Following the end of a short-lived marriage with fellow country star, Carly Pearce, Michael Ray found himself at home in Eustis, Florida. The pandemic was at its height, and with no tour plans on the horizon, the 33-year-old finally settled into place, spending time with family and reflecting on life since his move to Nashville in 2014. On August 27, Ray released his new EP, Higher Education—his first new project since Amos (2018).
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“I am super proud of Amos as an album, but the pandemic made me really think about how I would feel if that were my last record ever,” Ray tells American Songwriter about the new EP. “And I realized, I can’t say I would be okay if that was my last collection ever.”
This drove the determined artist headfirst into this seven-track EP. When Ray approached his team about his ideas, he got the feeling they’d been waiting on his realization to strike. He laughs and explains, “They must have seen it coming, because when I came to them like ‘This is what I want to do,’ and they were just like ‘yep’ — it was so easy.”
Higher Education is shaped by the muse of the man Ray hopes to be, and the lessons he’s learned along the way. Each song speaks to the things he’s deemed important at this point in his life. In being vulnerable, the artist is inviting his listeners into his world, pulling back the curtain on who he is off the stage.
The biggest lesson, he says, was “looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking, ‘What are the things we need to change for you? If you can’t be the best for yourself, you can’t be the best for your team or family or anyone else.”
The title track, “Higher Education,” is a well-suited centerpiece of the project. He first heard the song in his friend Tim Montana’s garage, listening through his old demo tapes. The outlaw-fashioned track features Kid Rock, Lee Brice, Billy Gibbons, and Tim Montana and frames the rest of the project. Kid Rock was one of Ray’s first CDs—he bought it off another kid on the back of the school bus. So collaborating with him, at this pivotal moment in both his career and personal life, was a humbling “full-circle” moment.
“Some things school can’t teach us, only the real world can,” he explains. “That’s what I love about this song, singing with all my rowdy friends about those school of hard knocks lessons.”
“Whiskey and Rain”—a Josh Thompson and Jesse Frasure-penned tune—sets the tone as the opening track and first single off the project. The intro riff pays homage to the Y2K country that influenced his artistry from the start. He adds, “I really wanted to make sure we married that ‘80s into late ‘90s and early 2000s country with today’s music.”
Some of his older influence shines through in “Holy Water.” The track’s star-studded songwriting credits include Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps, Ben Johnson, and Michael Hardy. The song is what Ray describes as an “old-fashioned story song” with a “good ole Florida swamp type feel.” Lyrically, it chronicles a storyline about a pastor of a small-town church that doubled as a moonshiner. Like “Old Red,” this song is a slow-burning ballad that details a story from start to finish, building tension with the intermittent choruses.
After hearing this demo, he felt it painted the perfect picture of the place that raised him. The church described in the lyrics reminded him of the small white Baptist church house that his great grandfather helped build. Later in life, he learned his grandparents were running moonshine back in the day like, as he says, “a little Florida Bonnie and Clyde.”
“I’m always just trying to make the best album I can make whether I write every song on it or not,” says the artist. “There are many things that are different on this project, but I feel like once I had that eye-opening moment of what was wrong and stuff I needed to fix, I heard this record. And I knew I wanted this style on it—that Jerry Reed with a little bit of ‘70s Southern rock feeling scattered in.”
“Just The Way I Am” is the one, Ray says, he wishes he wrote. “If I were to write a song about myself and the people from my hometown, that would be the song,” says Ray. “My family are the people that call you back if they forgot to say ‘I love you.’ But they’re also the people you call when stuff hits the fan, and you need them to have your back. That song just embodied Eustis for me, the people that made me who I am and inspired me growing up.”
While the autobiographical “Picture” might be the most personal, Ray points to “Didn’t Know I was Country,” as another defining track he penned for the project.
“It was in that moment when I really felt a change in my songwriting,” says Ray. “I was just being very honest and wasn’t hesitating. In the past, I worried about ‘If I do this, will these people like me?’ Finally, I was like I’ve been through enough and I’ve survived it. Let’s just try being yourself.”
Listen to Michael Ray’s new Higher Education EP, here.