Song Review: Michael Ray, “Holy Water”

We’re out to answer some big questions today:

  • Can anyone really find redemption?
  • Just how bad is the state of country music right now?

Blake Shelton may be the higher-profile antagonist, but Michael Ray is definitely on the Mount Rushmore of blog villains here at Kyle’s Korner. (HARDY and Dustin Lynch are probably the other two, but you could make an argument for Florida Georgia Line as well.) He’s put up one of the all-time low scores here with “One That Got Away,” and I’m on record saying that “Think A Little Less” would have been a flat 0/10 had I been running this operation at the time. He’s managed to claw back to forgettable mediocrity with songs like “Get To You” and his latest single “Whiskey And Rain,” but I wouldn’t say the man has gotten out of my doghouse yet…until now.

Hearing Ray out-Underwood Carrie Underwood herself was about the last thing I expected, but that’s what we got we “Holy Water,” the second single off of his recent EP Higher Education. This is a solid story song with just enough of a twist on an old tale to feel novel, and backed with a surprisingly-suitable sound and lyrics that deftly walk the line between dark and campy. Given the weak state of the genre in 2022, this actually qualifies as the best song I’ve heard this year, and if Ray is looking to follow Jordan Davis on the road to redemption, this is a good start.

At first glance, the production bears an unsettling resemblance to Florida Georgia Line’s “Smooth”: The swampy dobro (credited euphemistically as a ‘resonator guitar’ in the video notes), the synthetic beat complete with Grady Smith’s favorite snap track, and the darker instrument tones. However, the differences quickly become clear: A fiddle jumps in early and often to flavor the mix, and both the electric guitars and the percussion feature a lot more punch and urgency in their sound. The ominous feel of the sound fits the nefarious angle of the story better than anything FGL has even done, and I really like the way the mix slowly builds to a climax on the verses and unleashes its full fury on the choruses and bridge solo. The foreboding atmosphere and drawn-out reveal keeps the audience hanging on every word, and the instrument choices (there’s a bouzouki in here too?!) do a great job both setting the mood and distinguishing the track from its peers. Country music has a real problem with turning to the dark side when it’s not warranted, but this is one of the few songs that warranted such a move, and it pays some serious dividends.

I mentioned Ray’s “decent Chris Young impersonation” back in my “Get To You” review, and I hear shades of it here as well (although Young’s voice is a bit deeper and a lot stronger). Ray’s reputation as a meatheaded jerk of a narrator may precede him, but this song works around the problem by leaving the narrator out of the story entirely, making them an impartial observer to the main course of events and thus not saddling the characters with Ray’s baggage. I figured Ray would find a way to make a mess of even this limited role, but he actually turns out to be a decent storyteller, methodically going through the lyrical mouthfuls (I wouldn’t quite call them rapid-fire sections, but there’s a lot to say in a short span) while still adding some feeling and flair to his delivery. This might be the first time I can say that Ray draws listeners in with his performance instead of repelling them (perhaps his terrible past performances paint him as exactly who you’d expect to know a story like this), and if he can keep his mind out of the gutter and keep giving us tracks along these lines, I might stop calling for him to be run out of Nashville on a rail. (Maybe.)

The writing here tells the tale of a pious preacher with a side hustle selling potent moonshine made on church grounds (hence the ‘holy water’ hook, which is…fine, I suppose). It’s the sort of ‘dark discovery’ song that you just know is going to lead to blood on the floor…and then, in what can only be described as the most American of plot twists, the preacher cuts his accusers in on the cash and the song ends with everyone alive and driving new luxury cars. Combine this with tight rhyming structures, semi-vivid imagery, and some solid one-liners (“ran an operation sellin’ more than the word of the Lord” might be my favorite) and you’ve got a gripping-yet-unpredictable tale that’s actually decent to listen to. If I have any quibble with the story, it’s that it’s seems a bit overdramatic: Sure, making homebrew moonshine is still technically a federal crime, but there’s really isn’t much of a stigma associated with it, especially in country music. (Imagine how much harder this would have hit if, say, the preacher was doing a Walter White impression.) You could argue that the song pulled its punch in the end, but I think a harder ending might have ruined the listener’s enjoyment: No one is explicitly hurt in the song and none of the characters here are too unlikable, so killing off someone who wasn’t a clear villain might have curdled the ending for some. Overall, I think it was a well-executed story, the sort of song (and lyrical execution) I’d like to hear more of in this genre.

The surprise ending of “Holy Water” wasn’t the ‘everybody gets a car’ ending, but the fact that Mr. “Think A Little Less” Michael Ray could actually release a enjoyable, well-executed single. The lyrics tell the story well, the sound fit the story like a glove, and Ray managed to stay out of his own way long enough to sell the audience on the song. I have no illusions that Ray will be able to sustain a quality run of any sort (I thought he might be able to turn things around after “Get To You”; his following single set the blog’s all-time low-score record), but with the current state of country music…

…I will take anything I can get right now.

Mr. Ray, you’ve got a golden opportunity to change the narrative of your career. For all our sakes, don’t screw this up.

Rating: 7/10. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…check this one out.