When it came time for Michael Ray to make his second album, he experienced a hurdle familiar to any artist who's had some success right out of the gate. His singles "Kiss You in the Morning" and "Think a Little Less" from his self-titled debut were both big hits, increasing the demand for Ray as a live act. A mixed blessing, it limited his ability to focus on his well-being and new music, and left the Florida native all but exhausted.
Ray was also just finally coming to terms with chronic anxiety that began affecting both his mental and physical health when he was a kid – a condition not made any easier by his parents' heated divorce when he was 8. Now 30, he found unexpected aid from those who helped validate his past few years as an artist: country music fans.
"I battled anxiety my entire life – a drastic amount that I've hid. It caused ulcers as a kid … I didn't know what was wrong with me. I was like, 'Why am I waking up and already feel this pressure on my chest?' I'm gonna put on a smile and do this, but on the inside, I'm scared. All this stupid stuff that's in your head and you can't get out," Ray says. "Then I started meeting fans."
Those interactions made him realize he wasn't alone in his anxiety. Instead, there were many like him, each working through his or her own moments of doubt, worry and fear.
"I'm realizing, 'We're all the same and this is me.' This is the crap I went through. This is what I battle," he says, eager to share his story. "If I can say it, hopefully it inspires somebody through my music or maybe they see an interview or whatever it is, and they go, 'That's how I feel.' There were times where it wasn't the easiest, and I always try to be on and cool: 'Oh, I've got my shit together.' But I don't."
That manifested itself in December when Ray was arrested on DUI and cannabis oil possession charges after his Jeep rolled into another car in a McDonald's drive-thru at 3:30 a.m. in his hometown of Eustis, Florida.
"I honestly never saw that coming, but with it there was that vulnerability and a side I never had experienced. I've never been in trouble a day in my life. … I'm overthinking, anxiety-driven, so add that on top of it. I was like, 'What the hell just happened? Is this it? Is this going to mess everything up that we're doing?' Everything's going great, and boom, that happens," says Ray. "But through that, I never felt more love and support from fans or from my peers in country music."
Ray found himself dwelling on the memory of his late grandfather Amos, with whom he spent his formative years playing guitar and singing in a local Florida band. Amos – after whom Ray's new album is titled – died in 2015, just as the singer's career was taking off on a national level.
"He wasn't getting paid for those shows," Ray tells Rolling Stone Country. "There was no money. He was treating it like he was playing Madison Square Garden, but we were just playing the local community center, or the local American Legion or whatever it might be. It was just his love for it."
From a young age, Ray took notice of how Amos carefully arranged the classic country covers in their set lists to capture the audience's attention and keep them engaged throughout the show. He'd mix in slower ballads, such as Porter Wagoner's "Green, Green Grass of Home" and Willie Nelson and Ray Charles' "Seven Spanish Angels," alongside uptempo numbers like Ray Price's "Heartaches by the Number" and Merle Haggard's "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink."
Though the sounds on his new album may be a little different from those classic country standards, Ray applied Amos' methods when it came to selecting and sequencing songs for the LP.
Opening track "Fan Girl" is an arena-ready rocker that would probably have Amos scratching his head, but Michael has been using it to kick off his live shows for several months now.
"[Amos] would tell me 'Fan Girl' sounds a little progressive, but luckily, I sound country [singing it]," he says, grinning. "I know the songs [on the album] that he would give me a little grief on, but I know that he would dig it. I know he would like where we're headed with it."
The first glimpse of Amos' direct musical influence pops up on "Summer Water." It's a sun-soaked ode to life on the lakes of Ray's native central Florida. The slight gospel influence on the chorus celebrates the pleasures of God's creation, be it a gorgeous sunset or the beauty of the female form.
"Every time I sing that song, it gives me chills," he says. "It just puts me there every time – back in Lake County."
It's on the fourth track, the album's lead single "Get to You," that Ray truly starts to spread out artistically. The song was released to radio in July 2017, and it's just now nearing the Top 10 on the country radio charts. That long grind to reach the top is paying off for Ray because the song's unique melodic structure is unlike anything else currently being played on country radio, plus the high notes concluding each chorus allow Michael to show off a previously underused vocal range.
The record takes another left turn with "Forget About It," a Latin-tinged number written by hit songwriters Luke Laird and Jaren Johnston of the Cadillac Three that Ray says has already become the biggest song in his live set.
"I think they even stepped out of their comfort zone a little bit writing this one," Michael says. "When Jaren sent that to me, I got the e-mail, and he said something like, 'You are one of the few people who I think might be able to pull this off.'"
One of the quieter, more solemn numbers on Amos incorporates a move he picked up from another central figure in his musical education. When Ray was 12, he went to see Garth Brooks in Orlando. It's a rite of passage he still talks about passionately nearly 20 years later, but it's not the high-energy moments of Brooks' show he remembers most.
"He had the crowd going nuts, and then all of a sudden, he hits an acoustic number – 'The Dance' – and shuts up an entire arena in Orlando, Florida," says Ray. "And me being 12 years old, went 'Holy shit, I want to do that.'"
That's why he's got the aching country ballad "Her World or Mine," located exactly at the center point of Amos. The lyrics cleverly leave open to interpretation whether the man or woman in the situation is the one hurting over the breakup and which one is moving on. Ray went through a breakup of his own while recording Amos, so the lyrics hit close to home even though he didn't pen the song himself.
"When I first heard that, I texted [the writer] Travis [Denning] and I said, 'Have you been following me? Have you been at my house, man? This was spot-on,'" says Ray.
Ray believes the album's closing song would get the biggest thumbs-up from his grandfather. "Drink One for Me" is a tribute to the men and women serving in the U.S. military, but the lyrics place the focus on the emotions the individual soldier and the troop's family members are feeling as the soldier is deployed. Ray has a few childhood friends who have served overseas, so they're on his mind every time he sings the song.
"The biggest thing they wanted was just to make home stay the same," he says. "So, no matter where they're at in the world, they know that, 'Hey, I know what my buddies are doing right now.' It's just celebrating our soldiers and our men and women in uniform. It's us saying, 'We'll keep home the same for you. You just come home to us.'"