It doesn’t take more than a second or two after meeting country-rock musician Ray Johnston to figure out he’s one determined dude. Though his motto is “smile hard,” he seems to live by a more famous mantra: “Failure is not an option.”
Determination drove the lanky Montgomery, Ala., native to make good on his childhood pledge that he would one day play pro basketball; he wound up joining the Dallas Mavericks as a free agent in 2004. It’s what helped him turn his passion for music into his post-basketball profession, leading the Ray Johnston Band, which just completed a new album, AGAINST THE GRAIN. And most of all, it’s what kept him going as he battled leukemia. Five times.
If anyone has the right stuff, it’s Johnston. His focus, work ethic and winning attitude — and those bouts with cancerous blood cells — mean he doesn’t have time for mediocrity. Which is why he was able to attract top-notch talent for AGAINST THE GRAIN, and why he’s been able to book high-profile gigs, such as opening a huge SXSW 2012 show with Cracker, the BoDeans and Cheap Trick, even as an unknown just breaking in to the music biz. People believe in Ray Johnston because he believes in himself. This is a guy who admits, “I get kind of offended if people don’t like me,” and goes to the airport early when he travels because he makes a new friend every time.
“My dad taught me early in life that any successful business is going to come from a lot of relationships,” Johnston says while kicking back in an Austin B&B, his adorable Boykin spaniel, Lil Dude, snoozing next to him. A southern charmer with the kind of dimpled-chin good looks that led to some modeling during his athlete days, Johnston discusses his life and music in a conversation filled with references to sports, business, faith and friends — and success.
“Son, any successful business that has longevity has a point of difference,” his father, a high-risk insurance writer-turned cattle rancher, told him early on. Pondering how that axiom might apply to his music — what would make his rootsy songs stand out from the rest — Johnston came to a realization.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the adjective ‘authentic,’” he says. “I want to make sure whatever music I’m writing is me, and I’m not just tilting to make sure it fits the market.”
His pals Jason Mraz and Michael Franti assured him his evolution from a Jack Johnson/Dave Matthews sound to one more in league with fellow Texans Randy Rogers and Kevin Fowler was not an issue. Says Johnston of the band’s direction: “If Dave Matthews is on first base and Zac Brown is on third, we fall on second base.”
It’s as if they’re forming a bridge between what he calls “that happy rock sound” and a style that’s “current country, but less Nashville-sounding.” There’s some grit ground into these grooves, roughing up the edges and keeping everything real.
Produced by Ken Tondre, Fowler’s drummer and music director, AGAINST THE GRAIN features contributions from guitarists David Grissom (John Mellencamp, the Dixie Chicks) and David Pulkingham (Alejandro Escovedo); bassist Glenn Fukunaga (Robert Plant); fiddler Haydn Vitera (Asleep at the Wheel); and drummer Brannen Temple (Janet Jackson), among others. Johnston’s bandmates Bobby Sparks and Keith Anderson contribute keyboards and saxophone, respectively.
They’ve helped create a versatile mix of tracks, from the sweetly reminiscent country-pop of “Me, You & Emmylou,” and the testosterone growl of “Gameday,” the ESPN College Gameday song Johnston co-wrote with Thom Shepherd (Kevin Fowler, Pat Green) to Johnston’s moving ballad, “Son, This Is Your Dad.” The catchy opening cut, “Bye Bye City Lights,” was written by Johnston and AGAINST THE GRAIN co-arranger Lang Freeman, vocalist/guitarist for Austin’s Sounds Under Radio, whose songs have landed everywhere from the Spiderman 3 film to the Vampire Diaries TV series.
Another track, “Supernatural,” has been re-recorded with an extra verse for an upcoming ad campaign for Be The Match, the national bone marrow transplant registry and advocacy group. Johnston, who received a life-saving marrow transplant in 2008, is now a Be The Match spokesman and recently was invited to Washington, D.C., to speak to U.S. senators on behalf of the organization. He got to meet his donor, an experience he’s not ashamed to admit drew some tears.
“When you see your mom huggin’ the donor and thanking him for saving her son’s life, that’s a pretty special moment,” Johnston reflects.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Are you successful?’ Shoot, if my band flops and goes under, I think I’m successful just for doin’ that,” he says of his work with Be The Match.
But “flops” and “goes under” are concepts that barely exist in Johnston’s lexicon; they’re dwarfed by that far more important “S” word.
Clearly, Johnston’s success is directly linked to his positive attitude. Asked where it comes from, he credits his parents. His dad didn’t tolerate sulking. His mom had a bumper sticker that read, “Tough times don’t last — tough people do.”
While majoring in marketing at the University of Alabama, he tried out for the Crimson Tide as a walk-on — and made it. Though he played in only two games, he went for an NBA slot anyway. He didn’t make it, so he headed to Dallas.
“I just moved to a city that I thought would provide the highest chance of getting a job, with the idea, ‘I’ll give this two years. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll come back and work for my dad.’”
He was hired as a mortgage broker — right when interest rates dropped and property refinancing jumped. Then he got into commercial lending, and did very well. Of course, he still played ball — pickup games at a club where he got to know Dallas Mavericks players. That led to tryouts and his eventual signing as a point guard. Sadly, it would be only a few months before a pickup-game shin injury that wouldn’t stop hurting landed Johnston 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 71 days later, he learned he’d almost bled to death, had seven fewer toes and would never play pro ball again.
As he fought to heal, Johnston refocused his dreams. He spent countless hours practicing guitar, sought counsel from respected friends and developed a plan. After his third relapse, Johnston decided it was time to act. He asked Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who also co-owns AXS TV (then HDNet), if he’d be interested in documenting Johnston’s efforts to break into the music business and fight his illness. Cuban signed on, and the band went on tour.
The documentary, Ray Johnston Band: Road Diaries, became an eight-part series, plus a one-hour retrospective, chronicling his musical and medical journeys, including a fourth relapse. It got nominated for the CableFax Association’s 2009 Best Show or Series: Documentary award.
It wasn’t always easy having cameras in his face as he suffered the effects of chemotherapy, Johnston admits, but he learned to trust producer Evan Haiman.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the show,” Johnston says.
He’s proud of his new album, too.
“I love where our sound is now,” Johnston enthuses. “It's a we thing, not a me thing.”
But he says the Ray Johnston Band’s biggest strength is performing live.
“If you’re confident in your craft and your band and your songs, then that feeds to the audience,” Johnston says. “They buy in immediately. We’ve gotten invited back to 95 percent of the venues where we’ve played.”
Of course, he’s already got a long-range plan.
“Our goal by the end of 2013 is to sell out the Dallas House of Blues big room,” he says. “And then by December 2015, we need to sell out the Verizon Theatre, which is the best-sounding room in Dallas. I’d like to do the Austin City Limits Festival by 2016 — as one of the people they’ll list when they say, ‘Get your tickets now — Coldplay’s comin’, Michael Franti’s comin’, Ray Johnston’s coming.’
“Laugh now,” he adds, “but I’ll put my band and our sound up against any of those guys, as far as the market enjoying it and having a great concert experience.”
With his talent and drive — and will to survive and thrive — there’s no reason to believe he won’t pull off his ultimate musical goal: playing Dallas’ American Airlines Center by 2022.
In Ray Johnston’s world, giving up is not an option.