Michael Ray finds a new kind of coolness for his new album by being more vulnerable

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June 25, 2018 11:15 PM

When Michael Ray released his debut album in 2015, he says, he was trying hard to be “the cool guy.”

“You know what I mean?” Ray, 30, tells PEOPLE. “You gotta be ‘the dude.'”

Inside, though, he was still the guy who grew up in a double-wide trailer in small-town Florida, still the guy who learned about the Grand Ole Opry from his grandpa, and still the guy who has suffered his share of heartbreak, grief and troubles.

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Michael Ray
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But three years of meeting fans, he says, taught him “it’s cool to be vulnerable as a man.” Hearing people share their lives and stories, he says, helped him discover “it was okay to be really real, to be real open — and I realized that’s what we’re here for.”

Now, he’s channeled these revelations into his recently debuted second album, and its sense of authenticity begins with the title: Amos. It’s the first name of his beloved grandfather, who died just two months before Ray made his Opry debut in 2015.

A Florida phone company worker who spent weekends playing in a family country band, Amos Roach had a “passion for music that was unbelievable his whole life,” Ray says. “He passed that passion and love down to my dad’s generation … And then here comes us, our generation of the family.”

Ray remembers being on stage, a toy Kermit the Frog guitar in hand, by the time he turned 3; his grandfather and uncle taught him to play a real guitar when he was 9, and he quickly became a full-fledged member of the band. When the time came to name the album, Ray says, someone at his label mentioned how much his grandfather is “a part of my story … so why don’t we name it that?”

Ray says he didn’t think twice: “Yeah, absolutely.”

Though his grandfather isn’t the subject of any song, the name sets the tone for an album that Ray says is far more revealing and intimate than his first.

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For instance, two songs — current single “Get to You” and “Her World or Mine” — offer a glimpse of what Ray felt during his breakup last year with his longtime girlfriend. The heartbreak expressed in “Her World or Mine,” Ray says, “is the reason I got into country music.”

The inspiring “Dancing Forever” put him in touch with his supportive relationship with his younger sister. “We all need to know that we’ve got that one person … [who is] always going to have our back,” he says.

The energy of “Fan Girl” offers a vicarious experience of his live shows, he says. And “Drink One For Me” brings back memories of his hometown of Eustis, Florida, and all the buddies who went their separate ways, many into the military.

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In total, Ray sees the album as a reflection of the personal and professional growth he has experienced in the last couple of years — and he’s done a lot of growing. He’s purchased his first home. He’s learned the responsibility of being a touring artist who must lead a band and crew. More recently, he’s had to endure watching his father undergo a second open-heart surgery.

That health crisis last December, Ray says, helped him put into perspective his brush with the law only days before. The singer was arrested in Eustis for driving under the influence (a charge later reduced to reckless driving) and for felony possession of cannabis oil, both first offenses. Last week, a Florida court accepted Ray’s pleas of no contest to the driving charge and guilty to the felony possession. For the first charge, he was fined $250, plus court costs; for the second charge, he must obey several court-ordered conditions, including abiding by the law, performing 50 hours of community service and submitting to possible spot checks for drug and alcohol abuse. If he follows the conditions for 18 months, prosecution will be permanently deferred.

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Because Ray is still under court supervision, he can’t comment on the outcome of his case. But he does say the episode has made him even more grateful for the blessings in his life. When he found himself, days after the arrest, sitting in the hospital waiting room through his dad’s surgery, he was reminded of his grandfather’s words: “If you think you’ve got something wrong, there’s somebody that would trade their left arm to be in your position.”

With his father now healed, Ray says, “everything else is good. God’s got everything handled with all that other stuff.”

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