Over the past decade, Rayne Johnson has been logging 40-hours a week as a full-time railroad mechanic. But, that hasn’t stopped him from leading a promising career in country music.
A native of Fairfield, OH, Johnson discovered his passion for music at an early age, often singing in church with his late mother. But it was on the railroad where he learned how to play his first musical instrument, the guitar.
“When I was out there working on the railroad and had any downtime waiting on the trains, my co-worker would teach me basic chords on the guitar, and I just ran with it from there,” Johnson said, according to his biography on his official website.
Johnson, who grew up listening to musical genres ranging from traditional country to gospel to R&B, eventually teamed with some friends to form a band that played both rock and country covers. His eclectic musical tastes led him to develop a unique sound and personal brand of country music, which he describes as ‘traditional country tales through soulful vocals bolstered by rock energy and a twist of R&B flavor.’
Although Johnson never officially made the move to Nashville, his determination and talents have undoubtedly made a name for in Music City. After parting ways with his band, and touring with artists like Hunter Hayes, Kellie Pickler and Randy Houser, he began singing on demos and found creative chemistry with singer/songwriter Joe Jordan.
In late 2020, Johnson released his self-titled debut EP, via Mountain Road Records/VERGE. The nine-track project includes the independently released Top 40 country radio single, “Front Seat,” follow-up single “Real Dang Good,” and the boot-stomping “Bring It Back.”
Johnson caught up with Country Now to chat about his background, new music, personal influences, and more.
Read on to learn more about Rayne Johnson in this exclusive interview below.
What led you to pursue a career in country music?
My mom always sang. She was one of the singers in our church. So I was around that for most of my life. When I was about five-years-old, she had me sing a duet with her. I don’t remember that moment, but I have seen pictures of it. I also drew an interest in music as I was growing up. I joined the choir and tried out for solos. So, that is how I got my start. Then, it just so happened, one day that I was singing at church, and a guy that was a few years older than me approached me. He asked me if I would want to sing in a band that he and his buddies put together. So, I played in that rock band for a little while. And other than me leading stuff at church, that was my first real taste of the stage outside of the church stuff. And, I loved doing it! Also, I grew up not playing an instrument. I first picked up the guitar when I was in my early twenties. Then later, some of the guys and I from the rock band started playing country music. We began doing bar gigs where we played three-hour sets. Then, I took a break from the band. But, I have been fortunate with both of the bands that I have been in. We did not break-up for any real reason. We just fizzled out. A year later, I got contacted to sing some country demos. At one point, I was in the studio with the guy who is my current manager. At the time, he said, ‘Man. I think we could do something together and write some great songs.’ So, it was kind of like the fast-track version of how I got to where I am now.
It seems like you’ve dabbled in several different genres. How did you come to define your brand of country music?
Growing up, my mom introduced me to gospel music as well as Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Then my dad was always listening to classic country. When I was old enough to buy my music, I delved into that music too. But during that same time, I was drawn to R&B and how artists like Boyz II Men and Bryan McKnight sang. That is how I taught myself how to sing. I listened to that stuff and listened to what they did and learned from them. Once I started getting to do my own thing, I noticed how that soulful sound just came out. It’s not something that I’ve always wanted to have; it’s just how I sing. But, now the thing about country music is, we have those fun party songs and everything. Not only do I like those songs and doing that, but I also enjoy writing in a way that gets the storytelling across. Now that I’m a little bit older, I’m not searching for myself anymore – even though I’m sure I’ll grow as a musician – no matter how I write the song, I’m still going to sing it in my soulful way. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, we’re like, ‘Okay, we’ll send that one to somebody else.’
Being from Ohio, did you ever get the urge to move to Nashville?
Not really. I’ve never lived in Nashville, but I’ve stayed down there quite a bit. Before COVID-19, I was probably down there more than I was in my hometown. But I don’t necessarily think you have to move to Nashville. You do have to be present in Nashville, just because that’s where country music is at. Most of the people you’re going to connect with and surround yourself with are there. But, I think it’s like a double-sided thing. There are still people who think you have to move to Nashville, and there are other people that think that you don’t have to these days. Fortunately, I am close enough that if I get a call in the morning and they say, ‘Hey, we have an unexpected meeting pop up. Can you be here?’ I could make the trip by the afternoon. I’ve done that many, many times.
You recently released your self-titled EP. Congrats! How does it feel to have that music out?
It is exciting for me because there was never a single out. We did have a song that we put out called, ‘Laid Back,’ and a lot of people loved it! It did well on streaming services. So that was like the first little thing of me being introduced to folks. Then, my ballad ‘Front Seat’ kind of became how I was known. That song did well on country radio and the charts. But, you don’t want to judge an artist by just one song you’ve heard, even though it’s natural for you to do that. So, I loved that song, and I still do. I’ll be playing it for a long time. But, I’m excited because now folks can hear more sides of me with this EP, where there’s something way different than a ballad type love song. There are only two ballads on this EP, and everything else is pretty quick and moving. And, I’m excited about that because I know people are getting to see what I’m more capable of as an artist and they’re getting to know this well-rounded version of me.
One of the two ballads is ‘Love Em While You Can.’ Can you tell me the story behind that song?
‘Love Em While You Can’ was written by Joe Jordan. He wrote it a while before I cut it because he had an experience with his grandma. She had passed away. I had only heard a snippet of the song. Joe and I are working together so much that I have listened to so many of his songs. So, I had not heard the whole thing. It was about a week or so before a situation in my life happened that we decided I was going to cut it. So, I am in the studio, and on the day that I start recording the song, I get a phone call from my mom. She is freaking out because she is about to head to the doctor, and they are afraid that she might have cancer. So I had that going on, and we ended up cutting that day short because of that. Well, in those weeks of recording that song, I found out that my mom did have cancer. I remember how tough that song was to record because I did not know, at the time, if my mom’s cancer was going to be terminal. So, there were so many emotions going into that song, even though I did not write it. I had a deep connection with that song, and I can remember sitting in the studio, tracking it, and crying because I was like, ‘Man. I could be singing this song a year from now about my mom.’
I’m so sorry you went through that. So, how is your mom doing now?
Not to be negative, but a year after that, my mom passed away. But, it was like, a lot of meaningful things happened right after. I was scheduled to play a benefit show called ‘Concert For A Cure.’ I played that show the next day because I thought, ‘What better way to celebrate my mom’s life, go to this thing and say ‘Screw you cancer,’ and celebrate people who have beaten cancer.’ But, at the show, they wanted me to play, ‘Love Em While You Can.’ I could not do it. I was like, ‘If I go up there and try to sing that song, I am going to be an absolute basket case.’ So, not many people know that story about that song because I do not get the opportunity to share it too often. I have a super big connection with that song. And, a lot of people also like it because they can identify with losing a loved one. And they know that while they are here, they need to love those close to them because you never know what could happen.
Have any fans come forward to say ‘Love Em While You Can’ has helped them in any way?
I have only played that song a few times for small-scale performances. Those types of settings are real personable. So after you get done playing, you hang out and talk with people, and they are like, ‘Wow. I have been through this. I lost my family member.’ So, there have been multiple stories like that. It is always a special thing to hear a story like that or get a direct message from somebody who goes, ‘Hey, I listened to your song, and I just wanted to tell you that I lost my mom or I lost my dad, and it touched me and helped me get through that moment.’ It’s like you never anticipate that happening, so it’s cool to hear their stories.
Do you have a favorite song on your EP?
There is a song on there called ‘Bring It Back,’ and it is probably my favorite. I love to play it in a live setting. I always love the energy that it has. It is kind of like a little bit of rock and a little bit of country. The writing process with that song was with a well-known writer. He is an older gentleman that wrote a lot of songs that I grew up listening to. Through a mutual friend, we set up a writing session. So, he invited Joe and me down to Alabama for a writer’s round and a benefit. We went down there a weekend to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and I got to hear these guys perform Jason Aldean, Kenney Chesney, and Travis Tritt songs that they had written. They call themselves retired now, but these were songs I have heard my whole life. The next day, we got to write with Walt Aldridge, and ‘Bring It Back’ was the song. I think we wrote like two or three songs that day, but that one was one we were excited about. So not only do I like that song, but it also has that whole story for me personally behind it.
“Same Boat” seems to speak to the current time. How did that song come about?
‘Same Boat’ was written before COVID-19. So, we put a lyric video and some different things out. That song did not go to radio, but it was written about life in general because we all have stuff we are going through. Initially, that song started with this idea of the social media world, where it is like, all you see is everyone being happy, beautiful, and having this wonderful life, and that is not realistic. Not everybody is like that. Everybody has their ups and downs. At the end of the day, whether you are looking at your favorite actor or musician, or your best friend, we all have stuff that we go through, and we are all the same, and we are all in the same boat. We might not all be in the same boat all the time, but there are times when we are all at the same level in our life. So it was a fun song with a serious message to it.
Why did you choose to have nine songs for this EP?
I knew people wanted new music. So, I was like, ‘I do not want to give them five songs on an EP that they have already heard or already have access to.’ When we were trying to pick maybe two or three more songs to put on it, we thought, ‘Well, I don’t think that is enough. It is not fair to people who want new music.’ So, I was like, ‘Let’s put all the stuff that we have on there.’ So, all of the songs that we’ve recorded are on there. I have some other songs that have not been recorded yet. But it was like, ‘Why don’t we just give them everything that we’re ready for!’ There wasn’t a song that I wanted to save because the writing process is fun. Also, I’m starting to get songs pitched to me more than I was two years ago. So it was like, ‘What’s the sense in holding back some of these songs when they’re already recorded and ready to go?’
What should fans expect from you next?
I have shows on the books for 2021, but it’s all in a contingency of what’s going on. I would love to say that we’re going to be out there, and I have a bunch of shows, but the EP is drawing in all the virtual stuff. I have been doing ‘Instagram Lives’ as well. So those are always happening. It’s just a weird time. Usually, when you have an EP out, you promote it, you’re going out and hitting the road, and trying to get yourself out there. Nowadays, everybody’s like, ‘What are we going to do? We’ve got to rethink all of this.’
What adjustments have you had to make during your musical process while in quarantine?
My studio stuff has not changed much because of the way that our studio is set-up. I do most of my recording in isolation. Joe and I have been in close contact about what we do in our personal lives every day and stuff like that. So we choose to be around each other pretty often. We still stay smart about it, though. When we are in a room together, we try to make sure we are far enough away from each other. For me, I would say the biggest change has been the shows getting canceled. It has been weird. Also, being transferred over to social media stuff, which I have grown to like, but there is still a disconnect and a lack of interaction. For me, my biggest asset of this whole journey has been building relationships, whether it’s with someone who is running a radio station or just someone from the town that I’m playing for that I get to talk to that night.
Aside from music, what other hobbies have you picked up while in quarantine?
I have not picked up anything extra. But, I love fishing and hunting and stuff like that, hiking and getting into the outdoors. This crazy weird time has sort of lent its way to that. I have still been able to do a lot of the things I love. I have also been able to do a lot more. When you are on the road and doing a radio tour and playing shows, it is hard to squeeze those things in. So, during this time, it’s nice to be able to leave the house, take a hike, and know that I have to be back at home to do a live Instagram or video. So, I feel like I’m taking full advantage of doing what I love outside of music because I know, at some point, it’s going to get back to me being busy on the road and not being able to fit that in.
Should fans expect a full-length album from you in 2021?
We have not talked about an album yet for 2021. I am sure it is possible. When this whole pandemic first happened, I was very much like, ‘When will this go back to normal? When will I get to do this or that?’ I have learned and accepted that while the end may be in sight, none of us know, so I’m just looking not as far ahead and just focusing on the now and a month or two out.
Fans can keep up with Rayne Johnson on Instagram.