For Michael Ray, the phrase “higher education” doesn’t necessarily refer to four years at a university that culminates in a college degree.
It’s more about life’s biggest, most world-altering lessons — the often-painful ways a person learns them, and the emotional growth spurts they provide. On every level, those big lessons have been a hallmark of the past couple of years in Ray’s personal life, and they’re also the cornerstones of his new EP, Higher Education, which arrives on Friday (Aug. 27.)
“I think this whole EP is truly pieces of me,” the singer tells Country Now. “Even the songs that I didn’t have a hand in writing. We were very purposeful in what we cut.”
From start to finish, Higher Education’s track list is an unvarnished look at Ray’s blue-collar raising and rough-and-ready moral code; he’ll cop to the fact that he’s been known to start a bar fight and bum a cigarette or two, but he’s still proud to stand by the quality of his character and the goodness of his heart. He is, as he sings in the diaristic “Just the Way I Am,” a “poor man’s Hemingway, back in the woods” who’s not afraid to “Hug your neck, say ‘I love ya,’ ‘stead of sayin’ goodbye.”
More than ever, in this collection, Ray is comfortable enough to present himself to listeners without smoothing out the rough spots. Its songs are among the most personal and intimate he’s ever recorded, and they detail some of the most painful parts of life from the last couple of years. Still, there’s one big life lesson that doesn’t make an appearance on the project, at least not directly: His mid-2020 divorce from fellow country artist Carly Pearce.
Fans can be forgiven for scrutinizing Higher Education for clues as to what went wrong in Ray’s marriage. After all, he and Pearce had one of the most public marriages — and divorces in the past few years of the genre, and at least from the outside, their love story seemed to turn from fairy tale-esque to frigid practically overnight. Pearce filed for divorce last July, just eight months after their wedding, and much of the music she has since released has revolved around their split and the grieving process she faced afterwards.
But Ray says he wanted to avoid singing directly about his divorce on Higher Education. “It’s a part of my life that I don’t want to go back to. I don’t want to relive it every night onstage,” he explains. “I think it’s a part [of my life] that made me grow a lot. I think you face a fork in the road when you face something like that…and I think is the record is the record of the growth of that time.
“When you hit a bottom like that, you gotta let it beat you or you gotta come out stronger,” he clarifies. “Hopefully on this record, people find songs that make them wanna come out of [hard situations] stronger.”
In other words, Ray’s spotlight is on how his breakup shaped and changed him — not on the details of the divorce itself. He certainly counts it as one of the hard lessons handed to him over the past year, but on this album, the event itself shows up only indirectly, in terms of how it taught him to be more authentic and honest in his songwriting.
For example, there’s “Picture,” one of the tracks Ray put out ahead of Higher Education’s release, which he describes as “definitely the most personal song I’ve ever written.”
The song’s lyrics reflects on how loved ones live on in pictures after they die, and all the memories made over the course of their lives can eventually be boiled down into a few photographs. Ray — who co-wrote the song with Hardy and David Garcia — filled in the verses with real details from his own life, naming his younger sister Brittany in the first verse as well as his uncle Terry, who had just died when the song was written.
“Actually, we wrote it the day of my uncle Terry’s funeral. So when we were writing the song, it was very important to me to make it a celebration of life,” the singer says. “I know a lot of us hate taking pictures. You know, the family gatherings, with the mom getting everybody together…but we wanted it to kind of be that reminder of, you know, ‘Just take the picture.’ One day you’ll look back on it. Hopefully it won’t be for years and years and years. But one day, you might get that call and lose somebody.”
The same day he wrote the song, Ray left to attend his uncle’s viewing, and afterwards, he got a chance to play “Picture” for his family. “Hardy and David Garcia were kind enough to get a work tape done very fast so I could play it for my family that night,” he says. “I’m very grateful to them for doing that…so I got to play it for my dad, my aunt, my cousins, everybody that was at my dad’s house after the viewing. It was emotional, for sure.”
Ray’s collaborators were a big part of making Higher Education; not only did they write some of his most personal material to date with them, but on the songs on the album he didn’t write, he found himself gravitating towards songwriters who shared elements of his own upbringing, values and formative experiences. In a sense, they were the people who had the same kinds of “higher education” credentials that he did: A blue-collar, rural upbringing, a sense of humor and a big heart for faith and family.
That’s exemplified in the title song, in which Ray rolled a massive group of friends and idols — Kid Rock, Billy Gibbons, Lee Brice and Tim Montana — onto the track, celebrating each of their musical strengths and personalities in the parts they contributed to the song.
And it’s even more true in “Didn’t Know I Was Country,” which Ray co-wrote with Taylor Phillips and Ashley Gorley as an ode to his country upbringing — and how he didn’t realize until he got much older that not everyone was raised that way.
“That song — this whole record, really — I really felt confident that I could turn it in to somebody who didn’t know me and had never heard of me, and say, ‘Hey, this is Michael Ray and this is what my music is about,’” he says. While writing “Didn’t Know I Was Country,” the singer says, he started thinking about what kind of album he would want to leave behind, if he knew he’d never get the chance to make another one. Going through Higher Education with that lens in mind, song for song, he knows it’s his favorite and truest project to date.
“This record is just truly a product of me getting better with myself and coming through everything we went through with the pandemic, personally and professionally,” he notes. “There was a lot of this album where I was going, ‘Man, what if that was it? What if that was our last album? Is this one that I’m proud to leave forever?’ And with all of that combined, it makes me really proud. I can’t wait for people to hear this whole new sound.”