" and their plans for the year.
You have been playing together for ten years, but your music is new to a lot of people. So tell us, when did you become interested in music and come together as a duo?
Jason: I started playing piano when I was four and immediately got the bug for music. Then, in 7th grade I picked up the guitar and never looked back! In 8th grade, the middle school I attended had a talent show, which I entered and won. At that time I was really into grunge, so I think I played either a Nirvana or a Bush song. It was the greatest experience because it was the first time I played live. Before the talent show, I played the Star Spangled Banner on the guitar by myself. It was the most nerve wracking experience ever, but I loved it. It’s weird because your first performance isn’t typically in front of four hundred people. I mean, even in the early years as a band we played for sometimes only five or fifty (laughing).
Brett: I started playing guitar out in clubs, sometimes ones I needed a fake ID to get into, when I was about fifteen/sixteen years old. I met Jason through a mutual friend. We were staring up a band and missing a singer, so when we found out Jason sang, and sang well, he became a part of the band. We’ve been together without killing each other or going crazy for about ten years now!
Growing up in a military family, Michaela Anne was no stranger to frequent relocations. Recently, the Americana singer songwriter made another move: this time from NYC to Nashville. With the release of her well received 2014 album Ease My Mind, as well as the recent video for her song “The Haunting,” Michaela Anne is settling into her place as an individualistic, truthful and thoughtful artist. Michaela Anne graciously took the time to talk about the move, inspiration and writing, and what lies ahead.
You had a very nomadic childhood. Was music something that always interested you?
Yes, it did; growing up, music was always there. I thought though that being a professional musician only meant that you had to be a big pop star like Brittany Spears, and I knew I did not want to do that. It took me awhile to realize that I could have this as a career in a way that was different than that.
Initially you studied jazz. What spurred the interest and transition to Country/Americana/Folk?
I went to jazz school, but felt unhappy in that music environment. Meeting bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves was what really opened me up to the roots, bluegrass, and traditional country music scene in NYC. The experiences that I had in that environment were natural and authentic and they made me feel comfortable and confident.
Texas native Stephen Chadwick's latest album, 2014's Let's Do This Thing, was considered one of the best releases of last year (it made the first round of Grammy nominations for Best Country Album). His new single from that record, the lively ”Hell Of A Time To Go Crazy," just entered the Texas Music Charts. Stephen's music is country to the core. It features a traditional sound that is helping to establish him as a standout emerging artist on the scene. Stephen recently took the time to talk about his musical childhood, the record and what he is looking forward to this year.
You were introduced to music at a very young age when you began performing with your Dad.
I guess you could say I have been singing pretty much my entire life. My Dad was a singer who had a band even before I came along. He would sing and play in Katy, Texas at nursing homes and festivals. When I was four or five years old I would go on stage with him and sing, one arm holding onto his leg and the other arm around the microphone. At seven years old I would sing on my own, playing parties and stuff like that. I was also in a youth group and sang with them too. At sixteen I learned the acoustic guitar and started my own band playing with guys that were two to three times older than I was. That’s all I did--attend school during the week and sing on the weekends. I really had no social life because I was always playing music, but that was my choice and I loved it.
Mandy McMillan has had a passion for music for as long as she can remember. Having started singing in at a young age, Mandy relocated from her native Canada to Nashville a few years back to immerse herself in Music City and pursue her dreams. Having released her self-titled debut EP in June of 2014, Mandy graciously took the time to talk about her roots, the music, and plans for an exciting 2015.
When did you become interested in music and decide to pursue it professionally?
Ever since I was about three years old, I was singing. In high school I began playing the guitar, taking vocal lessons and started my first band. I always knew that music was what I wanted to do and that I had to move to Nashville to pursue it.
What types of music did you listen to growing up?
My parents listened to classic rock like CCR, REO Speedwagon and Fleetwood Mac. We also listened to the country music of Shania Twain, Garth Brooks and Canadian artists, like George Fox.
Over the past few years, Sam Riggs, along with his band The Night People, has made quite an impact on the Texas music scene. In 2014, his debut LP release Outrun The Sun sent two songs to the Top 10 on the Texas Music Charts while another song, “Collide,” was featured on the ABC drama, “Nashville.” Additionally, Sam has recorded sessions for both the Texas Music Scene TV and Day Trotter. The singer- songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is primed for an incredibly successful 2015. Sam graciously took the time to talk about his roots, Outrun The Sun and what's ahead.
When did you begin to have an interest in music & a desire to pursue it professionally?
Well, I have been interested in music since I was a kid. My family was very musical. My mom played guitar and sang, my granddad played guitar and banjo and my dad played guitar. I guess I just picked up instruments because they were always lying around the house! When I was younger, my first aspiration was to be a bull rider and a race car driver, but before all of that I wanted to be a singer in a country band. As I got older and my ambitions changed, I came full circle back to music. After high school I went to work as a welder and soon decided that I didn’t want to work my life away doing something that I didn’t absolutely love. So I just hit the ground running and headed to Texas to start a music career.
Since music was prevalent in your house from a young age, what types of music were you exposed to?
There was all kinds of stuff, but one album that sticks out in my mind the most is Paul Simon’s Granceland. My mom gifted that album to my brother and myself. We traveled around the country quite a bit when I was younger, and that record is kind of like the soundtrack to my life. Of course I also listened to all of the greats: Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson and then Garth Brooks as I got older.
What spurred the move to Austin as opposed to say, Nashville?
Well, what I was trying to do with my music didn’t quite fit into the Top 40 pipeline. A friend of mine brought back a cd that had a bunch of Texas artists on it, like Randy Rogers and Reckless Kelly. I thought the music was great, unpolished and unfeigned, with these guys singing about real life. That turned me onto the Austin music scene and I thought, ‘hell, I’ll give it a shot.’
Are those artists you would want to model your career after?
At one point, definitely, but as I venture further out into the field, I would say my goals have changed and broadened. I think those guys are insanely talented and happy where they are with their circuit and their fans, but I’m looking past that now. You know, you can play 365 days a year in Texas at a different venue each night, but I want to be a bit more vicious about touring, both nationally and internationally.
Early on, you were mentored by Ray Wylie Hubbard. How did that come about?
I was introduced to Ray’s wife, Mother Hubbard [Judy], by a friend. I was going through a tough time and was faced with some things I never had encountered before. She helped me and taught me to pull myself up by my bootstraps when things got dark. I met Ray through her, and our relationship blossomed, first as teacher and student and then later as friends.
You have said that “He opened my eyes to songwriting, and I could see the idiot I had been and the idiot I was going to be, and he helped me to navigate that. He taught me what it really is to be a songwriter.” How did your songwriting change with him as a mentor/teacher?
I’d say my writing became more honest. I started writing in the tenth grade, and it was not good at all (laughing)! In my senior year of high school, I began writing more seriously. Some of the songs I had written when I met Ray, I was proud of, but I don’t remember half of them anymore (laughing). He taught me the importance of writing words that matter, which had a profound effect on me. He has a saying that when you write a song, if you cut the words, they should bleed; they should be living words, words that mean more than what the masses want to hear. What came out of that experience was the Lighthouse EP, which was full of songs that were very deep and emotional.
The Lighthouse EP was followed by your full length album, Outrun The Sun in October 2013, which really moved things around for you and the band.
When you make a record, you have certain hopes for the project, but Outrun The Sun took on a life of its own. It exceeded every expectation that I ever had and became a turning point in my, and the band’s, life. When you take the time to put something together with a lot of love and emotion and then see it come to life in some sort of almost Frankenstein like way..…it’s pretty incredible.
Outrun The Sun is really a complete record, full of story songs, ten of which you wrote or co-wrote. Is it important to you to write for your records?
It is important for me to write and sing songs I have written because I have to believe what I am singing. “Fire and Dynamite” [written by Drew Holcomb, the only song on the record not written by Riggs] I cut because it was a song I believed in and one that I felt I could make my own. We are working on a new record for this year, and there will be a couple of songs on there that I did not write, but most will be ones that I have written. I have a tendency to narrow down the songs, but also keep an open mind for what I choose to put on [the records].
The record produced two Top 10 singles on the Texas charts, “Angola’s Lament” and “Hold On And Let Go”, the latter of which had a motion picture quality music video. Will there be another single and accompanying video?
Yes, there will be one more single, “Long Shot,” which was the song I initially wanted to release first. “Long Shot” will be the song to carry us through the summer while we are in the process of making the new record. I would like to do a video for the song, but what we want to do and what we can do are two different things. We work hard to make videos that reflect the passion and intensity of the fan base. The fans allow us to do what we do, so, when we make a video, I like to have it be something special.
Your fans are certainly passionate about your live shows, which are known for being extremely energetic and electric.
I feel like the live show is the end game, right? It’s the culmination of everything we do here as artists, well, for me anyway. Everyone in that crowd paid money to see the show, so when I step on that stage, I feel that they deserve every single bit of me, and I’m not going to let them down. I have been modeling my approach after Garth Brooks - I want it to not just be a show, I want it to be an experience that people will never forget. Cody Johnson and I have this pact: 5 or 5000, it’s the same show - because everyone deserves it.
There were some pretty amazing moments for you in 2014. Do you have any one that is a specific highlight for you?
The huge highlight for me personally was that I got married in May. Professionally, having two Top 10 singles in one year was just great. The way that things have grown, the way the crowds have completely shown me and the band love and support has taken my breath away.
This year has barely begun, but many are saying it will be “your year.” What’s ahead?
It’s funny because every year you’re like, ‘this is it, this is the year things will happen,’ but as things have grown, it has become a monster of a machine. I have a great team, great management and of course great fans…..the whole nine yards. Moving into 2015, this year is going to be huge, and I am strapped on the rocket, ready for it to launch (laughing)!
In addition to the single and the new album, we are going to be touring non-stop. We’ll be in the northern part of the US and are talking about going to Ireland in the fall. When I’m not on the road, I’ll be busy writing. I’m going to be constantly going!
Finally, I always like to know if there is one album that came out recently that you cannot stop listening to?
I listen to all kinds of stuff, but one of my new favorite artists is Sturgill Simpson. Both his new record, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and his older one, are outstanding.
Watch the video for "Hold On and Let Go" here
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