Country

Makin' Tracks: Michael Ray Blends Multiple Retro Eras Into New Country Single 'Whiskey and Rain'

Michael Ray
Sean Hagwell

Michael Ray

Misery loves company. It's an important part of Michael Ray's new single, "Whiskey and Rain," though the protagonist never encounters another person in the course of the song.

"The company part is that rain and that whiskey that's helping him get through it," explains Ray.

Misery, loneliness and alcohol are all classic elements of old-school country songs, and they help "Whiskey and Rain" provide a musical salve for Ray, who spent much of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic sheltering with family in Florida. He determined during those weeks that his career needed a shot of the traditional sound that had inspired his original pursuit of country, and "Whiskey" — particularly the winding guitar-and-keyboard lick in the intro — is a proper elixir.

"That makes me remember hearing Gary Allan for the first time, and Gary Stewart, and Buck Owens," he says. "That beginning grabs you immediately, and the sway of that chorus, I just feel like it's this good, two-stepping-feel song."

"Whiskey and Rain" is the result of an old-school songwriting arrangement, too. Josh Thompson ("Drowns the Whiskey," "One Margarita") authored it roughly two years ago with Jesse Frasure ("Dirt On My Boots," "Remember You Young") at the Rhythm House publishing operation near Nashville's fairgrounds. The room was less crowded than the typical 2020 co-write, and fewer people led to fewer doubts about the work.

"I find the smoothest writes are two-way writes," observes Frasure. "You just go, ‘Do you like this?' And they go, ‘Yeah.' Then you move on. There's not a third party going, ‘Well, what if we did this angle?' "

Frasure came to the appointment with a handful of musical ideas, and Thompson gravitated to a midtempo one with a curvy signature lick. The "Whiskey and Rain" phrase fit nicely with that musical hook, and they used it to launch the chorus, quickly following it with a "comin' down, comin' down" afterthought that became a secondary hook, though it filled up enough space that it threatened to create a breathing problem.

"Not a lot of gaps there," concedes Frasure.

The chorus carried out the liquid nature of the title, both the bourbon and the weather helping to "wash away the past." Pieces of the melody intertwined with the sig lick, then pulled away, then intertwined again. It represented an addictive musical dance, even if the guy in the song was forced to dance alone.

Once that stanza was completed, the writers backed up to the opening lines of the first verse, referencing a downpour on the tin roof and a Black Label brand to hint at the eventual title. And once they established the singer as the sole occupant of his honky-tonk living room, they inserted that important observation: Misery loves company.

"I just thought that was a cool line that basically summed up the whole thing — the company of the rain, the whiskey — and just kind of setting up that mood," notes Frasure.

The second verse turned the protagonist's pain into a hangover and ambled its way toward a repeat of the chorus. Before it was all over, they repurposed the "Misery loves company" line, bringing it out to set up a final down chorus, a subdued section that sets up the song's conclusion.

Frasure tweaked the demo with a sibilant, '80s-pop drum sound and light, flute-tinted piano chords, and Thompson delivered the vocal, confirming in the process that the "comin' down, comin' down" section was going to work.

"Some of the best writers in town can sell the hell out of a demo; you know, really get that emotion across," says Frasure of Thompson's performance. "As long as he can pull off a phrase, I know it's singable."

Frasure's wife, Rhythm House vp Stevie Frasure, sent the demo to Morris Higham Management executive Buffy Cooper, who thought highly of it and passed it along to Ray. It was the first song he put on hold for his next album.

"It has the sad lyrics, obviously — this guy is going through heartbreak — but there's kind of a light at the end of the tunnel," says Ray. "We've all been in that position, and I think that's kind of how this whole year has been, you know? It's been sad, but we're all trying to be hopeful."

The pandemic — the most obviously painful part of 2020 — affected how "Whiskey and Rain" moved forward. Studios were closed in the early days of COVID-19 to prevent the virus' spread, and producer Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Gabby Barrett) had to remotely build the performance one or two tracks at a time. Drummer Nir Z and bassist Tony Lucido laid down the foundation together with Copperman listening in via Zoom. Copperman sewed in the keyboard parts himself and had guitarist Ilya Toshinsky add in his contributions on his own. Despite the isolation, the musicians were able to muster enough energy that the track sounds as if it were cut live.

"There's definitely a magic that happens in the studio when everyone's together," says Copperman. "But I feel like when you have a vision and you know how to attack a song, I think we nailed this one like that."

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Ray recorded his final vocals at the home of his tour manager, Luke Reynolds, who served as engineer while the artist cut five takes of "Whiskey and Rain" for Copperman to work with. Ray did extra advance preparation, expecting that the alternative arrangement would present some obstacles.

"It is weird — hell, we're singing in the damn front part of the house," says Ray. "I didn't see any of the band members when we recorded. So I just tried to focus and learn as much as I can on that song so when I go in, all I have to do is handle that lyric and really hear what we're singing."

Copperman contributed the background vocals, and as he developed mixes, Ray decided it needed a fiddle to increase its traditional country flavor. Jenee Fleenor did the honors, sneaking in after the two-minute mark and taking prominence at the down chorus.

"She was phenomenal," says Copperman. "It sounded like perfection."

In the end, "Whiskey and Rain" blends several eras of country. Lucido's bass grooves like Ronnie Milsap's  1981 crossover "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me." The overall sound is as melodic and easy-going as a 1990s David Lee Murphy single. And the hooky signature lick stamps it in the same way that the instrumental riff IDs Billy Currington's  2009 hit "Don't."

"If I had to play one song for somebody and go, ‘Hey, here's the representation of my record all on one song,' it would be ‘Whiskey and Rain' because there's so many different influences that you're going to hear in this album," says Ray. "I feel like ‘Whiskey and Rain' has elements of the '80s, has elements of the '70s, has elements of the '90s. It really does bring it all together."

"Whiskey and Rain" tied Luke Combs for the second-most-added single in conjunction with the Country Airplay chart dated Nov. 10, and lives on the Nov. 17 list at No. 58, making itself at home with 59 other current country titles.

Misery loves company.