Michael Ray carries on family tradition of music
By the ripe old age of 11, country singer and songwriter Michael Ray knew what he wanted to do with his life. He is quick to give kudos to generations before him for laying the groundwork that allows him to do it.
“My family has always been in bands. I think I am the seventh generation of that. I carried it on and they got behind me at everything I was doing,” he said. “When I was playing Thursday nights at Pickin’ Chicken, they were there.”
“They helped me grow and learn to entertain. God knows what I sounded like some of those nights, but they stuck with me and gave me confidence to think, ‘Man, I might actually be able to do this.”
Ray, 31, of Nashville, Tenn., spoke with a What’s NXT reporter about his career and his upcoming concert along with his wife, Carly Pearce, at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races on Friday, March 13.
Born in Eustis, Fla., Ray was inspired by his grandfather Amos “Wilson” Roach, who played guitar and trained Ray to play at an early age.
“My family had a passion for playing country music like no other. My dad was playing guitar and his dad, his cousins. Their generation gave us guitars, basses, drums, different things. They wanted us to spread music, and they made sure everybody had access to it,” Ray said.
That generation played in a family band known in the 1980s as the Country Cousins.
“That was my dad and my uncles before I came about. They continued until I was three or four, and then, you know, other things came up in their lives,” he said.
While Country Cousins fell by the wayside, his grandfather continued to play music.
“He kept playing anywhere he could. I was always with him from the time I was about eight years old on. By the time I was 10, I started playing with him every week in jam sessions,” Ray said. “In Florida, during the winters, there were a lot of retirees. They would come to my grandfather’s from the northern states and jam.”
They played old traditional country music at Moose Lodges and community centers.
“It’s funny because I didn’t know at the time how fortunate I was to be able to be around that music and learn from it until I was older,” Ray said. “I kind of realized how much it helped me later in life.”
Following high school, Ray self-released an album and began playing a grind of shows around southern Florida. He gained the attention of a radio DJ in Lakeland, Fla., who began to play his songs on air during prime time.
“This lady came up at a show and said, ‘Hey, can I get a CD? I didn’t know at the time who she was. That moment, I think, might have been the moment that changed it all,” Ray said.
Tickets to his shows began to sell like hotcakes throughout Florida. He moved from opening act to headliner.
“That helped me skip a couple rungs on the ladder, helped get the attention that was needed,” he said.
At that point, Ray realized he should make the move to Nashville, and his family encouraged him to do so.
“I’m very fortunate to come from not only a community but from a family that was like, ‘You gotta move,’” he said. “My grandpa, my dad, told me, ‘If you don’t go, you’ll always wish you would have. They supported me a lot to give me that confidence to move to the city where I was with the best of the best. I was not the big fish.”
Out of nowhere, Ray said, he received a call about participating on a TV show called “The Next Big Star – Fame Is at Your Doorstep.”
“I was raised in old school ways of doing things. It was like, you do what Waylon, Hank, Loretta did. You get in your car and you build your career, fan by fan. I had no intention of being on a TV show. It fell into my lap. That was a blessing from God, that show,” he said.
Fans had seen Ray’s videos on YouTube and wanted him to appear. He ended up not only appearing and competing, but being coached by John Rich of Big & Rich, and winning.
Soon after, Ray signed a deal with Warner Bros. Records of Nashville. His single “Kiss You in the Morning” went to No. 1 on Country Airplay and he completed a successful tour. Also around that time, his grandfather passed away.
“He got to hear my songs on the radio, but he passed away in the middle of my radio tour. I will always remember that as such a crazy time in my life,” Ray said.
He and his grandfather had dreamed for years about performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
“We’d watch old videos and always talk about, I don’t know, how we’d end up getting there. I’d say, ‘If I do, you’ll be there with me,’” Ray said.
Roach passed away on Feb. 4, 2015. Two weeks later, Ray received an email from his publicist.
“It said, ‘Hey. Pick your Opry date,’” Ray said.
He picked the date that was available closest to his grandfather’s birthday, which was April 24, 2015.
“He played an old Gibson 335 in every photo, you see that guitar. I used that guitar at my debut. The Opry kind of let me pay tribute. I felt like he made his debut too. It was a really special moment. He wasn’t physically there, but I knew he was there,” Ray said.
To date, Ray has played at the Opry 53 times. He counts that among his most meaningful accomplishments.
Also important to him is being able play for his family and community back in Florida.
“Growing up in that world, then going back with them, knowing how much they sacrificed for me. It means a lot to go home and play a show and have them there,” he said.
In 2018, Ray released “Amos,” which elicited three singles, “Get to You”, “One That Got Away” and “Her World or Mine.”
In 2019, he married Pearce, who was a Country Music Awards New Artist of the Year nominee. Her debut album, “Every Little Thing,” is the highest-charting solo female debut album since July 2015.
The duo recorded a song called “Finish Your Sentences.”
“We were sitting on it for about a year, waiting. Now we get to play it,” Ray said.
The couple will perform that song during Pearce’s set at Hollywood Casino.
“It’s fun performing together. She is definitely the stronger singer. I have to make sure I’m stepped up to be the best I can be. It’s cool to have these experiences together,” he said.
Ray said the Charles Town concert also will feature “all the hits.” He likes being able to tour around on the bus and have audiences show up. It reminds him of the days playing little hometown bars.
“I miss those days, the innocence of it,” he said. “I break it down in the middle of my set, do a little honky tonk, come up with things on the spot. It’s good to change things up a little, to have fun in the moment and be spontaneous.”