Ray Johnston loves to perform on any stage. Early in his life, that meant playing basketball in arenas across the country. He joined the University of Alabama’s basketball team in college then went on to play professionally for the Dallas Mavericks. However, his athletic career was cut short due to a battle with leukemia. This fight would lead him to a different stage, one where he would perform as a country artist.
In the most recent episode of the Stay Human podcast, Johnston tells his story to host Michael Franti about his transition from athlete to hospital patient to singer/songwriter. Franti uniquely bonded with Johnston because he was also a college basketball player (at the University of San Francisco) who later turned to the music industry. The two chat like old friends and Johnston divulges a series of inspirational anecdotes.
To kick off their conversation about Johnston’s music, Franti asks, “So Ray, at what point did you start thinking, ‘Man, I want to do this music thing?’ Was it that you wanted to be in front of crowds? Is it that you just love music so much? Or was it that you wanted to be part of a team?”
“All three of those,” Johnston replied. “The first thing that drew me to music was the team aspect — I wasn’t near good enough to do it by myself. I was a drummer in high school, and then in college I got [a] guitar. I wasn’t confident in my voice, but I could sing decent harmonies.”
Despite his early interest in music, it wasn’t until after he got his cancer diagnosis that Johnston committed to pursuing music full-time. Once he did, Johnston experienced some newcomer growing pains that most face in the industry. “My songwriting was very… I just wanted to write a song, and get done with it so we’d have a song we can play. And that caught up to me. We were able to sustain a living doing that for two years, but we weren’t selling tickets. And it was because the songs weren’t made from my core,” Johnston confessed.
Luckily, a friend of the singer/songwriter quickly gave Johnston a wake-up call. “He goes, ‘You got a better voice than you think, but you’re not singing you. You’re singing like a wannabe Dave Matthews. You just told me your dad has cattle and you like to go hunting with your dog, so why don’t you write country music?’”
“And I said, ‘Man, quite frankly, because a lot of the good songs that I like are based on songwriting, and I don’t enjoy songwriting.’ He goes, ‘Well, this isn’t gonna be your business. If you want to do this, you have to go back, sit on the couch, and write what’s you. And if no one likes it, that’s okay, at least it’s authentic to you.’ And that’s what I did. So I came back and I had to rebrand myself,” Johnston concluded.
Listen to the rest of the Stay Human episode here or below for the rest of Ray Johnston’s story.