It’s no secret that country music celebrates the simple things in life. Those everyday American principals like hard work, self-reliance and small-town community. But some artists connect the dots better than others. Singer-songwriter Rayne Johnson, for example, works twice as hard as anyone in the business (literally). And from his home base in Ohio, he’s the very definition an independent spirit.
An emerging star with all the momentum of a freight train, Johnson’s been pulling double duty his entire self-made career, chasing dreams while working full time as a railroad technician by day. But after the organic success of his hit single, “Front Seat,” a new track lies ahead.
That tenderhearted good-guy anthem has racked up more than 65 million streams so far, and in 2019, landed on both the Mediabase/Country Aircheck and Billboard Country Airplay charts – making him one of the only independent artists in more than five years to reach the Top 40. Along with a self-titled EP which debuted in the Top 10 of iTunes’ Country Album Chart – also without the help of a record label – it’s led to a new project filled with new possibilities. But even as Johnson’s hard work pays off, it’s not the stats he cares about most.
“I’m not really a numbers guy,” the down-to-earth hit maker says. “I’m more of a see-it-in-person kind of guy. So for me, going from Ohio to California on tour and seeing people who know the songs? That was the moment that it translated for me. The numbers became real all of a sudden.”
Now signed with Mountain Road Records/Verge Records and pairing his Nashville-outsider mentality with Music City’s best resources, Johnson’s second EP, LOVE, DRUNK OR LONELY, finds him embracing the truth in those numbers: That he’s on a one-way trip toward breakout success. And for an artist so closely tied to his fans and the lifestyle they share, he’s not looking to change too much.
An Ohio native who started singing in church, Johnson thinks of himself as a family man first – and as an avid outdoorsman, he was brought up just like his audience. His deep love of country is paired with a passion for soul-singing R&B, high energy modern pop and the thrill of live performance, something he first discovered in choir but soon took far beyond.
Learning the ropes in a Christian-rock group, Johnson went on to travel the region as the front man of a popular cover band, balancing long nights on stage with early mornings at the rail yard. It was there that he first learned to play guitar, in fact, taught by a co-worker as they waited on trains to come in for service. So when his country career got serious, it seemed natural to keep his job … he just had no idea how far it would go.
Many weekends, Johnson now travels to and from Nashville for songwriting sessions and acoustic gigs, or takes his full band out on the road for coast-to-coast shows. The crowds have gotten bigger as his self-released songs connect on streaming platforms and beyond. Yet all along, he’s never once missed a day of work.
“It’s tough sometimes, and a lot of my friends who work in music tell me they don’t know how I do it, but I feel like it’s never been different,” he says. “There have been moments ever since my teens telling me this is something I really want to do. I really love that interaction between fans and artist.”
His fans love it, too. After “Front Seat” became a hit in 2019, they were flocking to shows around the country. Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson kept the throttle open, releasing that self-titled EP and a series of attention-grabbing singles – ones that played up his country-rock roots and dynamic Midwestern vocal, defined by unbridled energy and a crisp, playful edge. But his next collection LOVE DRUNK OR LONELY, goes farther, building boldly on that foundation.
Produced by Mark Liggett and Jerry Lane, six fresh tracks were chosen from Nashville’s finest writers (including longtime creative partner, Joe Jordan), as the emerging star mixed his tried-and-true with something new. Country perspectives form the core, with Johnson exploring how to live, love and have fun in timeless terms. But he’s also embracing the soul of his worship-leading background, the funky strut of his R&B favorites and the undeniable intensity of modern pop. It ends up placing Johnson right in the heart of the new-country moment, while remaining tied to his raucous live shows.
“It’s just about continuation and growing, spreading the web a little farther,” he explains. “We wanted to get a little outside of what we did last time…. But man, these songs are really perfect for the way I perform.”
Tracks like the chest-thumping weekend rocker “Country Up” showcase Johnson’s euphoric live style – and also his connection to the country life. “There’s just so much in that song that I do all the time with my buddies,” he says of the fiddle-laced anthem. “The only line we changed was switching out Bud Light – it had to be Busch Light for me!”
But while that cans-in-the-air jam shows where Johnson’s been, “Love Drunk or Lonely” pushes him forward. Flashing some sensual R&B charisma and showcasing his vocal skill, the title track mixes uptempo country pop and late-night soul – a hook-up anthem with a tender heart.
“The natural vibe automatically drew me in,” he says, speaking into the track’s irresistible groove. “Those times when you’re attracted to somebody, but you don’t know exactly where you stand – it’s like, ‘We don’t really know how we feel yet, but let’s try to figure it out.’”
Elsewhere, “Own It” gets lost in the time warp of a neon-‘80s daydream, full of flirtatious sensitivity and praising empowered womanhood. “Somebody With a Broken Heart” taps deeper into Johnson’s love of a rowdy Saturday night, mixing twang rock with a re-bounding theme. “That’s What Love Does” paints a serene picture of romantic devotion. And with a sun-drunk cover of Sam Hunt’s “Vacation,” Johnson nods to the community support still driving his rise, enlisting his real-life buddies for hysterically fun studio session.
It’s all evidence of a fresh talent coming into his own, and leaning on those basic values which made it happen. Looking forward, you can bet this self-made star will keep doing what he knows – working hard, going his own way and celebrating his roots … not to mention loving every minute. But with exciting things on the horizon, his small-town world is getting bigger every day.
“I feel like this is taking another step,” Johnson says. “We’re not staying on the same playing field, we’re going to the next level.”