To Understand Michael Ray, You Need to Know Amos
Picture Michael Ray sitting on his back porch one warm Nashville afternoon. He's alone, soaking up some sunshine, enjoying the kind of quiet you can't find on the road, in a tour bus or along Music Row. Try to guess what he's listening to.
The "Get to You" singer understands why people may look at him and make assumptions about his country raising, and he doesn't mind. The truth is, you'll find notes of rock, punk and even hip-hop across the heavily-tattooed Florida-kissed singer's new Amos album (June 1). It's his self-titled debut album and shows that at his core, he's his grandfather's boy. He carries lessons the old man taught him forward now that the new album's namesake is no longer here to do it.
"His passion for music was like no other," Ray shares. "If he was here right now, you'd be like, 'This man must have made millions of dollars playing music. He never made money on a gig." Amos Roach died in February 2015, not long after Ray began to realize their dream, a dream that really began with Michael holding a toy guitar alongside his father, singing traditional country songs.
"When I first started learning guitar, I learned 'Green Green Grass of Home,' I learned 'Today I Started Loving You Again' from (Merle) Haggard, I learned 'Lady Down on Love' from Alabama.' All the Earl Thomas Conley stuff, Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson," Ray says.
Together he and his grandfather would watch old VHS tapes of country stars like Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones performing. “He was the guy that taught me the importance of the Grand Ole Opry, what that stage and what that circle really means," Ray remembers, his eyes now glistening after spending two to three uninterrupted minutes remembering his hero.
"(He) would go, 'Man, how cool would it be? ... I don't know how you get there from Eustis, but maybe one day you'll get an opportunity to go there.'"
Less than two months after Amos died, Ray made his Grand Ole Opry debut. He brought his grandfather's old guitar. He pays tribute to the 75-year-old with an album cover that depicts a scene you might have found in his house. A warm cup of coffee and breakfast sit on the dresser ... Amos' photo is nearby, and you don't need to squint to find his old wrist watch. It quit working a long time ago, but Ray still carries it everywhere he goes. It's one of his most treasured possessions.
Perhaps his greatest tribute to Amos is the music. The new album has progressive moments like "Forget About It," but leans traditional in unexpected ways. No one will compare the "Kiss You in the Morning" singer to Midland or Mo Pitney, but "Her World or Mine" is a true weeper. "Summer Water" bleeds country, and "Drink One for Me" is timeless. The album's closer is a light tribute to men and women of the U.S. military, but accessible for anyone who's making a sacrifice. For Ray, it's for his family full of first responders and that universal want to find normal after chaos.
Now 30, Ray can find perspective in all he learned as a kid growing up in central Florida. There may have been a time of rebellion, and like anyone he embraced (and still embraces) modern sounds and styles, but even at the gym he's working up a sweat to the sounds of classic country, relearning his old favorites.
“Majority of the time I’m listening to a Ray Price record, as weird as that sounds,” he shares. “It’s what I was raised on, it’s what I connect with. It goes back to the stories. I didn’t know at nine years old learning ‘Green Grass of Home’ it was about a guy waking up in prison going into execution. I just loved the story. The dude's dreaming about walking around with his girl, Mary."
Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl as a boy, Ray Price in the gym, and tearful ballads at home, alone, on his back porch on a spring afternoon.
“For whatever reason, yesterday I was in a Reba McEntire mood — as sad of a song as I could find of Reba’s. And that’s what I was listening to all day," Ray says. "She had a song called 'Every Other Weekend,' her and Kenny Chesney do a duet on it. That song, 'Greatest Man I Never Knew' ... all these fantastic songs."
“It’s real and that’s what speaks. That’s why songs like that you can listen to ‘em now or when they came out and it’s gonna hit you the same," he says. "And that's country music."
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