DIVE BARS & BROKEN HEARTS
“We only like our labels on longnecks, nice and cold…”
Michael Ray didn’t have a choice. Not really. Raised in the heart of Central Florida, where horses and gators cluster, country music was always in the air. Even now, whether you’re in truck flying down a backroad, sitting on a porch, a boat out in the swamp, someone’s kitchen or just doing 60 hours in a 40-hour week, country’s the sound floating on the breeze.
That sound pulled the always-listening kid into songs, tumbling Telecaster guitar licks and a no-big-deal blue-collar heroism that didn’t exist in any other genre. Sure, Ray liked Southern rock, pop and what his peers were listening to on the radio. But when you factor in a grandfather who worked hard, but lived to get cleaned up and go out where the music was, as well as a father who put together a band who played anywhere people came to dance, drink, celebrate or forget, it was only a matter of time. Sunshine Opry. Local bars. Picking parties. It was all right there in and around Eustis, population just under 24,000.
By the time he was 11 years old, Ray was sitting in, turning up, asking what song was next.
“You don’t think of it as legacy,” says the quiet, always humble vocalist. “You think of it as family, as what you do, almost how you talk…and to be honest, as a way to play with the men, it seemed to be how we bonded.
“I’m from Central Florida, raised singing at the Sunshine Opry, playing at Froggers, turning it up when Jones, Hank Jr. and later Montgomery Gentry hit the dial. I like the ones who hit their country straight up and hard. Whether it’s rowdy or sad, that’s when it feels the best.”
It wasn’t long before he was out playing most nights. People who worked for a living liked the way the high school kid understood their music from the inside out. Known for connecting with the crowd, he filled bars all over the Sunshine State and spent days splitting cable, dreaming about what might happen if he took the plunge.
“Coming from a family of people who are EMTs, builders and people who hold things together, it seemed like a crazy idea. But being a crazy kid, it seemed like that was the time to do it.”
Four No. 1s later – including the Platinum-certified “Whiskey And Rain” and “Think A Little Less” – Michael Ray was at a crossroads. Having proven he could do it Nashville’s way, he needed to decide: follow the path or chase the sounds in his head. Like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Dwight Yoakam and Keith Whitley before him, he decided to follow this notion deep inside of what country music was. Hard-hitting, honest, real, it was something fluid and alive. He knew it to carry feelings, mirror life even when it was hard. He wanted to give enough power to whatever he sang, so that people not only knew he meant it but the sound stayed with them for days. Dive Bars & Broken Hearts is the distillation of all the things Michael Ray believes country music to be. Teaming with Macon, Georgia born producer Michael Knox, known for his Country Music Association Album of the Year production for Jason Aldean, the dark-eyed singer found a kindred spirit in his quest to make music strong enough to stand up to 100 proof drinks and eyes that leave you feeling so much more than seen.
With the gently shuffling title track from the pens of Josh Thompson and Jesse Frasure, the writers behind “Whiskey And Rain,” “Dive Bars & Broken Hearts” is a survey course of country classics – from Haggard’s “Misery & Gin,” cigarettes and smoke, pawn shop diamond rings, George Jones’ songs, steel guitars, broken records and the way the wrong things feel so right – delivered with a true tenor that lights the way to honky tonk delight. Beyond being a treatise of juke joint romanticism, it sets the table for an EP that explores the phases and stages of life beyond the working day.
“There’s a lot that happens when you’re not on the job,” Ray explains. “It’s those other hours where who we are really comes out. When Michael and I started pulling these songs together, I realized there aren’t records that really get under the hood of what life feels like when you’re a guy like me. So, it gave us some room to really cover some living most people don’t see.”
“Don’t Give A Truck,” cleverly titled, dead-eyes the reality of how wild-eyed kids grow into good ole boys. It’s a reality that tumbles from generation-to-generation, that idea of freedom chased, found and creating a spirit unlike anything 9-to-5 could ever yield, while the tension in the smoky “Get Her Back” takes a triple entendre and moves from reactivity to higher ground while owning the human emotions and shaking off the obvious reactions. Even the Alabama-evoking “Hate This Town,” thick with Jeff Cook-feeling electric guitars and a meandering pace, is a bulked-up ballad that acknowledges how breaking up stains everything one loves about where they are. With a vocal that ascends, Ray delivers a hometown assessment of the ways the one who’s gone lingers everywhere he’s inhabited. “Life goes on,” acknowledges Ray. “But that doesn’t mean everywhere you look there isn’t a memory. Some you shake off, some hang on; some are great times you can’t believe you had, others just suck. The best country songs are the ones you recognize all the details, and it adds up to knowing the feeling. It’s a trick country songs pull off, and I think these songs have that.” Recorded largely live with members of Jason Aldean’s live band, Tim McGraw’s bass player XXXX and Kenny Chesney’s multi-instrumentalist, Dive Bars & Broken Hearts is Ray at his most supple. Tracking with the band, several of the vocals are enhanced by the immediacy of singing with the players. “Live is where my voice comes into its own. For me, that chemistry between the musicians always pours over to me – and it gives me a truer center when I’m singing. I’m part of the band, working with them, instead of some guy singing along or over them.” Apparent on the futility-forward “Spirits And Demons,” a swaying ballad that sorts through the perils of trying to kill the pain by outdrinking the memories, Ray smolders. Stark, straight up, the heartache is bottomless and regret swells as he trades licks with the fiery Meghan Patrick, a two-time Canadian Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year who brings gospel burn. “Hearing her sing, it stops you in your tracks,” Ray says of his duet partner. “She throws lightning bolts, and with emotions this raw, you have to really stay on your game to keep up with her. And then she stops singing, and she’s just a regular girl from the neighborhood who can get out there and hold her own with the guys.” That broken-in, down-to-the-treads way of taking on life is a big piece of Dive Bars & Broken Hearts. In a world of dialed-in perfection, Ray recognizes the best kind of country’s got some sweat and some dirt on it. It should fit you like your favorite jeans, but not gloss over the fact nobody’s perfect. “That’s part of the glory of working with Michael,” Ray begins. “He’s from Macon, the home of the Allman Brothers, Capricorn Records, Otis Redding, all music that’s a lot of heart and real – and it comes from that live space. You can’t get there except through miles and miles of backroads, long nights on teeny stages and giving it up every single time you play. “It takes the places where you screw up, or you hang glide through a moment in real perspective. Michael bulks that up, turns it into tracks that feel like the things I’ve always heard in my head.” It also embodies that same palpable essence of knowing there’s always more and better.
The fiddle-whirled “Workin’ On It” is a joyous embrace of knowing bad decisions will get made, brown liquor will be had, probably chased by a beer or two, but in the process, a good hearted man is only figuring life – and himself – out. A work in progress making the best of the moments at hand, his progress is always in motion – and his ability to laugh about whatever is his secret weapon. “There was only one way to close this EP: ‘Workin’ On It,’ which is everything I am. No matter how well or worse I do, I always want to get better. I show up, I pay attention, I do my best. Some days, that’s pretty good – and some days? Well, we’re all human. As long as we’re trying to grow stronger or better, then we’re on the right path. To me, that’s what makes this song everything. “And beyond how the track feels, everything about this song says enjoy life where you are; know you can be better and just keep trying. If you keep working on it, little by little, you’re gonna get there.”