“I think for all of us, it’s been a year of seeing things in a different light,” reflects Michael Ray on the phone with Country Now, as he and the rest of the country community approach the end of a difficult year.
Like everyone else, Ray has been affected by the turmoil and tumult of 2020. He’s seen his tour plans get scrapped amid COVID-19 shutdowns; he’s reorganized schedules and adjusted to new, virtual methods of co-writing songs.
And on a personal level, 2020 hasn’t gone according to plan either. This summer, the singer got a divorce from fellow artist Carly Pearce after just eight months of marriage and a relationship that has been highly public ever since they announced that they were a couple in August of 2018.
But in the midst of the unanticipated downtime that comes along with a tour calendar wiped clean, it’s also been a time for reflection, and looking at the bigger picture. When you’re forced to take a step back out of the daily grind, the constant running from radio interview to writing session to show, you can start thinking about the big, important tenets of your career, and what you want your life to look like in five years. That’s true for anyone affected by COVID-19 shutdowns, and it’s certainly true for Ray, too.
“A lot of, ‘Okay, well, what do we really want? What are we really going after? Have I been able to do what I feel is my best foot forward?’” The singer continues.
Ray has said before that classic country music and ‘90s country is the backbone of what he loves about the genre. He’s always wanted to ensure that the songs he puts out reflect how important that style of music is to him. And in 2020, he doubled down, releasing “Whiskey and Rain” as the first single off of an as-yet unannounced next musical chapter.
From its production to its focus on real instruments to its boozy, heartbroken subject matter, “Whiskey and Rain” is a study in the kind of classic country that Ray cites as his favorite. Though Ray’s a talented and prolific songwriter, this was actually an outside cut from acclaimed Nashville hitmakers Josh Thompson and Jesse Frasure.
“I already had the direction I wanted to go, knew that I kind of wanted to get back to my roots and put out stuff that I felt like it was time to put out. And fortunately, [Frasure and Thompson] were like, ‘Hey, I think we’ve got something that fits,’” Ray remembers.
“And I was like, ‘Oh my God, well I didn’t write this, but this is exactly the direction,” the singer continues. “This embodies everything I’m wanting in this album.”
So much so, in fact, that Ray and his team decided “Whiskey and Rain” would make a great first single even before he was done writing and gathering the batch of songs that will eventually go on to make up his new project.
He’s still writing, and has been throughout the pandemic, but the singer stresses that “Whiskey and Rain” won’t likely be the only outside cut on his album. When he writes a song, he explains, he “pitches” it to his own album just like any other songwriter would, but he knows exactly how talented the Nashville songwriting community is. Sometimes, even if he’s looking for a very specific kind of song, “these songwriters beat me to it,” he adds with a chuckle.
But other songs on the project, Ray goes on to say, will touch on some specific situations from his own life, and he had to write those.
“There are gonna be a couple songs on this record that I wrote first, and that only I can sing, because they’re pretty autobiographical,” he allows.
As the pandemic wears on, and in the wake of his divorce, Ray has continued to find clarity in the kind of music he wants to make. But his influences on the record come from the people that he surrounds himself with, too. In addition to tapping star songwriters to help him whittle down the batch of songs that best represent his vision, he’s working with a new-to-him producer, Ross Copperman, on his next album.
He’s also been spending a lot of time in his Florida hometown, getting back to his roots personally as well as musically.
“This year, where I get my peace and where I get my head straight is when I go back home and see everybody,” Ray explains. “…Obviously, the people I could see, with the restrictions and things. I’ve done a lot of driving to Florida.
“I’ve tried to stay away from airplanes, to be able to see my dad and mom. But yeah, you know, I think I just really focused on getting back to my roots and going back home a lot, and listening to a lot of that music,” he continues.
That Florida influence will feed into his next album, too, Ray points out. Classic country has always been deeply rooted in place, so much so that different geographical areas have their own regional inflections. You can hear the Bakersfield sound from the likes of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam and Gram Parsons, with a cohesive style tied to that region of southern California dating back to the late 1950s. Of course, Nashville and Texas have their own distinct brands of country music, too. And perhaps, in Ray’s next chapter, listeners will get a taste of a “Florida sound” that the singer defines by its sonic variety.
“I feel like what’s cool about Florida is that it’s a big melting pot of all different things. You’ve got everything from Tom Petty to John Anderson,” he relates. “You know, Lynyrd [Skynyrd], southern rock — there’s so much music that you can pull from, that we grew up listening to.”
Incorporating those elements into his next musical chapter is simply a way to make his music more authentically his own, Ray goes on to say.
“I really do think that everybody’s gonna hear that come across in this record: About where I’m from. A lot about me, a lot about that music,” he muses. “I think we all pull a little bit of all those artists that came in, that we all grew up listening to.”