Anatomy of a Hit: Michael Ray's Looks Nearly Pigeonholed Him Before 'Kiss' Could Land

Michael Ray photographed in 2015.

Robby Klein

For the promotion team at Warner Music Nashville's WEA imprint, a bit of divine inspiration may have gone into working Michael Ray's debut single, "Kiss You in the Morning," which hit No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart for the week ending Aug. 22.

The song initially set an internal company record for first-week stations on a debut single, with 60 coming onboard. From there, it practically flew up the chart, reaching the top in just 26 weeks. WEA VP national promotion Jordan Pettit says, "This is the only instance of this I can ever really recall for a debut artist, but we never had one single week where we had less than a triple-digit spin increase. We knew instantly we had something very special."

It became the first-ever No. 1 for the WEA team as well as an individual first for Southwest regional Stephanie Holzer, promotion coordinator Blake Nixon, songwriter Justin Wilson and, obviously, for Ray as well.

"Every step of the way seemed to be a very inspired process, almost like there was another force involved with the way that things were working," says Pettit.

He thinks he knows where that inspiration may have come from. While Ray was on his introductory radio tour -- and just before a February showcase for programmers in Orlando, Fla. -- his beloved grandfather, who was also his musical mentor, suddenly passed away. The label immediately canceled two weeks of the tour, but kept the Orlando show scheduled. Although a group of radio programmers were being flown in for it, the event was a ticketed show for fans, and Ray had already sold out the House of Blues venue.

"We were kind of wondering, 'What next?' " recalls Pettit. "There was a point in time where we didn't know what was happening. 'Is that show going to happen?' 'Where's Michael's head in all of this?' "

Ray surprised everyone by coming back with the eye of the tiger. "He was more inspired than he had ever been," says Pettit of the artist, who paid tribute to his grandfather during that show. "He always wanted his grandfather to be able to see that journey happen with him. Unfortunately, that wasn't able to happen, but I think his grandfather's passing inspired a lot of things that
happened over the course of the song."

The record got early support from stations in Ray's home state of Florida, where he was already a known commodity, and got another infusion when it was selected for iHeart Media's On the Verge series. "At that point the research started to kick in, and Michael continued to do the work," says Pettit. "He's the most driven artist I've ever worked with in my career. His work ethic is through the roof, so he stayed really active [and] stayed on the road, constantly investing in his relationship with radio. That, combined with the research, took us the rest of the way."

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There were still challenges though: Holzer was a rookie regional working her first single, and halfway through the record's chart run WEA Southeast regional Chris Waters departed the company, meaning national director of promotion Adrian Michaels had to pull double duty for a team that only had four regionals to begin with.

Even prior to those events, there were some misperceptions at radio about Ray due to how he looks. Pettit says that when people saw images of the young, handsome, heavily tattooed singer, their immediate reaction was "What new bro country artist is this? And don't we have enough of those already?"

"I did hear from several radio stations that were like, 'I don't need another one of those on my radio station right now.' So we had to dispel that notion, because what we found were these guys had not even listened," says Pettit. Since the label team was still waiting for more music to be mastered, Pettit says they had to encourage radio to trust them that this was an artist with depth.

Pettit recalls telling programmers, "'What you have him pigeonholed to be, he's the opposite of that. This is a guy who doesn't fit that mold at all. He's a writer. He's an amazing performer. He's passionate about this format and the artists that have come before him … All of these things are very apparent when you listen to his entire project.'"

That's one reason the label chose "Real Men Love Jesus" as Ray's second single, which goes for adds Sept. 14. It "has a lot of meaning for Michael, because in a lot of ways he sees his grandfather as the subject of the song," says Pettit.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.