Michael Ray ducked into the closet between the lavender soap and the dryer sheets to record his vocals for his two-week No. 1 song “Whiskey and Rain.” It was 2020 at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave. The recording studios were closed, and Ray and his team were determined to make a record. His tour manager was also a sound engineer, so Ray cut the vocals in the man’s closet. Ross Copperman produced almost all of Ray’s seven-song “Higher Education” EP over Zoom.
“Thank God we have technology, and a lot of musicians have home studios,” Ray said. “We just made it all work. It really was just a trying, but a fun trying, to cut music because we just had to get creative with how we did it.”
Ray’s dedication paid off. “Whiskey and Rain” is the Florida native’s fourth chart-topper and his first two-week No. 1. Written by Josh Thompson and Jesse Frasure, “Whiskey and Rain” has accumulated more than 100 million on-demand streams and is the most successful song of Ray’s career.
As soon as Ray’s team found “Whiskey and Rain,” they knew it was the one to beat. His manager was so sure the mid-tempo throwback was a hit that she reserved it for him before Ray even heard it. He was captivated by the opening lick.
“It was every Bakersfield to Gary Allan to Ronnie Milsap feel that I wanted,” Ray said. “It just grabbed me, and I said, ‘Please just let the lyrics be like the music.'”
They were. Thompson’s affinity for writing classic country songs blended with Frasure’s contemporary flair to create a fresh and nostalgic sound.
“It was exactly the sound we’re going towards,” he said. “I had no clue that the song hardest to record due to quarantine, with everybody in different places that took the longest in my career, would end up being the biggest of my career so far. It’s just been an incredible journey.”
Ray’s ground rules for the EP mimicked what he loved about “Whiskey and Rain.” He wanted to write or record songs that transported him to the time in country music that inspired him to move to Nashville. As possibilities trickled in for “Higher Education,” he applied the same guidelines – even when it meant passing up tracks he knew were hits.
“I wanted to cut real music that really put people in a position to get to know me better,” he explained. “There were a couple of songs where I was like, ‘Someone’s gonna cut it, and it will be big. I’ll be kicking myself.’ But it just didn’t fit this project.”
He fell in love with the swampy sound and storytelling in “Holy Water,” written by Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps, Ben Johnson and Michael Hardy. The song details a backwoods minister who sells moonshine from the church parking lot, which rang true for Ray, who heard similar stories from his family.
The album’s title track is a collaboration with Kid Rock, Lee Brice, Billy Gibbons, and Tim Montana that Montana co-wrote and later played for Ray while they were hanging out in his garage. Ray wanted a song with a Hank Williams, Jr. vibe that his friends could sing on, and “Higher Education” hit the mark.
“It just grew into this really cool thing of exactly what I wanted it to be with my buddies,” he explained. “It had that fun honky-tonk feel that just organically came together.”
Montana agreed and said, “Higher Education” is the “rowdiest collab this town has seen since Buddy Killen Circle.” He added the song “blasts so hard” he “couldn’t be more proud.”
Ray co-wrote “Picture” and “Didn’t Know I Was Country,” both of which he said are a real insight into who he is as a man.
“Picture,” which he penned alongside David Garcia and Michael Hardy, mentions his sister and two of his uncles by name. The first verse was sparked by a picture Ray said has been around his entire life. It shows his sister opening gifts in front of the Christmas tree with him in the background missing a tooth. Now that he needs the picture, he laughs that no one can find it.
“I have a whole army of my family looking for it,” he said.
The second verse came from a snapshot his uncle showed him of himself and a buddy as teenagers. They weren’t wearing their shirts and were standing in a field holding a couple of beers.
“I asked him if he still talked to this guy,” Ray said. “He said, ‘No, sadly months after this, he was balancing demons and took his own life.’ It’s a true story.”
“Didn’t Know I Was Country” is packed with scenes of front porches, screen doors, love of land, faith, and pride taken directly from the singer’s upbringing. What he learned after the song came out is its lyrics resonate everywhere.
“People from close to New York City said that even though the song is called ‘Didn’t Know I Was Country,’ it reminded them of where they grew up and made them miss home,” Ray said. “It was so important for me to tell my story, but I hoped that people from all over the world could insert where they’re from and be proud of as well.”
Ray is anxious to take his new songs on the road and knows that “Whiskey and Rain” will bring a heightened level of energy to his concerts. He’s looking forward to heading back into the recording studio this year – hopefully with loosened restrictions that will allow his producer and players to be in the same room. But he also knows that someday he’ll be telling his children about surviving and figuring out how to thrive during COVID-19.
“This has been a journey we’ll be talking about forever,” he said. “This time will be talked about until the day we die. Kids will be asking questions, and I’ll be going, ‘You won’t believe what we had to do in 2020.'”