A big sound, slashed by searing guitars and thundering drums … Songs steeped deep in rock ’n’ roll but rooted in country soil … Vocals that nearly explode with intensity on up tempos and melt on heartbreak ballads.
That’s what you notice just the first few minutes of David Ray’s upcoming album, Earthquake. But as song after irresistible song passes by, a fuller picture emerges. Yes, he exudes charisma. Yes, he has sculpted a sonic identity that unique among country artists.
Beyond all that, though, a more important impression takes shape. His imaginative lyrical imagery and buoyant delivery energize “Earthquake” (love = forces of nature), “Mustang” (love = the feeling you get from a supreme automobile) and “Fire” (love = a raging blaze of emotion). Elsewhere, on “Leave Her Wonderin’” he looks inward to confront the doubt that romantic bravado can hide or revisit the pain of a romance long long lost to the past in “Time Machine.”
The thing that ties all of Earthquake together is this: David Ray writes from real life. You know from every note — even every breath after each line he sings on “Earthquake” — that’s he’s weathered pain and passion and embraces it all.
“I do draw from my experiences — big time,” he admits. “I want to take what I’ve been through to paint a picture in my songs. I want listeners to see clearly what I’m talking about. The more I can put into a lyric, even if it’s sometimes kind of abstract, the better.”
He laughs, maybe just a tad embarrassed. “I guess that’s just where my mind goes when I write!”
Ray’s imagination, his openness to sharing all he’s learned from life with honesty as well as impressive writing and vocal chops — this is what stands him out among the best talents of his generation. And this is why Earthquake is about to shake up the country music landscape.
He’s had plenty to draw from in his journey, beginning in the distinctly non-rural streets of Dearborn, Michigan, where he grew up. For reasons he’s still not sure about, other than his father’s fondness for the music of Garth Brooks and other Class of ’89 members, he gravitated to country music as a listener and budding songwriter.
“I didn’t grow up in the South,” Ray points out. “I didn’t grow up on a farm. And make no mistake, I love all kinds of music. I love ‘90s rock a lot. But I loved even more the stories in country songs. I love how they were put together. To me, a lot of pop songs have beautiful chords and melodies but they just don’t speak as directly as a great country song.”
When he was in sixth grade, Ray moved with his family into the tiny town of South Lyon, Michigan. He was both ecstatic and a little intimidated. “I was the new kid in town and I didn’t know anybody,” he recalls. “But I’d loved country music my entire life, so I was also really excited, like, ‘Yeah! Now I’m in a small town! We even have a dirt road!’”
Ray rocketed from South Lyon to Central Michigan University, in the heart of the state. In addition to earning a teaching degree, he started giving music serious attention. He played his first shows and wrote his first song there, called “Memphis.” “My friends learned the words, started singing it back and always requested it. I haven’t played it in 15 years, but every time my buddies see me, they still request it,” he admits, with a laugh.
That teaching degree was part of a career strategy Ray had already mapped out, as a way to pay the rent after moving to Nashville and plunging into the music scene. Unfortunately, there were no job openings there, so he headed further south to Florida. His luck changed quickly: In 2008, despite the fact that he was appearing for the first time in his life with a band instead of as a solo artist, he won first prize in the regional finals of Kenny Chesney’s “Next Big Star” competition. His opening set for Chesney impressed the folks at Miami’s 99.9 KISS Country, who helped situate Ray as the go-to opening act for Billy Currington, Travis Tritt, Pat Green and other visiting headliners.
Then, opportunity knocked, though at the time it felt more like a kick in the head. Ray’s day job as a seventh-grade teacher disappeared due to budget cuts. He split up with his girlfriend. Eventually he decided this was his cue to pack up and give Nashville another shot. One of the first things he did after arriving was to call Jody Stevens, a member of the group Fast Ryde, whom he’d met while opening for them in Florida. Stevens started writing with Ray and introduced him around. Ray stood in line at the Bluebird, learning from performances by the city’s great songwriters. He started doing writer rounds himself.
And he began working in the fabled honky-tonks of Lower Broadway. “My first gig was at Paradise Park, doing the afternoon acoustic shift. There were literally three people at the bar when I walked out with $30 plus five bucks for my four-hour shift.”
That first step led to word spreading about the handsome young Michigander whose stage presence and already distinctive song styling couldn’t be missed. Soon he was performing the primo Friday and Saturday night shifts at Honky Tonk Central and Tootsies. With each show, he sharpened his focus and stepped up to a higher level of performance. “On Broadway in Nashville, the audience doesn’t know who you are,” he explains. “Every single time, you have to win over the crowd. Every gig is different. I apply what I learned there every time I get onstage.”
Signed to Big Deal Music, Ray worked with his friend Jody Stevens on an indie debut album, featuring eight original songs. When they reunited for the follow-up in 2015, they had a clearer picture of what Ray was ready to deliver. “We went into the studio with Garth Brooks and ‘90s rock in our heads,” he says. “We wanted big guitars and big energy, keeping it country but also keeping it unique to what I have to offer.”
Today, with 10 extraordinary tracks packed into Earthquake, Ray can take a breath — a brief one — to look back on what he’s accomplished and ahead to where he’s unstoppably bound.
“My dream was always to be here in Nashville, making music I love. It always felt far away but now it’s seems almost within reach. Yeah, I’m miles away from where I was in high school. I’m still miles away from where I want to be. But I’ve learned that this is a trip is made up of a million small steps. And when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll be one small step above where I am today.”