There’s a handful of ways to get on Music City’s radar. The first is to win a talent TV show with American Idol, The Voice and Nashville Star accounting for some of the biggest names in the country music scene. The other, is to play every dive bar around until someone notices you. Michael Ray did both. He was inspired by country music greats like Johnny Cash, who went from radio station to radio station, hoping they’d get their big break. After putting in his time, he went on to win the talent competition, The Next: Fame Is at Your Doorstep in 2012, mentored by Big & Rich’s John Rich.
Growing up in Florida, his grandfather – who his latest album, Amos, is named after – taught him to play the guitar at eight years old during his parents’ divorce. After learning his first chords, he got bitten by the music bug. Every weekend from then on, he was playing with his band. The encouragement didn’t just come from his grandfather, but his whole family who supported Michael in his career.
He released his first album independently in 2010, and with two studio albums under his belt, he’s going into the next phase of his career. We caught up with Michael to hear all about his country music journey so far, performing in the UK and his relationship with Carly Pearce.
“When you feel that connection when you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, that moment makes it all worthwhile.” – Michael Ray
Taylor Magazine: So… talk to us about your journey as a music artist. How did you begin?
Michael Ray: I played every bar and every club all through Florida. I moved to Nashville with five of my band members in a two bed, two bathroom apartment. We played wherever. My influences were the traditional country music greats, where they just got into their car and went from radio to radio. There were a lot of ups and downs, and I learnt to work my way through the hard times. When I was younger, every weekend, I was playing with [my grandfather’s] band so I knew it was something I wanted to do.
Taylor Magazine: Did you ever think about doing something different as a career?
Michael Ray: I think my heart was set from the beginning. I’m very fortunate to have a supportive family. They never made me feel like, “You have to do this because we want you to.” It was always, “As long as you want to do it, we’ll support you.” Any time I had a doubt, there’d always be one little thing that would happen career-wise.
Taylor Magazine: When you’re working on new music, what’s the first step for you?
Michael Ray: It all starts with a song, whether you write it or you’re cutting. I know what I want to say on this record, so I already have the walls built up. This is where I’m at in my life right now, and this is what I want to say. We need this type of song. Then when you’re making a record, it’s like a puzzle. You get halfway through and go, “Oh, I need this style, or this kind of song.”
Taylor Magazine: What have the last couple of months been like for you? What have you been up to?
Michael Ray: A lot of touring, with Lindsay Ell and Brantley Gilbert. Earlier this year, I had actually just been over to the UK for the first time, which was awesome. We’re in the middle of planning a trip back over there! And of course, working on the new record.
Taylor Magazine: Yes, you recently performed in the UK! How was it performing here? Was it a different vibe to the US? Now you’re at Stagecoach!
Michael Ray: Honestly, it felt like home. As an artist, it was great to see everyone singing every word, and the response has been amazing. The fans are so respectful, and passionate about the music. I encourage any artist to go over and play there. Travelling internationally gives you a big boost. You’re like, “Holy crap, my music has made it this far! People are singing album cuts and know my story!” You take that energy and bring it to a Stagecoach crowd.
Taylor Magazine: Do you have a favourite song that you’ve written? Or love to perform?
Michael Ray: I think ‘The One That Got Away’ is just such a fun part of the set that you know is gonna be good. And ‘Her World Or Mine’ has also become that intimate song for us, which is really cool. Especially to see the crowd connect with it and hear their stories.
“I’m such a fan of [Carly’s] as an artist and her mindset and vision. But she’s also so honest, and she will tell me the truth because she wants me to succeed. I have this hidden gem of a very smart, knowledgeable artist by my side that isn’t afraid to tell me when something’s not working or isn’t right.” – Michael Ray
Taylor Magazine: Who would be your dream collaboration?
Michael Ray: I wrote with Brandy Clark recently, who I’ve always been a big fan of. It was pretty great writing and hanging out with her. I got to know her as a person which was so great too, and I’d love to keep working with her whether that’s writing or a collaboration. Also, I grew up with 90s country, so maybe something with Tim McGraw.
Taylor Magazine: What’s your favourite part of what you do? And, on the flip side, the most challenging part?
Michael Ray: I love writing, recording and travelling. But, I think my favourite part is when you see a connection, whether that’s the crowd singing back to you, or you’re in a store and someone comes up and tells you how important a song is to them. The bottom line is we’re all human and travelling takes a toll on you. Some days you’re sick, some days you’re missing home and all the other things you go through that people don’t talk about. But when you feel that connection when you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, that moment makes it all worthwhile.
Taylor Magazine: When you do have difficult days or you’ve been away for a while, what do you that’s comforting? What helps you unwind?
Michael Ray: Carly and I are real homebodies, we love to hang at the house. We work out and walk trails back home but we’re in the middle of completing our home together, so it’s all painting and moving at the moment!
Taylor Magazine: Talk to us about your relationship with Carly – what it’s like both being involved in country music? Do you bounce off each other?
Michael Ray: She’s making a record right now so she’s playing songs and I’m working on my new album. The artwork on ‘Her World Or Mine,’ I sent to her because I trust her opinion so much. I’m such a fan of hers as an artist and her mindset and vision. But she’s also so honest, and she will tell me the truth because she wants me to succeed. I have this hidden gem of a very smart, knowledgeable artist by my side that isn’t afraid to tell me when something’s not working or isn’t right.
Taylor Magazine: Definitely! So, who’s on your playlist at the moment? Who are you listening to?
Michael Ray: My music playlists are the strangest thing because it’ll go from Hank Williams to current artists. There’s a lot of really great music out there, like Travis Denning, who is a buddy of mine and was a writer on ‘Her World Or Mine’. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Hardy at the moment who is an up and coming artist, and I’m a big fan of Runaway June too.
Taylor Magazine: What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
Michael Ray: To slow down. At least for me, I watch my nephew grow up, and we all battle that feeling of, “I want to be 25 now,” but you never get to go back. I’d tell younger Michael to slow down, be confident and know that it’s all going to work out.
Taylor Magazine: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
Michael Ray: My main one is playing The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, for sure. My grandfather and my family and I, it’s what I always dreamed about. Standing on that stage, you feel like you’ve made it – or at least pretty close.