It’s been a long time coming for Michael Ray, who’s always let his music do the talking. With four #1s – including his Platinum certified “Whiskey and Rain” and Platinum “Think A Little Less” – before the pandemic shut the world down, the smoky-voiced purveyor of country songs had plenty of time to think about what he wanted his music to stand for.
Coming into CMA Fest, he decided to drop one last taste of his June 23rdDive Bars & Broken Hearts for all the country music lovers pouring into Nashville to celebrate the best of what life siphoned into songs represents. “Dive Bars & Broken Hearts,” the third and final track released from the Michael Knox-produced EP, could be a master’s thesis on all the things that define country music.
“When you were raised on ‘80s and ‘90s country, and even older stuff, some things just are,” says Eustis, Florida’s favorite son. “The way the acoustic guitar comes up out of the mix, the smell of cigarette smoke, pawn shop diamond rings, Haggard’s ‘Misery & Gin’...All those things and a beat you can dance to is a big piece of playing for tips.
“Knowing that, when I was trying to decide what to call this project, I wanted something that stripped it back to the frame. Dive Bars & Broken Hearts is me getting to the sound I’ve always heard in my head, something that’s played on a jukebox or a bandstand in a bar somewhere just outside of town.”
With a wide-open arrangement, the shimmering, back’n’forth midtempo measures the way some things go together in spite of themselves. As Ray sings, “I’m just a Jones’ song and you’re my steel guitar/ We’ll dance on forever to that broken record...” before waking up alone, it’s a witness to the way bars bring people together again and again, even if they’re gonna fall apart.
“Dive Bars & Broken Hearts” comes with a video from Cypress Hill/Good Charlotte director Spidey Smith, who picks up where the life-embracing “Workin’ On It” left off. But instead of it being a party, Smith catches Ray at Nashville’s original losers lounge: Springwater. While there are the usual suspects – grizzled bar denizens, a girls’ group, a couple of a certain age – “Dive Bars” focuses on Ray in his native habitat. Playing the unadorned postage stamp of a stage, sitting on a bar stool, talking to the barkeep, there’s a spark, but the focus remains how he inhabits the song and delivers a knowing excavation of the emotions that are country’s bedrock.
“I really wanted to pull the reality and the music together,” Ray says of the clip. “I want people to understand where I come from, how I got there, why I love watching country music come to life from all those bandstands I was on growing up... And I wanted people to realize all those things I sing about aren’t just things on a checklist, but stuff I have grown up around.”
With CMA Fest fixing to happen, Ray’s going to do his part. Not only will he be doing a series of radio remotes, look for him making his 71st appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on June 9 and at the Warner/Yeehaw Brewing Co. show on June 10 at 6:15p.m. “I love all things that throwback to my heroes, Conway, Haggard, Jones. Being part of music fest is keeping their traditions alive, which is what Dive Bars & Broken Hearts is all about.”