“I took some time to really think about what I wanted,” says Michael Ray, who’s spent the last year balancing road shows and songwriting appointments. “When you strip it all back, think about what really matters to you, you cut away a whole lot of reasons that should never drive your music.
    “I’m a kid from central Florida, raised singing at the Sunshine Opry, playing 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. I knew one guy who makes that kind of country, Michael Knox.”
    Enter the Macon, Georgia-born groundbreaking producer, responsible for 28 No. 1s, 50 million singles and 25 million albums sold. Known for his work with 3x Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year Jason Aldean, as well as Hank Williams, Jr., Montgomery Gentry and Thomas Rhett, Knox understands the potency of making music for people who work hard, who hit the bars and forget what’s bothering them with straight up country on the jukebox or the bandstand.
    “The more we talked, the more I knew he understood where I came from,” Ray says. “My kind of country doesn’t come from TikTok or a tv show, it’s all those straight up country singers who knew life doesn’t always turn out like you think, but you keep going. I’m from a family of EMTs, cable-splicers, first responders; they had to get up and go to work, no matter what was happening... and when they got home, they reached for the music, whether they were going out with my grandpa Amos to watch him play, or some band they were playin’ in.
    “That’s a whole different way to do this, and Michael got it. Just like he knows how dive bars and broken hearts are a lot like George Jones songs and steel guitars – they go together.”
    To mine that ‘80s/’90s edge that had captured Ray’s ear growing up in the rural part of the Sunshine State, Knox brought in the crème de la crème of live players. A large number of Aldean’s touring band, Tim McGraw’s lead guitarist Adam Shoenfeld and Kenny Chesney guitarist/utility player Danny Raider made up the core tracking band. The focus of the tracks was to capture the moment and the performance, looking towards the energy and chemistry on the takes.
    Ray sang with the tracking band on the several songs, allowing their playing to mold to his interpretations of the songs that will become Dive Bars & Broken Hearts, which draws on the phases of how people grow up, fall in love, fall apart, figure stuff out and move on. Evoking many of his favorite vocalists – from Earl Thomas Conley to Ronnie Milsap, Haggard, Jones and Alabama’s Randy Owen – there’s joy, gravitas, failure, regret, adult moments and yes, even some good times.
    “Good ole boys grow up to be pretty good men,” Ray says. “Taking time to really think about what I wanted to say, writing some and listening to a whole lot of songs, I realized: people aren’t singing about what happens when you go from wild-eyed kid to anything other than a settled down husband and young father. So, this is country for the rest of us, for kids who only really listened to country music, who know their Gilley from their Conlee or their Conley... and we’re out there! I can’t wait to get some of this out there for people who love this kind of straight up country.”