Michael Ray was rummaging through a box of old photographs in search of the perfect ones to share at his Uncle Terry’s funeral when his buddy said, “Isn’t it wild how, no matter what you do in your life, we’ll all just end up being pictures that somebody who loves us holds onto?” That question buzzed through his head. Needless to say, Ray couldn’t sleep much that night, the eve of the viewing, and so he began writing a song instead.
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“Picture,” co-written with Hardy and David Garcia, captures both the existential crisis and the understanding to celebrate life that often comes during the grieving process. One day, we’re barefoot, young, and alive / The next, we’re a story in a three-by-five, sings Ray on the chorus.
Throughout the verses, Ray paints with specific detail about newly-uncovered pictures, drawing the listening into the various scenes. “I think it was Hardy who brought that up. He was like, ‘Why don’t we describe each picture?’ Then, we just started rolling, and it fell out from there. It made it even easier to write,” Ray tells American Songwriter. “You know, pictures are like songs. You hear a song or see a picture, and it puts you right back in that moment. You can hear the people laughing. You can smell the perfume. You can see your grandma in the kitchen. With these types of songs, this isn’t the first time the subject has been talked about. We had to do it creatively, and we knew we had something special.”
Ray’s Uncle Terry died last summer from an unexpected heart attack. Then, in the throes of grieving himself, Ray found a great amount of healing through writing and recording the sweeping ballad. “When I wrote it, David and Hardy were kind enough to do the worktape real quick, so I could play it for my family at the house after the viewing. It’s really helped my whole family throughout this last year.”
Nearly a year later, Ray assesses what Terry taught about life and really living. “He was an outdoorsman. He was smart, just your good ole country boy. He lived life. He truly didn’t give a shit about what anyone else thought, in the nicest way. Money wasn’t a thing─he didn’t care. Anytime I would do anything on Instagram Live or whatever, he’d be commenting, ‘Hey man, it’s Terry!,’” he shares with a laugh. “He didn’t take himself too seriously. He was the life of every party. He was funny. He was a sweetheart─and also the guy you didn’t want to see in a back alley. Somehow, he had all these qualities. I just always respected the way he respected his family. He was a hard worker, but he worked hard to be with people he loved.”
Bonfire party in the middle of nowhere / Might just look like buddies and some cold beer, he later reflects on the second verse. But when it’s my time to leave / It’s all someone will have left of me.
The second verse strikes upon not only Ray’s questioning of his own legacy, but it turns attention to another moving, personal story. “I was using my other uncle’s house as a writing spot and a hub. I got to his house, and he had no clue about the song at all. I go in, and he goes, ‘Hey man, check this out.’ And there’s a photo of him and a buddy of his holding beer, and they’re at this field party,” he explains. “He’s like ‘I just saw this picture. I hadn’t seen it in forever. It’s like 19 years ago, man.’ I said, ‘No way.’ He goes ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘You still talk to this guy.’ He said, ‘No, man, sadly he was battling a bunch of demons and a few months after this photo was taken, he took his own life.’ And he had no idea about this song. We knew that should be the second verse.”
“Picture” arrived smack dab in the middle of Ray’s personal journey over the last year. Like many, he reflected upon his life and things which, perhaps, needed to change. “In a lot of ways, I realized that I was lost and putting effort and importance on things that were probably not important. Being able to be back home and hang with family and friends and actually be there, and not just in and out like we’ve had to be the last five or six years, it was a soul cleanser,” he says. “It sounds weird, but I reintroduced myself to myself in a way. Especially in what we do, it’s so fast paced, and you can’t put someone else’s story and compare it to your own. God made one of you, and you have a story. Don’t compare yourself or be down on yourself when God gave you this journey, and it’s yours. Own it.”
During this journey, the country singer-songwriter witnessed his perception of time evolve, as well. “Whenever your parents tell you in high school, ‘Slow it down, it gets faster,’ you’re like ‘whatever.’ Now, I’m like ‘Dang, it’s May! When did this happen?!’” he laughs. “But I also take getting older as a blessing. My grandpa used to say, ‘When you wake up in the morning, be grateful, because you’re doing better than some. Some didn’t have an opportunity to have a new day.’ I embrace it. In getting older, you do realize how valuable it is, and it’s the one thing that no matter how much money you have or who you know, you can’t buy it or get more of it and you can’t rewind it. Live in the moment.”
“Picture” and radio hit “Whiskey and Rain” offer “good insight into the progression of this record and where we’re going,” he teases. “People are going to hear a difference, not only melodically but lyrically, as well.”
An unreleased song, titled “Didn’t Know I Was Country,” co-written with Taylor Phillips and Ashley Gorley, provides a further glimpse into where Ray is headed. “Growing up, all my friends were my cousins. All our land bumped up to each other, so we were always at my great grandmother’s house. She was always cooking for everybody,” he explains. “That was my bus stop; it was my dad’s bus stop when he was a kid. I thought that’s how everybody lived. I thought everybody grew up learning how to drive a stick shift down the dirt road. Then, you start traveling and you realize not everybody does what you do. In a lot of ways, you realize how lucky you were.”
The forthcoming, yet-untitled, third record serves as the follow-up to Amos (2018).