Michael Ray Rediscovers His Florida Roots With Confident New EP, ‘Higher Education’

by Matthew Wilson

Who says you can’t go home again? Michael Ray is bringing pieces of his Florida roots to Music City with his new EP, Higher Education. The seven-track album is a confident showcase for the artist, merging several aspects from his road to country music fame.

For one, the album plays like a love letter to the country music greats Ray spent his life looking up to. But the artist also grapples with his own identity and rise to fame. Heritage and legacy play a recurring role. Ray nostalgically takes listeners back to when he first started plucking chords.

He’s also decided who he wants to be as an artist. Ray admittedly played the “game” when he first got to Nashville, chasing after music trends, albeit to a lot of success. But with Higher Education, Ray has something he wants to say.

“If I’m being very honest, it really hit me in the last year. There were times where it felt like I was playing the game. I’m very proud of the success that we’ve had,” Ray tells Outsider in an exclusive interview. He’s focused on lessons, such as, “Be your own man. Stand your ground. And do what you do and grow. And the people who love it will gravitate to it.”

Didn’t Know He Was Country

Michael Ray is a Florida boy, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Take “Holy Water” for instance, which Ray says was inspired by songs he heard during his youth. Ray grew up on Gary Allan, one of country music’s most underappreciated greats according to Ray. Written by Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps, Ben Johnson, and Michael Hardy, the tune brings a little bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern rock vibes.

“I really wanted that old story-song. I fell in love with those story-songs,” Ray says. “You don’t hear a lot of them anymore. I wanted that throwback, kinda swamp, Jerry Reed-type feel. Take me back to back to Jacksonville when Skynyrd and them were rocking. The Allman Brothers and all that stuff. There’s a lot of Florida sprinkled all over this record.”

Meanwhile, “Didn’t Know I Was Country,” which Ray wrote with Taylor Phillips and Ashley Gorley, is an anthem for embracing one’s hometown wherever it may be. And Michael became quite the success embracing his. Before he even moved to Nashville, Ray was playing at sold-out bars in Florida. That local buzz helped keep him afloat while he shopped his music around in hopes of getting a record deal.

Home Again

So if “Higher Education” feels a bit like a homecoming, that’s because it is. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Ray left Music City for Florida. He spent the time rediscovering parts of himself he forgot had been swept away by long weeks on the road. “You go so much. It’s easy to lose grip of your roots.”

Before Merle Haggard or Jerry Reed or even Gary Allan, Ray first became enamored with music watching his grandfather and dad play. The artist first found his passion for music playing in a band with his family. So it’s only appropriate that he found inspiration there for his new album.

“This was what I moved to Nashville for,” Ray says. “It was those people, it was that town, it was my family, it was everyone who believed in me since I was 17 and playing bars and learning and growing and they showed up every night. They saw something in me and I want to represent them.”