Newcomer Michael Ray Gets 'Real' With His Second Single

Robby Klein
Michael Ray photographed in 2015.

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Mention Michael Ray’s sophomore single to someone who has never heard it, and you’re likely to get an eye roll over “Real Men Love Jesus.”

The title suggests that it’s more a gospel song than a country one, but after a listen or two, it’s clear that the subject matter is a little more earthbound.

“This song is not a Jesus song,” Warner Music Nashville (WMN) senior vp A&R Scott Hendricks insists. “It’s not. I know there have already been some people who have had a little bit of a kickback on it, but you know what? They better be watching out for lightning.”

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The song does indeed incorporate a touch of religion, but its real focus is the kind of balanced character that, in Ray’s view, the good Lord would approve of in an all-American male.

“It’s about being a good man, and the equalizing of being tough and being sensitive,” says Ray. “This song embodies a lot.”

If the title “Real Men Love Jesus” sounds like a bumper sticker, there’s a reason. Songwriter Brett Warren (“Little Bit of Everything,” “Red Solo Cup”) saw that phrase on two different fenders while driving to a songwriting appointment in 2014, and it was almost as if he was receiving guidance from above.

“When I saw the second one, I said, ‘I just need to write that song,’ ” recalls Brett.

He barely waited for his co-writers to sit down, according to Lance Miller (“Drink to That All Night,” “Beer With Jesus”), before introducing the title to the group, which included brother Brad Warren (“Highway Don’t Care,” “Wrong Baby Wrong”) and co-writer Adam Sanders (“Hell of a Night,” “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey”). And they trusted Brett’s enthusiasm.

“When he gets passionate about a title, it makes us all pay attention, because he can be a good leader in the room when the right idea’s there,” says Miller. “And that happened that day.”

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t resistance. Brad expected it would be a gospel song and was inclined to pass. But he turned the tables on himself and dove in on it.

“I was going through a time there where my motto was ‘consider the opposite,’ because my instincts are so wrong so often,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘No,’ I went, ‘Yeah.’ If I’m thinking ‘no,’ it’s got to be a great idea.”

And it was. Brett’s focus was more on the “real men” portion of the title than on the “Jesus” part, and he suggested that they create a list of all the attributes that make up a real man and try to put them in a three-minute song.

“I got two sons and two daughters,” explains Brett. “I wanted to make a list of everything I want my boys to be, and everything I want the boys to be that my daughters are going to marry.”

As a result, it became a mix of the rugged and the tender. On one hand, the guy they hold up is the ultimate man’s man -- he likes football and cowboys, works long hours and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. On the other hand, he’s sensitive enough to call home without a reason, to profess his faith and to say “I love you” without embarrassment.

“The irony is the guy in the song is way more manly than I am,” admits Brad. “And, by the way -- Brett, Lance and Adam, I’ll speak for them, too -- this is the kind of guy we want to be, but not necessarily the guy we always are.”

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Brett decided to demo the song at a future session, though Brad thought it wasn’t a likely hit and that they should save it for another day. For a second time in the process, he went against his instincts and moved forward with the song at that session. Brad patterned the guitar intro after a 1992 Ozzy Osbourne single, “Mama, I’m Coming Home” (No. 2, Mainstream Rock), and was surprised with the final demo.

“When we got it back, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s the shit,’ ” he says. “I hadn’t realized it before.”

Thomas Rhett was the first artist to glom onto “Real Men Love Jesus” in summer 2014, and he started playing it live while he had it on hold. But when his sophomore album went in more of an R&B direction, he let go of it in early 2015. Several acts were interested, but Ray was the most passionate after hearing “Real Men” on a demo CD compiled by WMN vp A&R Cris Lacy. Ray’s grandfather, Amos Roach, had died Feb. 4, 2015 -- just nine days after WMN released Ray’s debut single, “Kiss You in the Morning,” to radio -- and “Real Men” hit Ray while the wounds were still fresh.

“It reminded me of my grandfather and my dad and the guys that raised me,” he says. “One of the lines that stuck out to me [was] in the chorus, ‘To say I love you, they don’t need a reason…’ ”

Ray liked it enough that he talked the song up with some of his fellow artists, and Love and Theft’s Stephen Barker Liles called Brad to lobby on his behalf. The writers gave the song to Ray, and he recorded it during the final round of sessions for his debut album at 
Nashville’s Ocean Way Studios. Hendricks stacked the arrangement with several non-standard guitars -- two 12-strings and a nine-string -- and they created enough vibration in the track that the musicians kept embellishments to a minimum.

“The hardest thing was to get all those string things to work together so that it’s not just one big wash of stringed instruments,” says Hendricks.

The gritty weight of the song coupled with the rich texture of those guitars immediately set it apart as they put the finishing touches on the album.

“The first go-through with the band, one of the guys was like, ‘This is going to be great,’ ” recalls Ray. “You could just feel it. It was one of those moments in the studio that stood out in the whole recording process.”

Ray practically guaranteed that the emotion would be there when he cut his final vocals on “Real Men.” The background wallpaper on his cellphone is a photo of his grandfather, so he turned off the ringer and held the device while he delivered the song.

That emotional content is a major reason WMN shipped it to broadcasters through Play MPE on Aug. 24. Early believers brought it to a No. 59 debut on Country Airplay, but it slipped to No. 61 in its second week on the list. The label expected such resistance, though feedback from people who worked Carrie 
Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel” provided some confidence. “There were a lot of people who said that would never fly,” notes Hendricks.

For their part, the writers are convinced that “Real Men” has its best chance in the hands of Michael Ray.

“I know that we got the right guy singing it,” says Miller. “I can’t wait to see what he’s able to do with it.”