Shawn Johnson

COM grad makes opry tour

A borrowed Garth Brooks CD ignited in Shawn Johnson, then in eighth-grade, a passion for the sound of country.

Two decades later, the melange of fiddle, steel guitar and stories still captivates him. Now, however, instead of jamming to a CD track, he harmonizes with live bands at oprys across the state and has previously performed at venues such as the Double E Stage at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

By turns upbeat and soulful, Johnson has not always been at ease vocally. During the first years of his life, Johnson struggled to speak.

Diagnosed at age two with a malfunctioning tongue muscle, Johnson attended four years of speech therapy. With the help of his speech therapist, he learned to compensate and soon began harmonizing with the radio in the car.

In high school at his family’s urging, Johnson joined the choir. He eventually advanced to the school’s a cappella choir and made the state Future Farmers of America chorus for three years and the national Future Famers of America chorus.

At one performance at Texas City High School, he met COM music professor Dr. James Heffel, who introduced him to the COM music program. After high school graduation he enrolled in the two-year associate degree program.

“When I came here from high school, my voice hadn’t really matured,” Johnson said. “I owe a lot to Dr. Heffel.”

After four levels of music theory with professor Sparky Koerner and other music classes, he became proficient in playing the piano, but vocal performance remains his true calling.

“I found out quickly that what you hear on the radio isn’t what a music degree is,” said Johnson, who earned an associate degree in 2001. “There’s sight singing and ear training and general classes. People think that when you major in music it’s easy, but it’s not.”

While a student at COM, he regaled audiences with his distinctive country style during concerts with Heffel accompanying on the piano.

A VHS tape including these and other performances gave Johnson his break into the opry circuit. A neighbor delivered the tape to the Alvin Opry, and Johnson received a call back to audition.

He began singing on weekends at the Alvin Opry and has considered the center his home base ever since.

While he has performed across the state and released two CDs, he recently returned to perform again with Heffel, this time in the Mainland Singers, a vocal group open to COM students and community members. The group performs a lively blend of jazz, classics and Broadway melodies such as “Les Miserables.”

Whether performing in a group or solo, Johnson feels the thrill of a live performance.

“There’s really no feeling in the world like being on stage,” said Johnson. “It’s an ultimate rush.”

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