Sometimes you just follow your heart, even when you’re not sure where it’s taking you. For Michael Ray, who grew up going to – and playing at – the juke joints and hole in the walls of Central Florida with his father and grandfather, he didn’t realize he was going not just in a circle but coming full circle until he’d finished the tracking sessions for Dive Bars & Broken Hearts.


    Six songs, recorded with multi-Platinum CMA Album of the Year producer Michael Knox, Dive Bars & Broken Hearts traces a boy coming into his own, chasing life and girls, getting his heart broken and learning to man up, carry on and evolve. Portraying coming of age for Ray – and so many young men (and women) just like him, it’s easy-going in places, moody and dark in others; it’s almost a love song to being willing to face life as it comes, know there’s solace in the jukebox and a better day if you’re willing to reach for it. 


    “Life is sometimes a lot simpler than we make it,” says the dark-headed vocalist. “And we have a lot more power to accept what doesn’t work and grow, or to create the best possible life than we realize... And that’s where some of the best country songs come from. For me, Dive Bars is about all that, without ever giving up or losing your sense of the right thing to do.”


    Covered by a lot of media including American Songwriter, Apple Music, The Boot and PEOPLE, Tennessean critic Marcus K. Dowling summarized it best, writing, “For Ray, it’s all about the songs... Successfully navigating the honesty and precision required to age both gracefully and suddenly... his time inside of home and mind combined with the best of the genre’s decade long pop-aimed sounds and styles created appealing material.”


    “I don’t know if it’s pop so much as ‘80s and ‘90s country,” he reflects, laughing, “which to me was pretty traditional. Keith Whitley, Merle Haggard, Hank Jr. – and yes, the Allman Brothers, ‘cause I am a Florida boy. Once Michael and I got started, I knew I wanted this music to sound like what country music had always been to me. Talking to the Tennessean, Marcus got it.”


    Subtitled, “Talk of Willie, Waylon, wisdom and an ‘old-school country’ mentality highlight a conversation with the Florida-born multiple-time country chart-topper” pretty much says it. The profile cites Ray’s co-written “Don’t Give A Truck” for the way it “modernizes parents stoking their children’s wanderlust for frontier life by mentioning how his grandparents always warned his family members, ‘don't give a truck to a boy.’”


    “There are pieces of me in all these songs,” Ray explains. “It’s how I grew up, what I learned, how I became a man... and how I was raised to always try every day to be a better man. But even more importantly, we didn’t shy away from having to man up and not just react, to recognize that you’re gonna make some mistakes along the way. More importantly, for me or anyone listening, there’s friendship and getting through even the tough stuff; you hear Meghan Patrick singing ‘Spirits & Demons’ with me, that’s everything life and country music is: temptation, melody, knowing better, getting tougher and being real.


    “Setting this project up, we’ve been in some dive bars, the Grand Ole Opry, playing some really big festivals. All I know is everywhere we go, people are responding to these songs like they do ‘Whiskey and Rain’ and ‘Think a Little Less.’ When you can do that with new songs, that says something... But whether it’s just how good these songs feel, or the fact I’ve lived all of them and a lot of other people have been in the same situations, the live crowds feel like they know what I’m singing about!” 


    Recorded largely live with key road players from Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean, Dive Bars & Broken Hearts is here. Grab a cold one – and listen.