Michael Ray may not have written his new single “Holy Water,” but he shares a profound emotional and familial connection with it.
Penned by hit songsmiths HARDY, Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps, and Ben Johnson, Ray first heard the song on a demo tape that the newly-crowned ACM Songwriter of the Year had recorded. “I had to listen to it in a different way because HARDY sings his ass off! So you’re like, ‘Is this a hit or is it a massive hit?’” he quips.
Equal parts dark and swampy, “Holy Water” chronicles the tale of a scandalous, double life-leading pastor who preaches by day and sells moonshine by night. Throughout the song, a vivid picture is painted of the deceitful church leader’s illegal goings-on. Much like Carrie Underwood’s “Choctaw County Affair,” Reba’s “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” Blake Shelton’s “Ol Red” and Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls,” “Holy Water” boasts strong, vintage country storytelling – something that Ray has a great affinity with.
“This song has always stood out for me. As a kid who was born into a family that just loved country music, I’ve always wanted this type of song,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville over Zoom. “I grew up on the storytelling songs of Merle Haggard, Earl Thomas Conley, and Porter Wagoner. When you close your eyes and listen to these songs, you just see a movie. They really just have a way with words.”
So when it eventually came time to make a mini film-like music video, there wasn’t much alteration needed. With a strong storyline already in place, all the director Spidey Smith had to do was to bring it to life. “The songwriters wrote the script, we just brought it to vision,” notes Ray.
“Holy Water” was shot in Cassia Baptist Church in Ray’s hometown of Eustis, FL. Established in 1889, it is where the singer and his family went for Sunday worship, and where he spent his younger years having vacation bible school. Overflowing with rich history, the video offers fans a glimpse of some of the church’s historical fixtures. These include a bible that dates back to the Civil War and a picture of the Good Shepherd that’s hung above the lectern since Ray’s grandfather’s childhood days.
For his mini movie-like music video, Ray opted for only two actors: the preacher and one of two deacons. The other was played by Ray’s uncle, Lee Conn. Everyone else in the video, including the entire congregation, “[has or had] something to do with the church.”
“It meant a lot to me to keep it authentic and bring it back full circle,” shares the country hitmaker. “Cassia Baptist Church is still running till this day. Pastor Mark Douglas and his family were in the video. Me and his son Joshua grew up together since Middle School. To have a full-circle moment to bring us back to that congregation and see some light being shined on the church that helped grow me as a kid really was special. That’s I wanted to keep it as authentic and as real as possible with as [few] actors as we could.”
However, that doesn’t mean Ray didn’t shoot his shot for a main acting role.
“I wanted to be the preacher man! I love the story so much that I told Spidey, ‘Come on! Let me be the preacher’,” he shares in jest. Although Ray only has a narrating role in the final cut, he is grateful to have stood behind Smith for the majority of their 16-hour shoot to gain a firsthand look at how directing works.
“I learned a lot from him just standing at the side and not being as involved as I normally am. For this, I was just the narrator. He was exactly right – that’s what the video needed,” says the 33-year-old.
For Ray, the “Holy Water” music video is more than just another obligatory music business move. It proudly exemplifies the loving spirit of Eustis and the folks in his hometown. Just a day before filming commenced, Ray and his team were frantically looking for cars for the shoot. Fortuitously, it all worked out because of calls made to “a friend of a friend of a friend.”
“When you’re from a place like that, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve gone without talking to each other or whatever. Everybody’s just a phone call away,” Ray reflects with a visibly warm smile. “Everybody just really came together. It was a cool reminder that just because you’re not there all the time, it doesn’t mean you’re not home. It was a cool little timestamp because every time I’m back, it’s still the same.”
With four No. 1’s under his bet, Ray is ready for “Holy Water” to get all the radio spins and streams it deserves. After all, as he admits, it’s a song that he actually enjoys listening to when it comes on his playlist. Why? Because it’s just a good ol’ country tune and with superb storytelling.
“‘Holy Water’ is a song that I personally love,” Ray says. “That goes to how great the songwriters are. They wrote a movie that you don’t get tired of seeing. Even though you know how it ends, you still love it. That’s what they did, and that’s what they’re great at. I just feel very fortunate to be the artist to tell the story.”