"I think I'll be coming out of this year actually better than I went into it," the country music star tells PEOPLE

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Michael Ray
Michael Ray
| Credit: Sean Hagwell

Michael Ray is not perfect.

The country singer, who has experienced his share of snide comments and dirty looks in recent years, is the first one to admit that he has trouble living up to the expectations of an increasingly filtered world. He's the first one to find fault within himself. He's the first one to point out his inadequacies.

But now, he is also the one forgiving himself.

"I'm human," he tells PEOPLE in a recent interview. "For a long time, I just wanted everything to be right. But I'm not perfect and my family is not perfect, and my friends aren't perfect…nobody's perfect. And instead of being ashamed of that, I've started to embrace it now."

Granted, the roller coaster that has been the personal and professional life of Michael Ray is well documented. In 2017, Ray was arrested and charged with DUI and possession of marijuana oil during a late-night fast-food run in his hometown of Eustis, Florida. (Prosecutors later dropped the DUI charge.) And in June of 2020, after eight months of marriage to fellow country star Carly Pearce, she filed for divorce.

But during that precarious time, in an effort to shelter himself from the headlines, Ray found a refuge in the mere act of making music that tells his imperfect story, a story that so many people in this world can certainly relate to during these crazy days. And it's those stories that are weaved within his new EP Higher Education, his first new project since 2018's Amos

Michael Ray
Michael Ray
| Credit: Sean Hagwell

"I've just lifted that curtain on my life and admitted that I struggle with stuff, just like everyone else," says Ray, best known for a long list of chart-topping hits such as "Kiss You in the Morning," "Think a Little Less," and "One That Got Away." "We're all just trying to help each other get through this crazy thing called life and make the most out of that life. Individually, on the outside, some people might look perfect. But everybody's going through something, especially now."

It's this proclamation that rings true in Ray's new song "Just the Way I Am," an honest depiction that seems to line up with Ray's life, a life of a guy who was raised in the woods only to surprise himself by becoming a country music star.

"'Just the Way I Am' is a song for people that, at the end of the day, are just being who they are," says the Florida native of the song written by HARDY, Ben West, and Josh Miller. "Sometimes, someone else can write your story better than you can."

He lets out a long sigh and continues.

"I'll be honest with you…I've been trying to write something like this for a really long time," says Ray, who signed his record deal with Warner Music Nashville back in 2014. "I felt like I had a couple of things that were kind of close, but when I got this, it just really spoke to who I am. I mean, I've gone through my stuff, and you really only have one thing to do, and that's to make a choice as to how you're going to react to it."

And in making that choice, Ray finds himself in a better place than he once was, both personally and professionally. His current single "Whiskey and Rain" currently finds itself in the Top 25-and-climbing at country radio as it tops 40 million on-demand streams.

"I think I'll be coming out of this year actually better than I went into it," says Ray, who also shines on the masterpiece of the EP, a touching song called "Picture" that he co-wrote following the sudden passing of his uncle. "In every way, I'm more confident than I've ever been and more accepting of things than I've ever been. You have no other choice but to grow and be better."

Nevertheless, there is a tinge of anger that remains in Ray's voice about the state of the world at the moment, a world whose obvious polarity has become quite the burden for many.

"We live in a time when you're either this or that…and there's no in-between," explains Ray, who currently finds himself back on the road as part of his Just the Way I Am 2021 Tour. "But the reason we live in this country is for the in-between, so people can agree and disagree on things. And that's how you learn."

And when it comes down to it, Ray is learning that he can't please everybody.

"Basically, this is what I have to offer," concludes Ray, who has performed on the hallowed Grand Ole Opry stage exactly 58 times over the past six years. "And it's going to be great for some and for some, we just ain't going to fit. But this is where I am at. And I've honestly never felt better. I've never felt more confident. I've never felt more connected with my friends. I've never felt such a great one-on-one connection with someone else. I feel like I've got my vision back. I feel like I lost it for a little while. There was a time of my life where I felt like I was just crossing off boxes…but not anymore."