How James Johnston’s Debut Album 'Raised Like That' Turned Into A Game-Turning Hit Album

11 October 2023 | 2:39 pm | Christie Eliezer

'Raised Like That' was the fastest-ever debut single by an Australian country singer to reach one million streams. That was just the beginning for James Johnston.

James Johnston with his manager Beau Thomas

James Johnston with his manager Beau Thomas (Source: Supplied)

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James Johnston’s Raised Like That has made chart history for an Australian country music debut album.

Last weekend, it had the highest entry on the ARIA Top 100 with #7, also arriving at #1 on the all-Australian and country charts. It is also literally the largest Australian debut release, with 20 tracks.

Its chart feat highlighted an extraordinary 2.5 years since the release of Johnston’s first single, also titled Raised Like That, to across-the-board support from social media, streaming, radio and festivals.

“I’m now playing to 3,000 people in venues which are next door to pubs where I once played covers with my acoustic guitar, and no one listened,” Johnston recalls. “I’d look at the long queues outside the venue next door and think, ‘That’s me one day’.”

His manager, Beau Thomas of Tobe Artists, adds, “Everything has worked to a carefully worked out strategy. From the start, the idea was to release a new single every three or four months.

“We released ten singles between the first one in July 2021 and when the album dropped. To be honest, we didn't think we’d release the album for another few years. But his career took off quicker than planned.”

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The Johnston/Thomas partnership is one of the notable ones in the local music industry.

They’re total opposites as people but came from similar family backgrounds with a high level of ambition. Both left school wanting to make it in music but took different paths.

Johnston focussed on playing and writing music full-time, doing covers, originals and corporate gigs, funk and rock bands, trying the TV route (Australian Idol in 2009, The X-Factor in 2014) …anything not to have to get a day job to pay the bills. 

Thomas went into retail, ran festivals, venues and radio stations, and managed events.

Their paths crossed in 2015 when Thomas booked James’ cover band to play at a Beef Australia corporate event in Rockhampton in Far North Queensland. In the hours that Thomas picked up Johnston from the airport and set him up for the gig, the musician had rung his parents and told them, “When I do my country music thing, I’m going to get this guy to manage me.”

He started sending Thomas two songs a week. “I shared them with 15 to 20 music industry friends, like programmers for radio stations and festivals. Their feedback was, ‘The songs are good, but they need to get better’.”

Johnston estimated he built up a satchel of 400 to 500 songs. Not surprising. When at home, after a 5 am workout and book read, he drops his little boy off at school and then sits down to write from 8:30 to 5 pm.

Thomas recalls Johnston ringing up excited to say he’d written a song that morning about his life called Raised Like That. With its ode to country values, he thought it perfect to open his festival shows with.

When the manager heard the song, he knew it had to be the first single. “We based James’ career around that song.” 

When the finished track was sent back from Nashville, Johnston heard it when driving to a songwriting session. He felt incredible joy, whoop-whooping in the car and playing it 20 times in a row.

According to ARIA, Raised Like That was the fastest-ever debut single by an Australian country singer to reach one million streams. It was certified platinum in 2023 for sales of 70,000.

What followed were six #1 airplay hits and 54.5 million global streams. He has half a million monthly Spotify listeners and 300,000 followers on TikTok.

He was nominated for gongs at the Queensland Music Awards, the APRAs and a 2023 Rolling Stone Australia Award nominee for Best New Talent.

Johnston’s songs struck a chord with his growing fan base. Nine of them were written by him solo, the others with long-time collaborators Nolan Wynn, producers Michael DeLorenzis and Michael Paynter and fellow artists Kaylee Bell, Jared Porter, Melanie Dyer, and Zac and George, among others.

The songs offer a postcard about country life, like the joy of childhood summers riding dirt bikes and swimming in the creek and the freedom of getting the first car, the importance of family (his wife TaliaRose wrote one song, and his son Koda sings on another) and missing them on the road, and the joy of returning to the NSW mid-north-coast town of Wingham and the family farm.

There are also odes to ‘90s country bands and female artists who inspired the next generation of singer-songwriters. This Land Is Killing Me was written after a late-night desperate call from an old friend.

These themes were enough for dozens of music fans to come up and tell him, “Your story is my story.”

As offers from festivals started to pour in, Johnston and Thomas devised another strategy.

Thomas: “Because of my background of festivals and booking events, the idea was not just to take every opportunity that came to us but to pick and choose what we were going to do and how we were going.”

Throughout 2022, Johnston played 28 festivals and events. CMC Rocks Queensland, as the biggest country music festival in the southern hemisphere, was spotlighted as the place to make a killing. 

To mark his appearance in September 2022, Johnston came up with My People as an anthem to CMC Rocks and for the festival scene.

Johnston: “My People is a song about the spirit of a country music festival! Rolling up in your ute with your best mates to see your favourite bands! 

“I grew up with great artists like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Brooks and Dunn, and I have always wanted a song reminiscent of these artists. 

My People was recorded using a live band in Nashville and includes the iconic elements of fiddle and harmonica found in so many of the great country songs of the 90s.”

Three weeks before CMC, they started to tease My People on TikTok. Thomas estimates by the time of its release, they had exposed it to between 5.5 million and 6 million on the platform. 

Rather than release the single on the traditional Friday, My People came out on a Wednesday.

Thomas: “That was a deliberate strategy. The idea was to deliver the song to fans while they were on their way to CMC or before they got there and still had phone service to download the track from Spotify or Apple Music and listen to it multiple times before James took to the stage at 2 pm on the Sunday.”

Johnston took the place apart. Not only did awed organisers say he drew one of CMC’s biggest-ever daytime crowds, but when he went into My People, thousands were singing the words back at him.

Flushed with success, the pair decided to shoot at the moon again, this time at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, where the country music industry met over ten days in January and, in 2023, drew 40,000 fans each day.

Johnston had not done a ticketed show yet. Rather than play to 300 in a club in his debut at the festival, they decided to go for the largest venue in town and sell 2,000 tickets. This was the Tamworth Regional Entertainment Centre, where only the big-leaguers like Lee Kernaghan and Troy Cassar-Daley played.

It was a bold gambit. But one thousand tickets were snapped up in pre-sales in 56 minutes, with the 2,000-target reached in a few hours two days later.

If that wasn't enough to make Johnston a talk of the town, the next night, Lee Kernaghan asked him to join him at his sell-out show, and two days later, James won two Golden Guitars at the Country Music Awards.

Thomas: “It was so exciting. We went there with the strategy of making a splash, and we did.”

It was a good set-up for the album. Around the time of the album’s release, he kept his name and songs upfront with major festival appearances at the Deni Ute Muster in regional NSW (over 18,000 over the weekend) and his third set at Savannah In The Round in Far North Queensland, which drew 15,000.

Thomas says that despite the rapid rise, there’s still work to do in Australia to expand his fanbase. 

“Let me put it this way. James has 80,000 Spotify listeners in Sydney. Luke Combs, the biggest country artist at the moment, has 380,000 Spotify listeners in Sydney. So, James obviously has a lot more growth in his home territory.”

A “special announcement” will be made on Monday, October 16, for the Australian market.

From next year, the act will be travelling more to the U.S., the U.K. and Europe, where he’s already made his name via streaming services.

Nashville has become a second home, where he’s travelled a number of times to co-write songs.

Nashville-based hit-maker Justin Wantz produced 17 of the album’s 20 tracks, with other credits going to Australia’s Dr Gavin Carfoot and Liam Quinn (Guy Sebastian, Rita Ora) and bluegrass group Bering Strait member Ilya Toshinskiy.

Thomas suns up, “Country music is in a really exciting period at the moment, both in Australia and internationally. It’s a genre that's growing when many others are not.

“James is lucky that his career is entering a genre at a time where is so much room and opportunity. From my point of view, it’ll be an exciting time for any Australian country artist coming behind James.”

James Johnston’s ‘Raised Like That’ is out now.