Michael Ray Smoky Country!
Michael Ray’s love of country music is well-documented. From 69 appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and a black belt in jukebox songs, the dark-haired vocalist from the heart of Florida understands that real country music often distills the hard stuff in ways that lend insight and community to life’s turns and twists.
After a break post-COVID, the likable songwriter knew he wanted to dig deeper and find higher ground with his music. But he also knew he didn’t want to lose that ‘80s/’90s edge that had captured his imagination as a kid growing up in the rural part of the Sunshine State, just beyond where Disneyworld turns to horse country, orange groves, swamps and cow pastures.
Enter Michael Knox, the Macon, Georgia-born publishing exec, who came to prominence producing Jason Aldean’s hard-charging albums. Beyond his award-winning work throughout Aldean’s career, he’s helped elevate full-on country-made-for-men multiple ACM Award winner Trace Adkins and CMA Duo of the Year Montgomery Gentry.
“I knew Michael could get to the sound in my head,” Ray says. “I would think about how country music sounded to me as a boy, how big it felt and real. It was big more than it was loud – and the songs were always things nobody ever talked about, ever wanted to be caught in the middle of, but, well, there they were coming out of the radio.”
Together the pair started on what would become Dive Bars & Broken Hearts, an updated old school EP due June 23. More robust and full-bodied, this music is the product of the kind of places where the carpet’s a bit soggy, the beer’s cold and the bar’s got some nicks in it. To that end, these songs serve as a lighter held up to the power of capturing how life is never smooth.
Teasing the collection is the triple entendre “Get Her Back,” a taut song as smoky as it is haunting. Beyond the instinct to fix what’s wrong and the human reflex of striking out, there’s a subtler layer of getting to the heart of being human. It’s not about the falling apart or who said what as much as the emotions of anyone trying to make sense of the fall-out.
“Nobody wants to talk about all the emotions you feel, shock, anger, wanting to know why, or even wanting something bad to happen… because then there’s the letting go,” Ray explains. “It’s so many different things, all falling together really fast. But in the end, why bother? Like the song says, ‘I wasn’t raised like that…’
“I think ‘Get Her Back’ speaks for a lot of people who don’t wanna talk about it, you know? Most of us have all these emotions, feel all kinds of things – and we’re expected to act like we’re good or everything’s fine. You hear people talk, but if you respected whatever it was you had, feel it, but don’t feed the fire. That’s what’s at the heart of this song. For anyone out there like me, know we see you. It’s cool. But know you did the right thing…”
As the beat slinks and guitars descend, a sweltering vocal works against the drums. Never denying any of the feelings, but refusing to act, “Get Her Back” watches the aftermath with half detachment, half numbness and arrives at the reality that after all of it, perhaps the last thing the narrator wants would be to get her back.
Photo Credit: Spidey Smith