The small town of Eustis, Fla. is an hour north of Disney World, but it may as well be in Montana. It’s not a tourist hot spot. You’ve got to drive an hour to find well-oiled beach bunnies sunning on spring break. Only recently did a Starbucks open. Michael Ray’s hometown is — and pardon the cliche — country.

Knowing this fact connects a few loose ends dangling from the “Kiss You In the Morning” singer’s image and persona. He’s tan, good looking and toned. Ray looks like a punk-rocker, and in some ways he was and still is. But his heart and music stay true to the traditional sounds he was raised on.

I just wanted to put a song out for the women that work hard all week and have a chance to go to a concert and become somebody they don’t have to be, five days a week.

Men like Merle, Randy, Bruce and Amos are what he was raised on. The first three you know well. Randy Travis and Bruce Springsteen, along with Lynyrd Skynyrd, are what Ray’s father played. Haggard is who his grandfather Amos preached, and picked. This may have been his greatest influence. When the 27-year-old made his Grand Ole Opry debut in April, he strummed grandpa’s Gibson hollow body guitar. A few minutes before talking with Taste of Country, he covered Haggard’s "The Day I Started Loving You" during a Tuesday night Opry broadcast.

“It was just a big bond between my grandfather, my dad and I,” Ray says of family jam sessions while sitting in the Grand Ole Opry’s dressing room 11. Photos of legends like Travis, Patty Loveless and Porter Wagoner hang above the couch he’s resting on following a three-song set in the circle. He knows them all well, quickly identifying each, even those in well-aged photographs few from today’s generation would spend much time studying.

Amos Roach was always playing some local VFW Hall or community center, and by 9 years old Ray was joining him on stage. It’s only a few hundred miles from Eustis to Nashville, but frequently a day’s drive can take a lifetime for a kid raised in the sticks, especially if there’s no one there to lead the way. He doesn’t come from a long line of polished, career musicians, but they all believed in him, and within a few years he believed in himself as well.

Tough Love

About 12 years ago Ray sat in David Preston’s office, anxiously waiting as the song man listened to a demo he’d made. A friend had made the drive with him from Eustis to Music City in a rental car “the size of a dryer.”

“So he took a meeting with us and listened to it and he asked me what my plan was and my plan was to move,” Ray recalls. “I didn’t have anybody that moved here before me. All my family played music but it was all in Florida, for fun.”

“If it wasn’t for that meeting and that whole moment, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to get where I am right now.”

Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

Preston told him to go home and build a fan base in Florida first. It was the type of honesty that scares off many, but the point was until Ray could bring something unique and original to the table, he shouldn’t leave home. So he got to work. Within a few years he was gigging across Florida, and then he recorded an album of rock songs. Just before a show in Myrtle Beach, his manager called and told him a CW reality show called The Next wanted him to sign up. He’d go on to win it, which would lead to a record deal with Warner Brothers and perhaps as importantly, a relationship with John Rich of Big & Rich.

Rich’s influence on Michael Ray isn’t obvious. He didn’t produce the project, or write any of the songs. But for three years he provided support and guidance as Ray made key friendships and business relationships with the best in Nashville. While the younger singer is an accomplished songwriter — he co-wrote Big and Rich’s current single “Run Away With You” (which is also included on Michael Ray) — he didn’t write any of the 12 songs on his debut country album. Part of this was because he subscribes to the “best song wins” theory of producing an album. But also he enjoys having a broad network of supporters pulling for him. It takes great music and strong friendships to succeed at the highest levels of country music.

Three songs in particular stand out on Michael Ray, in stores and online now. The first is the album’s second track, a Jason Aldean-esque rocker called “Another Girl.” It’s a song built for his live show, one that celebrates a country concert and everything it takes to get ready.

“I just wanted to put a song out for the women that work hard all week and have a chance to go to a concert and become somebody they don’t have to be, five days a week,” Ray says.

“Think a Little Less” shows a softer, sexier side to the singer’s sound and personality. It’s a steamy song that Ray says he embraced because it’s real life.

“Kiss a little more, think a little less / Burn it up and down like a cigarette / Get you out of that bar, out of that dress / Kiss a little more, think a little less.”

Finally, “Real Men Love Jesus” is the signature song on this album. The ballad is personal and unique in that it celebrates men who are, above all else, good guys. Nothing about Ray screams “softie,” but the sensitive message is sincere and believable.

“I wanted a song that represented the guys that are overlooked,” he says. “One of the lines in the song that stuck out the most to me was 'To say I love you / They don’t need a reason / Real men love Jesus.' My grandfather would call you back if he didn’t say ‘I love you.’ I’m 27, I say it to my dad everyday.”

“Real Men Love Jesus” would be his grandfather’s favorite track on the album, he says. He was a traditionalist up until the day he died, one month before Ray’s Opry debut in April. Ray carries his watch with him for good luck, but that’s hardly the only sign of his roots on his body. Those tattoos, the ones that may cause those skeptical of anyone trying something different in country music to snort with skepticism, they’re family too. His father has the same sleeve on his left arm.

“My mom was pissed,” he says with a laugh. “They’re divorced, so at the time she was not happy about it.”

Only one of Ray’s five sisters made his most recent Opry show. The rest of the family had responsibilities in Florida, but one can bet they were listening, or at the very least looking for a recap soon after he gave way to the Del McCoury Band on Tuesday night. Next week he’ll make his national television debut, performing “Kiss You In the Morning” on Good Morning America.

“I grew up watching Good Morning America with my grandmother, like we grew up on that stuff,” he says with genuine bewilderment. “Being able to be a part of it is just very surreal. This whole week is very non-real to me.”

The Opry, GMA, a debut album and soon a No. 1 hit — life is good for Michael Ray. One figures he can probably walk into that new Starbucks and get a free cup of coffee if he wanted to. At the very least someone in line would recognize him, and offer to pay.

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