“Amos is the one that really planted the seed for me musically,” says Ray. “He started my family’s band, taught me how to play guitar, and played with me for years growing up.”
At the ripe age of two, a young Ray — whose full name is Michael Ray Roach — joined the family performances, pretending to play a toy guitar.
“I was always around it," he recalls. "My grandfather had guitars. My family was known for being a musical family. Everybody played; everybody sang. But when my parents divorced when I was eight, Amos showed me my first three chords, and that was it.”
From there, music had a snowball effect, says the Eustis, Florida, native. “Music became my outlet, my safe place. I went through a couple of difficult years from the confusion and hard times with the divorce and family stuff, but I knew if I was playing guitar in my room or out with my grandfather playing somewhere with him, all was right in my world.”
During his teens, Ray started accompanying his grandfather to assisted-living homes and community centers, where they would perform together for the residents and community. This led to the two playing more gigs, sometimes logging four nights a week around Central Florida. Gaining experience, the growing musician not only honed his craft, but developed his own solo efforts. After he built a regional fan base, he moved to Nashville to try and land a recording deal.
“I had already been played on the radio down in Florida, so I had a foundation built when I moved to Nashville,” says Ray, who was in his early twenties then. “It was cool, because I didn’t have to find a full-time job like a lot of aspiring artists that move here do. I could go back to Florida and play clubs and make some money, and I could book some shows in Georgia, Mississippi and the Southeast area.”
Having one foot in Nashville and the other on the road came with its pros and cons. “The good thing was I was touring and people were recognizing that we were doing a ton of dates, but the flip side was I wasn’t always in Nashville, meeting people and making important connections. I had some catching up to do, but it all worked out. I don’t know how, but I landed where I needed to be.”
His smooth, rich vocals and classic-to-progressive country sound caught the attention of Warner Music Nashville, and Ray inked a deal with the label and released his first eponymous album in 2015, which spawned the hits “Kiss You in the Morning” and “Think a Little Less.” Three years later, he followed up with “Amos,” an eleven-song album that honors his roots and pays homage to his grandfather. It debuted in the top three on the Billboard country albums chart upon release and generated the radio smashes “Get to You” and the country crooner’s third chart-topper, “One That Got Away.”
Ray, a 2019 American Country Music Awards New Male Vocalist of the Year nominee, is enjoying success with his latest single and the emotional centerpiece of the record, “Her World or Mine,” which is currently climbing the charts both on country radio and on music video channels like Country Music Television.
“With Amos, I started going down the path that I wanted a bit more and felt like some songs on it, like ‘Her World or Mine’ showed where I came from,” Ray says about the deep cut and stirring music video he filmed for it.
And those origins matter to Ray.
“You know, my grandfather raised me on country legends like George Strait, Alabama, Merle Haggard, Garth Brooks and Keith Whitley," Ray recalls. "That’s who I cut my teeth on. And I wanted to tell everybody about the guy who believed in country music so much that he taught it to me and to everyone he knew. It was his greatest passion.”
Michael Ray and his wife, Carly Pearce, will perform as part of 106.7 The Bull’s Birthday Bash at 6:30 p.m. Monday, December 2, at the Grizzly Rose, 5450 Lincoln Street. Tickets are $30 and available at the Grizzly Rose website.
Hear Michael Ray and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.