Here at Keepin’ It Country, we take a lot of pride in introducing our fans to new artists who are primed to be the next big thing. Today, we’d like you to meet Michael Ray, a future country superstar from Florida who’s determined to make success happen the old-fashioned way. There are no shortcuts in-store for Michael, who recently signed a deal with Warner Music.
We chatted with him about everything from his early days playing music with his grandpa to his influences and his brief stint on reality TV. Throughout the interview, his genuine love of country music and its fans truly shone through and we couldn’t be more excited to watch his star continue to rise over the next few years.
Born into a musical family in Eustis, Florida, Michael Ray was always surrounded by music. His father, grandfather, cousin and uncle had a band, and from the moment Michael could walk, he had a guitar in his hand. At the ripe old age of ten, he decided to start pursuing music and joined forces musically with none other than his grandpa.
“I joke all the time – I had probably 3 friends that were my age and everyone else was older. I was like the adopted grandson of like 20 different sets of grandparents.” Michael laughs as he recalls playing shows all through middle school and high school with his grandfather and his elderly friends. “A lot of them would come down to Florida for the winter and that’s when we’d get busy. They were all retired and they weren’t around their families, so I’d step in. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It helped form who I am today and gave me a real soft spot for old people.”
One of his first big breaks was a stroke of luck, when a bar owner discovered him teaching guitar lessons and booked him on the spot for a gig only days later. “It was Monday and he booked me that Thursday. I grew up as a fan of older country music, but I didn’t know that much top-40 country, so I had to learn all this stuff to do a 4-hour gig that Thursday. It all started from there.”
Another huge break came a few years later when Michael happened to play a show with a radio DJ in the audience. “God put me in the right place at the right time,” He says, recalling the night he played a show and was approached by a woman he later found out was a local radio DJ. Shortly after that clandestine meeting, stations in Florida began spinning his song “23rd Psalm.” Michael says, “That helped really kick things in and it was that moment that put me over the hump. It really built a bridge to where I am in my career now.”
From his first bar gig to his current sound, Michael admits that he considers himself a combination of both old and new country. “I think all country music, even today’s country music, is still taking stuff from what we all grew up on,” Michael says, listing Eric Church & Gary Allan as two of his biggest modern influences.
In fact, he says that he hopes to continue model his career after Church. “I think what he’s doing is great, and the way he did it is exactly how my guys and I are doing it. Band, trailer, hitting every club you can…I always try to live by the motto that if I were to meet Waylon Jennings, I’d want him to approve of the way I made it. And I think that’s the cool thing about country music, is that it’s very rare to see someone who hasn’t gone through all that.”
He continues, “Most country artists start at the same point, playing the same clubs… That’s the difference in country music than any other genre, we going out to the fans with things like CMA Fest to give back to the fans because they’ve literally been there since day one. Country music just has such a connection with the fans and that’s one of the many things I love about it.”
As for his own music, Michael writes often and with whomever he can, drawing inspiration in many different ways. “I don’t really have a method or anything, I just fill up a room with writers and we work with whatever happens that day. I’ve gotten to work with so many of my songwriting heroes.”
As he continues to write, Michael has just hit the studio to start to record vocals on a new album, due in 2014. When we asked him what kind of album he hoped to make, he admitted that he wanted to combine his love of country with rock and roll. He also told us that he’s drawn much of his inspiration for his album from Garth Brooks’ live shows. Watching Garth Brooks and studying him as an artist, he’d always have a moment in the show. Watching him is like a roller coaster, up and down with great rocking songs and then the great ballads. We’re trying to go after what he did, what Eric’s doing, but make it our own sound too. Big and dynamic, very live feel, rock country with good ballads also.”
As for longtime fans of Michael who are hoping to hear some of his old songs on the new project, it’s very possible. He told us that they are talking about putting some of his old favorites on the new project if they’re a fit, but only time will tell.
Another song that he hopes to include on the album is one he co-wrote with John Rich. Michael appeared on the CW Network’s reality singing competition, The Next, where he worked closely with the Big & Rich front man as his mentor. Ultimately, he won the show, but said the experience was an incredible learning experience. “John is one of the smartest people when it comes to business and everything else. Being able to sit with him and become friends and go to him for advice, it’s invaluable.”
Michael says that he’s had a lot of incredible moments in his career so far, but the most recent “pinch me” moment came when he opened for country legends, Alabama, in St. Augustine, Florida. “They’re just the most genuine, great people, and the talent that those guys have still is just amazing…It was one of those moments that’s a big thank you to everyone who’s ever helped me get here.”
As Michael continues to pursue his dreams, he says, “I try to do everything I do and lead by example of where I come from and make them proud. The biggest thing I want to make sure people know is that whatever your biggest thing that makes you you, or your dreams, don’t ever give up on that. If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. I want people to look and go ‘man, I can do anything that I dream of because he came from a small town in Eustis, Florida.’ I grew up on a trailer and 10 acres. If I can do it, so can they.”
Michael can’t wait to share his new music with fans and they hope to release a single by the first part of 2014. He’ll also be ringing in 2014 with a bang, playing a huge New Year’s Eve show at the House of Blues in Orlando. His new website just launched and you can visit it here. Make sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook as well.
We’d like to thank Michael for taking the time to chat with us and we can’t wait to see him become one of country’s biggest new stars.