On Friday (Sept. 25), you’ll be able to hear a new Michael Ray song “Whiskey & Rain.” You’ll also be able to hear a new Michael Ray, period.
While his first two hit albums Michael Ray in 2015 and Amos in 2018 brought him gold-certified songs and three No. 1 singles, Ray was really just getting started. So now, with this new single leading off his forthcoming third album, he is ready to let the world in on the kid in Eustis, Florida practicing guitar in his bedroom.
When I had the chance to listen to a handful of the music — the Josh Thompson and Jesse Frasure-penned “Whiskey & Rain,” plus “Pictures” and “Holy Water” — my love for country music, which can wax and wane from time to time, was at an all-time high. So when I got Ray on the phone, we got to the bottom of why these new songs sounds so blessedly old.
CMT.com: This music feels vintage, in the very best way. I know artists all have their old-school influences, but you managed to actually recreate some of that magic. How did you pull that off?
Ray: A lot of it is guitar tone. Just that Telecaster sound you hear in “Whiskey & Rain.” I pulled a lot of inspiration from that older era of country music, so it’s those guitar tones that have a nostalgic sound. And then you add fiddle to that and you just can’t go wrong in a country song. I think it just enhances it. The fiddle’s one of the main things in every song.
And then there’s the idea of the story song, right? But people use that word liberally and ambiguously, because it could mean there is a story behind the song or a story that the song tells. Do you have a steadfast and bona fide definition of a story song?
I think on songs like “Holy Water,” it is telling the story of my grandparents being in the moonshine business, but the great thing about country music is that you can write a story about your life and then record that song, but it’s still so broad that even though it might be about this one thing, so many people hear it in different ways depending on what they’re going through.
It must help you when you’re singing a song to know the story behind it by heart.
So true. Anytime you can connect to the lyrics in a song and you’re just being honest and real, fans know that. They feel that. When you have songs where you can really dig down and be authentic, that’s when you sing those lyrics differently. You enunciate differently. Like you’re saying, “This is mine and this is my story.”
So all of the 90s country vibes I’m hearing: was that intentional or just the fortuitous influence coming out of you?
It’s what I was raised on. I studied it. I am a student of that writing and those vocals. So this record is me going in with the intention of: this is what I want to do. It’s what I’m naturally gonna gravitate towards. I’m intentional with what I’m doing because it’s what comes naturally to me.
What do you think it is about all that music making a comeback and being somewhat reimagined?
Some of it has to do with the nostalgia of it. But the biggest thing is that sonically, that music had instruments placed where they were supposed to be placed. It’s not just a big wall of sound. That can happen when things get over-produced sometimes. So with that plus the honesty in the lyrics — and the conversations in the songs when it felt they were talking to you — makes your body and mind go back to those times. And who doesn’t want to relive the good memories? A lot of us who grew up on it want to keep it going.
So instead of moving ahead with country music of the future, that might lean a little rock or pop or metal or whatever, you’re taking fans back to country music than just leaned country?
Yes, because that older country is what I listen to still to this day. I tried to pull from a lot the artists who influenced me and inspired and made me want to move to Nashville when I made this record. I was like, “This is the music that made me practice in my room and then move when I thought I had the chance. Why don’t we go back and figure out how we can make that today?”
You’ve mentioned before that Tim McGraw has been one of your biggest influences. Let’s talk about that.
Those old McGraw records, I think, are the best front to back. They are such great bodies of work. I’ve always been a big fan of his — or any artist’s — ability to make records like that. Even though we’re in a singles-driven world, Tim is still putting out quality music that might never make it to radio. Us new artists could take a lot of notes from those artists.
It’s good to hear that you were listening to the full albums and not just the hits. That has to be the best blueprint for making country music this well. And if you are a hardcore fan, you probably have a few favorite McGraw deep cuts.
Easy. “You Had to Be There,” “When She Wakes Up (And Finds Me Gone)”, and “Don’t Make Me Feel at Home.” I mean, yo, “Room No. 10 at the Holiday Inn.” Shit, man. Just so good.
Do you remember the first concert where you felt that way as well?
Garth Brooks at the TD Waterhouse Centre in Orlando in 1998. It was my first concert ever. I was about 10 years old. And he was out there with “Papa Loved Mama,” “Standing Outside the Fire,” and breaking guitars and shit. But what got me was “The Dance.” Just him and his guitar. The place was silent. Dead silent. Either singing along or not talking at all. I was in awe, thinking, “How the (expletive) do I do that?”
It sounds like you think of this next album as the one that will be truly you. Not that Michael Ray and Amos weren’t, but maybe this one is just more so.
I think that’s because, when you get a record deal, you get writes you couldn’t get before and you’re having songs sent to you. You just get so much. And I didn’t have the confidence at the time to stand up and be like, “Hey maybe we should do this.” Everything felt great, but there was something missing. It was about 90 percent. Not 100 percent. And I think that extra 10 percent makes a big difference. Looking back now, it’s put me at this point where I know just what I want to say and just how I want it to sound.
If you had one goal for this new batch of music, what would it be?
I want it to be a big introduction to a lot of people. I made this record for the people dancing in their kitchen, having bonfires, riding back roads. I wanted this record to be for all of that. As if somebody is saying, “You want to really know Michael Ray? Listen to this album.”