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.
After the cancer diagnosis, your basketball dream sadly ended, but you were able to turn to another passion: music. When did you begin to focus more intently on music and writing?
I wasn’t heavy into writing because it struck me more like it was a summer reading project. I started writing in college, but then it was more like I would sit down for an hour and a half, write a song, and think ‘that’ll be fine.’ I didn’t start writing good songs until two and a half years ago when I realized that in order to make it in the music industry you needed good songs.
When I started, my writing was geared more towards a Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson sound. I think I was able to gain some traction in the business back then because of the talented musicians in my band: my then sax player is now with Prince, and my then keyboard player is with Philip Phillips. I, on the other hand, was a mediocre singer at best who had some C- songs, but most were F's and D's. I would often wonder to myself why we weren't getting invited back to venues. I eventually spoke with some people I really respected and they looked me right in the eyes and told me straight, "man, the songs aren’t there and the voice isn’t there, so you’re getting what you earned--which isn’t much."
Then around November of 2011, I had the chance to talk with Kevin Fowler. He said “I like you, people like you, you’re a pretty good singer, but the songs aren’t there.” Talking with him made me realize that you’re just as good as your songs. He asked if I was committed to the jam band sound and suggested I think about country music as many aspects of my life pointed in that direction. I always loved that kind of music, like Garth Brooks and George Strait, but I had been intimidated to write a country song because the writing, well, before some of what we hear on the radio today, is rock solid. So, I sat with a guitar and what came out was just very honest and authentic to me. I started compiling songs and noticed my writing, although still average, was getting better. I also emoted more authentically when I sang country.
I’m a pretty happy guy and I think my music reflects that. I make what I call “happy country.” I always joke that in my songs, the man and the woman stay together; I try to stay optimistic and a lot of that comes with my personal story, the on and off with leukemia, and making it through. I have wonderful people surrounding me and I think the Big Guy upstairs has this crazy plan for me to be alive and singing.
In total, you have released three albums, most recently, No Bad Days, from 2014. How has your sound and writing evolved and changed from the first record to this one?
My first album, back in 2009, was on the cusp of a John Mayer-Dave Matthews sound. You could tell it was a bad album because I used the bleeding cowboy’s font, the worst font ever (laughing)! In 2012, I released an EP with a more pop-country tilt that showed improvement in my writing. Last year I released No Bad Days, a record that I am really very proud of. The album is an overall happy and hopeful one, with easy melodies so that when we’re at a venue and 95% of the people there have never heard us play before they are able to engage easily with the hooks.
With this album I feel a lot better about my ability write a catchy melody, as well as a song with a good story. However, I know there’s room for improvement. I’m still working on the depth of the songs. I can’t compete with the Bob Dylan's or Hayes Carlls' in the world where every line has thirteen layers, that’s just not in my DNA right now, but maybe one day.
My goal with writing songs is that one day I want to get into a room with some of the A+ level writers, I'm JV right now, sit at the table with them and bring value to a song. On No Bad Days, I co-wrote or wrote nine of the eleven songs, all with guys. I wanted to write with some females for this record, but no one would say yes to me. I am very ambitious, but I understand why they, and others, turned me down. Their time is valuable and they probably believed that I wasn’t ready to write with them. I’m getting closer though and as I continue to make friendships I hope that those co-writes can happen organically.
Are the people you want to co-write with in Nashville, Texas or somewhere else?
For me, the big boys are Don Henley, Brad Paisley, John Mayer and Steven Curtis Chapman, among others. I love all genres of music and don’t want to make it necessarily a country thing. I love collaboration as I’m not as efficient when I write by myself. The songs for No Bad Days came about because I had awesome writing partners who graciously let me write with them, and let me learn from them. I hope that I can mentor a writer in the future like they did for me.
There’s a song on the album called "Southwest Texas Afternoon." Can you elaborate on how you came to record that song?
There’s a great story behind that song. “Southwest Texas Afternoon” was specifically written for George Strait. I got to know one of the writers of that song when I was in Nashville and I asked him, “Do you have any awesome songs that have been passed up by the established artists?” He rolled his eyes and said to me “unfortunately I do.” He told me specifically about this song which he had written for George Strait, who ultimately decided not to cut it. I requested that he send me the demos to see if I could cut it. He agreed to let me try as long as I didn’t stink it up (laughing). We made an agreement that I would send him the first licks and if he didn’t like it then I wouldn’t put it on the album. Later on, he texted me and said “you did a great job.”
Currently you are on a radio tour promoting your single “No Bad Days.” How is that going?
As with any business, it is great to get face time with the people, especially those who are kind enough to spin your single. It’s nice to be able to nurture a relationship with them so they will continue to support your music. “No Bad Days,” which is my fifth single on the Texas Music Charts, is in its seventh week and is sitting at #26. I feel very fortunate to have the regional music scene in Texas. I am very committed to radio on regional side and if that road leads me to national presence that would be terrific.
“No Bad Days” is not only the single, but the album title as well. What is the story behind the song and why did you chose to name the record after that song in particular?
There is a great story behind that song too! I know a super nice philanthropic man in Dallas who is rooting me on in my musical career. He saw me play a wedding at his beach house and we struck up a friendship. He offered me his place for a writer’s retreat, which I took him up on. The other writers and I wrote three songs that are on the record at his place, as well as “No Bad Days.”
All of us were sitting around the breakfast table one morning wondering what we could get him as a thank you gift. We came to the conclusion that we needed to write a song based around the theme of the beach house, which is “no bad days.” That theme has to do with the deeply personal story of a friend of his who lost two children to a medical issue. He has worked to raise awareness on the issue and gave a keynote speech entitled “No Bad Days.” All five of us decided to write him an anthem based on his friend’s experience. Our number one goal when we wrote it was to write it for him, not us or a publisher, we just wanted him to like it. We realized as the song came together that it was also a lot like my story. We finished it up and it came out a very powerful song that our friend absolutely loved. As we compiled songs for the record and thought about a theme, we thought “No Bad Days” was a respectful, hopeful story that people can relate to and interpret as they see fit.
Your recent single, “More Crown than Coke,” had an accompanying music video that was really fun. Will there be a video for “No Bad Days?”
Yes, we are planning to shoot the video for “No Bad Days” on March 1st and 2nd. We wanted to do something for the video that involved my story as well as support a great cause and facility. We are going to be shooting at a really great children’s hospital in Houston called Cook Hospital. We really want to shine a light on a great facility and the people that work there who are able to make kids’ frowns turn upside down on a daily basis. We are going to film the video in the Child Life Zone, which is a strict no treatment zone, and hope to have some kids play instruments and sing along to the song.
You recently played in Houston and El Campo, Texas. For the most part, do you tour regionally?
We played 142 gigs in 2014, so we are out on the road quite often. We have a little different show schedule than most of the other Texas artists though. We play one-third of our shows regionally in the beautiful honky tonks where they serve dehydrating drinks and people can dance (laughing) and another third at totally unique places, like a show we recently did for the NBA in NYC. The final third of our shows are benefits, which are great. I love how music can overlap with charity benefits, especially those that deal with cancer research or Be The Match. I had a bone marrow transplant and was lucky enough to meet and thank my donor. I have also been on a cancer research drug, and in remission, for five years, so I am very passionate and proactive about missioning for cancer research. In fact we just started an acoustic series called Acoustic for ACS (American Cancer Society). We got our foot in the door with fraternities and sororities on college campuses and get to give back to the ACS.
As someone who is very determined and driven, do you have anything specific that you would like to accomplish professionally this year?
I should have my list of goals written down so I can look at it every day! I have some non-negotiable, no brainer goals like improving my writing and singing. We’re at the point now where people come up after the show and complement our stage presence. To have an engaging show was on my improvement list, so I feel like now I really want to focus on my voice, which I would rank as a B+. I really want to take it to the A area and I think with time and confidence it will become more polished. There are also certain things on the regional scene I would like to do. We played ZiegenBock for the past two years and would really like to be invited to play Steamboat and the Larry Joe Taylor Festival. I think we would be a really good for those.
Finally, I always love to know, is there one recent release that you cannot stop listening to?
I like Brett Eldredge’s “Mean to Me” and I watched the Eagles documentary for the fifth time this week. I don’t know how they harmonize that good, it’s almost illegal! If Joe Walsh would ever want to have dinner, I wouldn’t have to think twice to hang out with that rock and roll legend!
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