As a new artist, Michael Ray asked Chris Young for advice — and those words of wisdom carried the newcomer through his first radio tour, promoting his breakout single, “Kiss You in the Morning.”
Fueled by that initial burst of popularity Ray’s career is still going strong with hits like “Think a Little Less,” “Get to You,” and “One That Got Way.” Prior to kicking off CMT on Tour in October, Ray dropped by the CMT office to talk about his earliest experiences on the road.
CMT: “Kiss Me in the Morning” was a No. 1 hit right off the bat. What do you remember about that time in your career?
MR: That was the weirdest time of my life, I think. We were on radio tour, we had the single picked. My grandfather — who, as everybody knows, I was very, very close with, he got me into music, the whole thing — passed away two weeks before the song went to radio. And so, emotionally … for me it was like, “Here I am, living the dream, getting my shot.” I’m up at bat, I’m getting my chance to hit the ball on this date. You know, everything else is going great, and then your whole world crumbles.
But what was kind of cool was he instilled such a strong work ethic. Everybody in our family just knew how he felt about them. When he passed away, I had a show the next day in Orlando, at the House of Blues. All these radio guys were coming, it was my big show. It was literally the worst thing that could’ve happened at this moment in time. But everything that he’d instilled in me and my family, we carried that on. And I got a chance to honor him during that show.
And I didn’t stop radio tour. It kind of changed for me. It was like, now I’m going to be able to talk about him and spread his legacy. It gave me motivation. And to debut on the Opry a couple of months later was a dream of mine. To then be on the verge, to see “Kiss You in the Morning” break records as far as adds go, and for it to hit No. 1. … All these things that happened during that time, I know how fortunate I was, and how blessed I was to have that.
You mentioned work ethic. As a new artist, you have to have it, or you just don’t get anywhere. Did you get that from your grandfather? Or where did you acquire that work ethic?
My whole family. I grew up with strong men and women, both sides. My grandmother owned her own businesses. My grandmother was a firefighter. My grandfather was a firefighter. My dad was a paramedic-firefighter. My mom always worked. My sisters, all three of them, always worked their asses off. Nothing was ever handed to anybody. What they got, they’d worked their butts off for.
Two things for me, now, that I reflect on as far as my work ethic goes, is what they instilled in me and what I saw them do in their times when they probably didn’t feel like going in or giving it their all, but they always did. But also that I’m living my dream. … My family had a band, and so it was something that they all wanted to do. I feel like now I’ve got this opportunity to tell my story, and to tell their story with me, and that gives me motivation on the days where you just have to dig deep to find it.
At that point in your career, everyone you meet is getting their first impression of you.
I got told probably some of the best advice — and it was so simple. I was with Chris Young and we were hanging out. He asked when I was going on radio tour. I told him, “Man, we’re leaving in January. So have you got any words of advice?” And he goes, “Man, just go onto radio tour with the feeling that you get to be on radio tour.” And know that you’ve worked your whole life for this moment. This is your moment. So everything’s a first impression.
You’re meeting all these new people, and you’re doing what everybody’s done. There’s not a country artist that hasn’t gone that route, no matter how big or how small their career was. Man, just that little saying, “You get to be on radio tour.” I kept that with me the whole time. And he said, “If you do it right, if you make the right connection with the right song, then you won’t have to do it like that again.”
I had a blast on radio tour. It’s tiring and it’s a lot of work but I loved meeting new people. I loved that whole aspect of it, so that was something that was fun for me. And I don’t know if Chris remembers even telling me that, but that little saying kept me motivated and kept me, every day, going, “Don’t show if you’re tired, because this is a first impression, meeting this person.” It meant a lot.
CMT: You’re an artist who really loves to meet your fans. Why is it so important, do you think, as a country artist to be accessible?
It’s important because country music fans dive in early. When they dive in, they dive in one hundred percent. If they like, you know, “Kiss You in the Morning,” they’re going to dive into the whole album. They grow with you. I think country music is a lifestyle. It’s honest. It’s cut from the same cloth here, and we just want to sing about the parties, sing about the heartbreak. And let us all just come together and be together.
I think in country music, there’s such a cool connection with the fans, and the artists, and a real one-on-one thing. I can’t speak for other genres, but I just don’t see it in other genres like this, and I think them getting to meet you and getting to know you — even if it’s just for a little bit of time — you take away something special. They take away something special. And they have a big hand in your career, so I think it’s cool when you can, and you have the time, to make a little bit of time to say thank you, and get to know them, and let them get to know you a little more.