Before he can climb back up to return to his band, he pauses. "Somebody help me back on stage," he says. "I ain't got no vertical no more."
For many of his fans, this simple statement conjures images of the artist clinging to life, a fight against disease that has gone on for nearly a decade. In the audience, Ashley Conklin sings every word of Johnston's tunes. She can also list his medical history like a discography. "I know all of it," she says while he performs. "He had toes amputated," Conklin shouts over the music. "He coded several times on the operating table."
Johnston's story typically starts with the apocryphal moment in 2004, when he played point guard for the Dallas Mavericks and found a bruise that wouldn't heal. That doctor’s visit led in quick succession to the discovery that he had leukemia and then to a two-and-a-half-month-long medically induced coma.
Johnston tells the Observer that it took a month and a half after waking before he could talk again. The first words he spoke were, "Hey, Mom." He had to cover the hole that the tracheotomy left in his throat, which has since healed to look a little like a belly button. The next five years were a blur of relapses and treatments.
A veteran of cover bands from college on, Johnston remembers his first gig post-coma at a wine bar on Henderson, a “half Texas Country, half Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, John Mayer” kind of thing. Around 2009, he received some more terrible news from a doctor, another relapse, and decided then to launch into a full-time band. “I've always been a ‘go out swinging rather than looking’ kind of person,” he says. “And the original songs, I thought they were good then, because I didn't know jack shit about songwriting.”
In 2010, the Ray Johnston Band had to go on hiatus after Johnston grew too sick to play full time. His jazzy band members went on to play with people like Prince, Philip Philips and Erykah Badu. It wasn't until 2012 and a full recovery that he sat down again to seriously write. “Write a song that's true to you,” he remembers telling himself then, “and hope it has a good melody. And if it doesn't, write another song and hope it has a better melody.”
When he took that approach, Johnston found that his songs naturally came out country. He wasn't all that surprised, either. “I've always been that dude. My dad's in the cattle business. I'm from Alabama," he says. "I voted Republican, if that matters."
His music focuses almost singularly on the bright side life. An idyllic track off his May EP, #GoesGoodWith, called, "Watching the Lord Turn on the Light," might just convince you to find hunting adorable. This sweet, slow song, inspired by Johnston's hunting trips with his dad, lights up with nature sounds as it comes to a close.
When he heard the album name, his dad asked, "What the heck you got a pound sign in your album name for?"
Whatever the name, Johnston has clearly evolved in his sound since his first release, Sweet Tooth, when he would sit down to write songs like they were English homework. “I didn't have any hooks, really,” he admits. “If I took more than an hour to write a song, it was rare.”
His new EP, a tight six songs and the third release by the band, shows a development toward a broader country sound from the fiddle-heavy sophomore release, No Bad Days, while at the same time working with catchier hooks and mixing in sub-genres.
The audience engagement has been jamming along nicely, too. Part of the idea behind his hashtag album name was a tie-in to his social media presence. He’s working a number of hashtag campaigns with this album to try and create a more intimate connection with his audience. #HouseCalls, a monthly contest he runs for a free acoustic show in a fan’s home, comes from his love of the listening room. “It's a very easy way to authentically meet somebody and hang out with them,” Johnston says. He adds that the vibe is like a potluck with music, where he brings the Bud Light and music.
Conklin finally won July’s #HouseCalls on Instagram after Friday’s show. She placed runner-up for June, she laments while stirring her strawberry margarita at The Rustic. She would keep entering and hoping until she got the prize. The house call lets her have anywhere from 10 to 60 people over for a show with Johnston and his pedal steel guitarist. Johnston will go more into the music and the lyrics, the story of the songs, like VH1 Behind the Music, he quips. “I love his story,” she says, “but I love his music.”
Johnston says one of major goals is to play American Airlines Center, even as an opening act. That would be his Hollywood ending, a chance to come full-circle from his basketball career. He told former Mavs teammate Dirk Nowitzki, “I won't even put you on the guest list. You have to buy a ticket.” According to Johnston, Dirk replied, “I will be there.”
Although the AAC is a long way from The Rustic, it's not out of reach. Ray Johnston has beat far worse than that.