by Jessica Nicholson
Michael Ray earned his first No. 1 hit with “Kiss You In The Morning,” and went on to prove he’s equally adept at smooth, pop-inflected confections like “Think A Little Less,” and heartbreak-soaked ballads like “Her World Or Mine.”
Over the past year, he’s been hard at work writing and recording his follow-up to 2018’s Amos, which he titled after his late grandfather, the inspiration for the majority of the tracks on that album. In his new music, Michael Ray is leaning hard into the ‘80s and ‘90s country sounds he was raised on, starting with his barroom-ready new single, “Whiskey And Rain.”
He recently chatted with CMT about the new album, how he’s been coping with life off the road, and making the video for “Whiskey And Rain.”
Jesse Frasure and Josh Thompson wrote “Whiskey And Rain.” How did you come across it?
We were writing for this record, and I already knew I wanted to really go back to a lot of my roots and dive into what I moved to Nashville to do. Jesse and my manager Buffy [Cooper] were in Florida together and Jesse said, “I wrote this song with Josh Thompson. I think it might work for you guys.” Buffy heard it and she didn’t even call me about it. She just immediately put the song on hold.
We recorded “Whiskey And Rain” during quarantine, so everybody was in different places to record it. But you still start hearing the magic of the song while you are in the studio. We knew it was the right lead single for this next album.
What was it about “Whiskey And Rain” in particular that drew you to the song?
It was a lot. I fell in love with the lyrics. The melody reminded me of Ronnie Milsap meets Dwight Yoakam, the Bakersfield feel that I grew up with, reminded me of Haggard and Gary Allan. It embodied everything that I want this record to be. I love the fact that it’s a feel-good, catchy melody and it’s just about how sometimes you got to go through stuff and tomorrow’s a new day. We had it on hold immediately, even though it was, I think, eight months before we were able to get a way to [record] it.
How far along are you in the album-making process?
We have seven songs recorded now. We’re in the middle of discussing when we’re going back in to record more. There’s discussion an EP, discussion of an album. There are some songs I’ve written that we will go back in and record. We’re bout midway through this record, and we’re at a point where we can be a little bit more specific with what we’re needing. I’m just ready to play these songs live. This is the first time I’ve released a single and not ever played it live. So that was a little weird. Sometimes you can kind of gauge what the reaction will be to a song because you’ve played it live a couple of times. So we just really had to rely on our gut on a lot of these.
How would you describe this album, as compared to your last?
This record, I feel so me on this album. I’ve learned a lot, learned to trust my gut with things that I should have went with maybe before, but I didn’t at the time. This whole process feels different; it’s just felt easy. I feel that people will listen to this album and know me a whole lot better. We’ve been very, very picky on the songs that we’ve cut. I go back and listen to those old albums when we’re making a new record and see how far we’ve grown. I think I’ll be able to compare those two albums with this next record and see massive growth.
Is there a song you wrote for the upcoming album that you are particularly proud of?
There’s a song called “Picture” on this record that I wrote the day of my uncle’s viewing. He passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack in June. I had a writing appointment with HARDY and David Garcia and didn’t move it for some reason. I flew down to Florida, was with my family. That night before, we were going through photos like you do. Getting things together, going through emotions, the whole thing. And my buddy Ryan said, “Man, isn’t it weird that one day we’ll all just be pictures that people go through?” It was about two in the morning, and I remember just immediately grabbing whatever I had closest to me to write this down on.
It’s my most personal song I’ve had a hand in writing. It’s a song I’m very grateful that HARDY and David wrote it with me. And I cannot wait for the world to hear the song. Life goes by fast. People are here, and the next, you’re getting that call, and they’re gone.
The video for “Whiskey and Rain” is a different take on the typical breakup song video. It’s set in a bar, but your character winds up learning the love stories—good and bad—of everyone else that’s in the bar with him.
Sean Hagwell, the director, he’s a genius. He had this incredible story of showing all different sides of love. There’s the guy going through a questionable time, maybe him and his wife aren’t really making it or are on the rocks, then there’s young love, and the couple that just got married, to meeting a lady who met her husband at that bar and he had passed away. We just wanted to touch on all different sides of it, instead of it just being a video about “guy loses girl, guy goes to bar, guy gets drunk, leaves.”
Where did you film this video?
We filmed it in Clarksville, Tennessee, in an abandoned building. I think it was going to be torn down the day after. So that whole bar scene—there was nothing there in this building. That was all the team, all the crew, the men and women who overnight, turned it into a ’90s honky-tonk bar. We did a photo shoot there the day before and filmed a lot of content.
And the rain scene was actual, pouring down rain and lightning. We didn’t have to use too much of the man-made rain—God lent us enough to be able to shoot. We shot what ended up being four videos and a photo shoot in two days. One of those days was a 17-hour day, so I give mad props to the crew.
What else have you been doing during quarantine? Have you picked up any new hobbies?
I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff that I haven’t been able to do when we’re normally on tour. I’ve been hunting a whole lot more, doing more outdoor stuff, going down to see my family when I can. I don’t know too much that I’ve done anything new. But definitely, we’d rather be on the road than sitting at the house. I’m just doing it to pass the time until we get back on the road.
You recently filmed a piece for “The Doctors,” discussing the importance of health. Have you been able to keep up a healthy diet and exercise during quarantine?
Probably 60/40. Health has always been such a big part of my life. I did take a little bit of time to eat at a restaurant, just do whatever, just live life. Right now, a lot of people deal with different types of anxiety, even depression. All of this leads to heart disease. Stress leads to so many different cancers and just so much stuff, and we’ve all been rocked to our core this year, everybody.
One thing I learned came after a couple months of eating whatever, maybe drinking a couple more days than I normally would or whatever. I definitely feel better when I’m healthy, and in that mindset. It’s very easy when you get that unhealthy mindset, your mind follows. Just being able to talk about mental health and physical health…diseases and heart attacks, it’s happening younger and younger. And I think it’s because of the stress, the comparisons we constantly make. Everybody’s on social media, for the good and bad. I think that this year, we all need to be very vocal about it and be aware.
What is ahead for you?
There’ll be some music. We’re announcing some stuff in April, so there’ll be a lot of content and a lot of new music coming out very soon. So be on the look out at the end of April, and we’ll be dropping a little hint.
Given that the title of your new single is “Whiskey And Rain,” what is your favorite brand of whiskey?
I could go on for a while. I love Whistlepig. I love Jack Daniel’s..a good Jack and Coke is never wrong.