Florida native Michael Ray released several chart-topping singles, just finished his first headlining tour and the American Country Countdown Awards named him a 2016 Breakthrough Male of the Year nominee.
Ray spoke with The PHOENIX earlier this month prior to the his performance at Chicago’s Country LakeShake Music Festival June 24 at Northerly Island. The country artist discussed his rise in the country music industry, what he’s learned along the way and his love for the Cubs.
Ray said he grew up surrounded by a tight-knit, musically inclined family. He played shows in Florida until, at 19 years old, he decided to move to Nashville, the next step in his music career. Following a meeting with David Preston of Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), Ray realized he still had some growing to do.
Preston said the music industry had changed. The times of doing a showcase and getting a record deal were done. Now, artists must build something to show the labels they’re worth it. Because of the added pressure, Ray said he put together a band and started touring.
Ray did as Preston advised and returned to Florida for a few more years. He, along with his new band, began touring and selling out shows throughout his home state. Ray’s growing fan base and refined sound eventually helped him secure a Warner Bros. record deal.
Four months before he was set to release his debut studio album under the Warner Bros. label, Ray made his Grand Ole Opry debut — an iconic moment in any country artist’s career. For the family man, it was an “unforgettable” day, but also a bittersweet one as there was going to be a very noticeable absence in the audience.
Ray’s grandfather had passed away two months before his performance in Opry’s famous circle. The country singer said it was his grandfather who sparked his and his family’s interest in country music. Ray said he wanted to do something special that night to give honor to the close bond the two shared.
“For us, it was always a thing of, ‘Man, if I ever get to play the Opry, how cool would that be?’” Ray said. “I played the first song with his guitar that he played for 60 years. And so it was kind of like I knew he was with me. Getting to honor him in that way at such a level with The Opry was something my family and I will never forget.”
The now 28-year-old performer dons a signature contemporary country look: Fit, easy to look at, well-dressed and tattoo sleeves on both arms. When asked about the most meaningful section of ink, Ray talked about his latest addition that pays homage to his grandfather. The tattoo is of an old feather pen that writes out in Roman numerals the day his grandfather passed away.
Ray released his self-titled debut studio album in August 2015. It features hits such as the No. 1 single “Kiss You in the Morning” and “Real Men Love Jesus.” The album, which climbed to Top 5 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, also features Ray’s latest single, “Think A Little Less,” which he released a music video for in February. Deciding to release this third single came with some risk, but Ray said taking that risk also came with great reward.
“It was a little bit of a gamble because we released a mid-tempo during the summer, but country radio embraced it and the fans embraced it.” Ray said. “When you record something or you write something, you go, ‘Man I hope people feel what I feel. I hope I’m right on this.’”
Having just finished his first headlining tour, Ray said there’s a special connection that exists when he plays in front of his fans.
“To hear and see them sing the songs, album cuts, singles, whatever it might be, it’s just something that is indescribable,” Ray said. “You work hard and hopefully make an album that connects with people and when you see it connect, there’s no better feeling in the world.”
The busy artist said he’ll spend a significant amount of time in the studio recording new music starting the end of February. Writing and recording will be taking up most of his time until he hits the road again in March. He’ll be embarking on a mini-tour that ends in April, but is scheduled to play a number of music festivals this summer.
Before wrapping up the interview, the country singer shared some of his biggest lessons from growing in the industry.
“Stay focused on what you believe you can do. I think a lot of us get distracted watching other career paths and kind of compare ourselves to others,” Ray said. “I feel that if people keep their camp, find their tight group that believe in working at the same goal while also focusing on making themselves better as individuals, everything else will fall into place.”
Ray is scheduled to visit Chicago on June 24 for the LakeShake Festival, which takes place at the Huntington Bank Pavilion on Northerly Island. One-day and three-day tickets for the festival are available for purchase at www.lakeshakefestival.com.