First impressions can be deceiving. With his formfitting T-shirts, joggers, full-sleeve tattoos and double earrings, Michael Ray looks like the quintessential rock singer. But in actuality, he’s more influenced by Merle Haggard than AC/DC.
The Florida native got his start in country music in 2015 with a self-titled album that spawned two number-one hits: “Kiss You in the Morning” and “Think a Little Less.” His current single, “Get to You,” is in the top 15 on the country charts, and rising.
He’s especially popular among women who were quick to swoon when they saw the handsome face, piercing blue eyes and buff physique that he uses to his advantage in his steamy videos.
Last week, the 30-year-old released his second studio album, “Amos,” which is named after his late grandfather whom he credits with fueling his love for country music. To promote the project, he was in New York doing the media rounds, appearing on “Good Morning America,” “Ellen” and playing a gig at the Opry City Stage in Times Square.
Backstage before the Opry City performance, Ray said in the two-plus years between records, he’s been touring around the country, meeting and greeting his fans, and preparing for his next album. He worked on “Amos” for a solid year, he said, ensuring that he’d chosen just the right blend of classic and contemporary material.
The album features a few upbeat tunes — “Summer Water,” “Spring Break” and the “One That Got Away” — that are sure to please the party crowd in Panama City, Fla. But there are also the more heartfelt numbers — “Her World or Mine” for example — that showcase his softer side.
“Her World or Mine,” a classic country heartbreak song, is Ray’s favorite on the album, he said.
“That really touches on why I named the record after my grandfather because I grew up in his band playing a lot of the traditional music. That was my first introduction to any kind of music ever.”
So even today, when he’s sitting alone, he’ll always gravitate to the classics. “I’m the guy jamming ‘Heartaches by the Number’ by Ray Price,” he said.
He also cites Earl Thomas Conley, Merle Haggard, Doug Stone, Mark Chesnutt, Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney as influences.
Because of his grueling schedule since signing his record deal, Ray didn’t write any of the songs on the album, but he’s embraced them just as much as if he had. “It’s like telling a construction worker he didn’t build a house because he didn’t build the hammer,” he said. “Country music at its core, honest and real, and I don’t have an ego. I’m trying to make the best album I can possibly make, and the best song wins. These men and women were writing better songs for me than I was writing for myself at the time.”
But something that he did have time for was to promote his charity. Called Wrigley Cares, Helping Animals in Need, it’s a rescue foundation named after Wrigley, a Husky/Shepherd mix he adopted during a tour stop in Chicago last year.
“Within four weeks of launching Wrigley Cares, fans brought food, blankets, whatever they could, to shows around our tour stops,” he said His charity partner, North Shore Animal League, would select a local animal shelter in every city and donate the gifts.
The outpouring of charity caught got the attention of Zappos for Good, the e-commerce company’s charity arm, which connected him with Puma. On the same day as the album release on June 1, the Michael Ray-designed Wrigley Cares Limited-Edition Puma Classic Suede Shoe was also released.
“I was able to design a shoe with their designer where 100 percent of the profits go to Wrigley Cares,” he said. “They just launched last week and the response has been great. It’s been really cool to do that and branch out into that world, I’ve never done anything like that before.”
Although the project may have been out of his comfort zone, Ray enjoyed the process and is eager to do again — in both the footwear and apparel space. “It was fun and if the opportunity arose, I’d love to do more,” he said.
He said the Puma Classic Suede Shoes are a particular favorite of his and he remembers wearing them “back in the day.” Today, Ray is more likely to be seen wearing them with a tight solid-color T-shirt, a patterned button-down and jeans or joggers. He especially likes Liverpool shirts, J. Crew and Zara, J Brand and John Varvatos.
“I try to be fashion forward and keep it edgy, but comfort is more important than ever,” Ray said. “That’s really important being on the road a lot, especially in the summer where you play a lot of outdoor shows and festivals and you’re sweating your tail off.”
But he also knows his fans are watching.
“With how visual our generation is and the world right now, I think you have to make sure you look good and put together. It’s as much of a part of our job as making sure you know the lyrics and showing up.”
This summer, Ray will be showing up at a lot of those fairs and festivals, and in the fall, he’ll be teaming with Old Dominion on their “Happy Ending” tour.
“That’s a big step for us,” he said. “It’s our first time being in the direct support spot of an arena tour, so it’ll be really cool. We’ve spent the last few years watching buddies of ours move up into that spot. Now, I think we’re ready for it and honored the Old Dominion guys believed in me enough to put us in that position in their first headlining arena tour.”
Although the venue was more intimate than say, Madison Square Garden, Ray was just as psyched to be able to play the Opry City Stage, an offshoot of Nashville’s famed Grand Ole Opry that opened on 48th and Broadway at the end of last year.
“The Opry to me is the most special place in music to play,” he said. “The fact that it’s grown so much that they have a spot in Times Square just goes to show how much people recognize the Grand Ole Opry and what it’s done for country music and how massively it’s grown.”
Unfortunately, when Ray was invited to play the original location in Nashville just after his first single was released in 2015, his grandfather had passed away from a heart attack two months before. But he honored his hero by playing Amos’ 60-year-old guitar and covering Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” on the Opry as a tribute.
Like music, it’s clear that family runs to the core of Ray’s being, and he shows it in his body art.
“All my tattoos are family or music-oriented,” he said. “My dad and I have the same sleeve. He has it on his right arm, I have it on my left.” There are musical notes on the other arm along with the date of Amos’ death: Feb. 2.
So while Amos may not be here to see the success his grandson has achieved, Ray is pretty sure he’s looking down, smiling and singing along.