By Brian Ives
Michael Ray made a huge splash this summer with his single “Kiss You In the Morning.” It seemed to land him country music’s fast track to stardom overnight, but of course, no one really becomes a star that quickly. For Ray, it’s been a long climb, starting when he was five or six, joining his family band on stage; that’s when he caught the bug, and he’s had it ever since.
He started playing music seriously in high school (as he discusses in this interview), and got a bit of national exposure via a TV show The Next, which featured John Rich of Big & Rich; he was that show’s winner, and has since co-written with Rich. Now, he’s released his self-titled debut, and is touring this fall with Kip Moore.
We had a good long time for our interview with Ray, which was nice. Pretty soon, his time may be more limited as his star rises. So we figured we’d take the time to get to know him and learn what makes him tick.
Members of your family played in local bands; clearly you wanted to take your music career out of your town and play to bigger audiences.
I’m from a town called Eustis, Florida, and my family had a band. It was like the redneck Partridge Family. My grandfather played lead [guitar]; my dad sang lead and played rhythm; my uncle played bass, sang harmony; my cousin played drums; my other cousin sang as well.
They were playing from before I was born, they played all through Florida. They would do festivals or community centers or private parties, whatever it was. So they brought me on stage when I was a little kid, like five or six, holding a little fake guitar.
And then they kind of dispersed, families and jobs and everything started coming in. But my grandfather, he continued to play, so about age nine was when I started actually really learning how to play guitar and playing songs, and I’d go and play with groups that he was playing with three or four nights a week since I was nine.
Was it original material?
No: all covers, all the classic country stuff. That was my first taste in music was classic country. I was raised on Earl Thomas Conley, Porter Wagoner, Bobby Bare, Kitty Wells, Patsy Kline, Waylon [Jennings] and [Merle] Haggard. So that was my first batch of covers I learned.
The first song I ever learned was “Sing Me Back Home,” a Merle Haggard song. Soon after that, I learned a song by Alabama called “Lady Down on Love.” So all the classic stuff was my first real taste of music.
Have you ever gotten to meet any of the artists you were brought up on?
Yeah, well, I’ve been able to do some shows with Alabama, and once, I just happened to be playing this festival that Haggard was playing.
So we rushed over there and saw Haggard’s set and were able to stand like right behind his band. The Oak Ridge Boys played just before him, so they were sitting there watching him, and I’m going, “Holy crap, that’s the Oak Ridge Boys and Merle Haggard!” We were right in the backstage area, so it was really—I never met Haggard, but at least I got to see him live.
What did you think of his performance?
It was intimidating just watching him. He’s got more swag than anybody trying to right now. He just walks out on stage and puts a guitar on and sings all these iconic hits.
So when you get to do stuff like watch Merle Haggard, do you take photos from the stage and send it to your family?
I was just taking videos of Haggard, man, and sending them to my dad. I was like, “Dude, we’re on freaking stage watching Merle freaking Haggard!”
So when did you start playing seriously?
I just started doing an acoustic thing around the Central Florida area in high school. After high school, I started traveling back and forth to Nashville, with a buddy of mine who was always writing songs. So we’re trying to figure out how to break into the Nashville scene. Like, exactly what is the recipe to be a singer and songwriter in town? And so I started putting a band together. I wanted a solo career, but I wanted a band.
I’m a product of the nineties, so I grew up on the punk rock days of Simple Plan and Good Charlotte and Green Day, and I loved the “band” feel of things. So I wanted to have a band that was tight, so I slowly started finding groups of guys… three of those guys been with me since day one; they’re still with me now.
How did you end up working with John Rich (of Big & Rich)?
John Rich, I met him through this TV show that kind of came out of nowhere called The Next. I was on the road and we were pulling the van into this hotel after sound check. My manager called me and told me something about the show and that John was part of it, Nelly and a few others.
I’ve always been a Big and Rich fan and a big fan of John as a songwriter and an entertainer and singer. I was like, “Yeah, man, let’s do it. Why not? It’s not gonna hurt anything; I’m not doing anything anyway right now, so let’s do it.”
And I ended up winning the show, and me and John have been buddies ever since, and we co-write [songs], and I just saw him a couple weeks ago. Actually, I co-wrote their new single, “Run Away with You” with him, so I’ve built a lasting friendship with him. I also did that song for my record.
John and I write really well together, and really fast. When you’re writing songs, sometimes you connect with someone really quick, sometimes you might not, sometimes it just takes you a little bit.
But with John and I, it’s always like, we spend more time hanging out longer than writing the song. And we just try to write great songs, the best one we can that day. And I’ve got two on the record, including “Run Away With You.”
Is there anything that hasn’t been released?
There’s about three that haven’t come out yet.
Where will the unreleased material go?
I don’t know, man. Hopefully it might be my next record; it might be the next Big and Rich record; it might be somebody else, I don’t know.
You wrote a song for Gary Allan; are you a fan of his?
Yeah, Gary Allan I heard for the first time when my parents were getting divorced, and my dad was dropping me off at my mom’s house, and “It Would Be You” was the song that came on the radio. Gary Allan bridged what I grew up on, classic country, with this cool music that I hadn’t heard before this, like a Buck Owens California type thing. And I was just “Man, this is awesome.”
And then my dad bought me his record, and from that point on, man, I studied every Gary Allan record. And I just loved how every one of his records is like stages of his life. He just took you on the ride with him, and it was sad, but he was honest about it. I think he made some of the best records there is.
His song “Best I Ever Had” is so personal to him, but it was written by someone else, which is pretty amazing.
Yeah. That’s the great thing about Nashville — one of the many great things — the songwriters. I mean right now, at this moment, there’s people writing songs. Somebody’s writing a song right now that might be the song that makes my second record huge, or it might be the next Kenny Chesney single, or it could be that song that’s gonna change that guy or girl’s life that’s moving into town right now with nothing, and they don’t even know it. Nashville’s got the best songwriters.
If you weren’t a recording artist, would you be happy working as a songwriter?
Yeah, I love writing songs. I have songs that are gonna be on other people’s records next year. Whenever I write, I just try to write the best songs that I can as a songwriter, and then as an artist I wanna make the best record I can make, and whether I write those songs or not, as long as I feel like I make the best record that I can make for the fans, that’s my job and that’s all I care about.
I can completely see myself, if I didn’t want to be an artist, writing songs. I love it. I love the idea of creating something out of pretty much nothing, just an idea or just a melody or one word or whatever it might be.
So I love the songwriting side of it and hopefully I’ll continue to have cuts on other people’s records.
So what made you decide that you were going to try to do this professionally?
I think I always wanted something bigger. I wanted to chase after something more than just playing at the bars through high school or whatever it was. I was very fortunate to be in a family that, not only did they support this dream, they encouraged it.
My dad would tell me, he was like, “Dude, if you get a job, you’re gonna buy a truck and a boat, and the next thing you know, you’re gonna have to pay for this, and you’re never gonna move.”
If that hadn’t worked out, would you still be playing bars?
Oh, if this didn’t work out I’d definitely still be playing bars. But yeah, the end goal wasn’t just to play a bunch of covers. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what somebody else wants to do. There’s a lot of people out there and that’s what they love, but I personally wanted to move and give it all a shot.