RAY JOHNSTON USED TO PLAY BASKETBALL IN THE AMERICAN AIRLINES CENTER FOR THE DALLAS MAVERICKS. NOW, HE’S WORKING TO PERFORM THERE AGAIN, THIS TIME AS AN ARTIST
For artist and songwriter Ray Johnston, music wasn’t always the dream. The Texas native grew up with his eyes on basketball. “My dream was to play professional basketball,” he says. “I achieved my basketball goals and dreams by playing at Alabama and then I made the Dallas Mavericks summer league team in 2004,” he says.
However, things quickly changed. “Three months into my career with them was when my life took a 180 in that I was diagnosed with leukemia,” he says. After his initial diagnosis, he experienced four relapses, with amputations initially and a bone marrow transplant on the third relapse. “It was probably a period of eight years, where I’d get healthy and six months later to a year later I’d relapse,” he says. “It was within those relapses that I realized I couldn’t play basketball anymore.”
Ray had grown up singing in church, and had cover bands in high school and college. While considering his options, music stood out. “I always did it as a hobby, until I was pretty much faced with, if you happen to pass in a year, do you want to go out trying to accomplish a new goal, a new dream with something you love,” he says.
“I think music is harder than basketball,” he continues, “to make it at the level that I want to make it at.”
He came out of the gates quickly with his music career. “I wrote horrible songs,” he says. “I thought they were good. When I first started writing songs, it reminded me of English homework, and I always hated English homework, so it took me maybe 30 minutes to write a song, and that’ll be good. Mind you I kind of thought I wouldn’t be around for much longer either.” He also faced physical challenges; he had spent two months in a coma due to the leukemia and had been given a tracheotomy, which affected his singing voice, stamina, and range.
Though his album came out – the songs weren’t great, he says, but the band was – it didn’t click long term. “We had some success, but it kind of peaked off,” he says. “Most of the time it seems that if there’s a sustainable career, there’s usually good songs behind that artist, and I just didn’t have good songs.”
It was in conversation with Texas artist Kevin Fowler that his perspective changed. “I would advise you to go back to the drawing board and sit down and write an authentic song,” he recalls Kevin saying. “‘If that comes out, great; if not, at least it’s true to you.’ That’s what I did a week later.” That first song, “Bye Bye City Lights,” became Ray’s second single at country radio; it reached #13 on the Texas charts.
In the meantime, Ray had picked up some time working in the corporate world, and had learned the art of pitching. With many of the songs he’d written, he pitched placements on TV and in advertisements, something typically left in the hands of publishers or third party licensing agencies. His determination paid off well; he’s had songs on The Ranch, Nashville, and ESPN, and for the National Wild Turkey Federation and Crown Royal. For the National Wild Turkey Federation placement, he was able to call co-writer Luke Combs and give him the good news.
Not only is he writing his own destiny, he’s connecting in a big way; songs like “No Bad Days,” which was written as a gift for a friend, has caused many to reach out and personally thank him for the impact it’s had on their lives. “I think when a song connects to a person, that’s a reminder that it can be successful, even if you don’t get a tour bus one day,” he says. “What keeps me going is that I remind myself that I’m able to pay a mortgage and eat because of music. I feel fortunate to be able to do that. I hope that never ends.”