Country Jukebox Jury: Michael Ray v Carly Pearce 

Michael Ray – Higher Education EP

Michael Ray, who was called a Liability by his ex (more of whom shortly), has not risen above B List, scoring radio hits written by others: Thomas Rhett wrote Think A Little Less, Travis Denning wrote Her World or Mine, Abe Stoklasa wrote Get To You, Old Dominion wrote One That Got Away.

He’s drafted in Michael Hardy on his EP Higher Education, because Hardy is able to unite rural and urban effectively for the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen. No wonder Mitchell Tenpenny has called on Hardy’s services too.

The first impact track from the EP was a ballad called Whiskey And Rain, a two-chord jam which reminded me of all those Gary Allen songs about heartache. I don’t know why the EP’s title track needs a staff of Lee Brice, Kid Rock, Tim Montana AND a solo from Billy Gibbons, but Michael will do anything for his label and it’s a party jam which sounds good cranked up to ten even if you only need to hear it once. I wonder if Michael could have learned how to keep a marriage together too.

Just The Way I Am is a Hardy jam which paints Michael as a chap with ‘too much pride’, owns a suit for when he needs to go to a funeral and who is ‘a poor man’s Hemingway’. (He liked a drink too…) This is rather ruined by the fact that a song called Just The Way I Am is an outside write. Ashley Gorley helps Michael himself on Didn’t Know I Was Country, a proper song which is aggressively contemporary and sounds like Thomas Rhett. We get a lot of rural signifiers – marrying childhood sweethearts, funny accents, peace of mind and a piece of land (the album’s best lyric) – and Michael singing to a fiddle accompaniment.

Jessi Alexander joins Hardy (who, let us remember, is up for Best New Artist at the CMAs) to write Live Without You, a midtempo ballad with a watertight chorus set over a four-chord loop. ‘Nitty needs some Gritty’ and so Michael would be dead without ‘you’; let’s just forget he’s divorced. Picture is a rewrite of Refrigerator Door by Luke Combs with a little more pathos and carpe diem-ness (‘tell them you love them while you got the chance’).

Holy Water, which is a very similar song to Hardy’s tune God’s Country, is the kind of song Blake Shelton could sell. Michael Ray does an okay job of telling the Southern Baptist story which conjures up images of Lincoln cars and Christianity. It sounds like a Hardy song that positions Michael as a rootsy singer who will do anything for his label.

I wonder if the money he earns from the project is going to his ex-wife.

Carly Pearce – 29: Written In Stone

I listened to the initial EP which forms the backbone of Carly’s new album, which everyone knows deals with her divorce from Michael Ray in a marriage that was as doomed as that of Katy Perry and Russell Brand (remember that??).

I saw her perform Show Me Around on a livestream and reckon this takes her to the next level. It’s a song dedicated to her late producer and imagines heaven as his ‘brand new place’ which will one day host Carly to ‘pick back up’ their relationship. Even without the context it’s a wonderful song and will comfort many people who have lost loved ones, especially in the last year.

To lose a friend is bad enough; to lose a marriage in the same year is extremely wretched. Next Girl is a warning to the next lady who falls in love with, well, let’s call him Ray Michael. The seven tracks from the EP, all of which are found on the album, create a whole which follows the long break-up album tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and extends into the present day with Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and Adele.

Should’ve Known Better is a companion to Every Little Thing – the song is in the same key and has the same touches of guitar – while on the funky Liability (lie ability, liability – it’s a country song), Ray does not come across well at all. The gentle and Swiftian Messy has verses full of cigarettes, little black dresses, mascara stains, Cabernet and regrettable texts, and a chorus which outlines how ‘moving on…ain’t always gonna be a clean break’.

Day One, where Matt Ramsey of Old Dominion (who gave The One That Got Away to sleazebag Michael Ray) was in the room, sounds like a journal entry or therapy. Carly lists the landmarks in getting over Ray, from not needing to numb her pain with alcohol to seeing a new guy after a month of heartbreak. The tenor matches that of Carly’s number one duet with Lee Brice, I Hope You’re Happy Now.

The title track has fiddle in its third bar, then two fiddles in the middle, which soundtrack a melancholic story – Carly’s story – of how ‘you’re supposed to find yourself’ and ‘stop calling your mum for help’ and get a mortgage and settle down and so on. The listener knows the story because country music loves its couples and looks kindly on those for whom love doesn’t work out.

Perhaps the most pertinent message about the song came from my friend Laura Cooney, who also became ‘a Miss to a Mrs then the other way around’ while writing for Entertainment Focus, which is part of the Destination Country collective. It’s a song of strength and one that Carly will sing with gusto in a live sphere. Once again, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally help the singer tell her story.

There are thus eight new songs, led by Never Wanted To Be That Girl, a duet with Ashley McBryde which the pair wrote with the great Shane McAnally (who also co-wrote Ashley’s standard One Night Standards). I like the aesthetic of the song, whose first verse Ashley sings as backup. Is there autobiography? Is this fiction? Carly won’t tell whether she was ‘the other one’. It’s a great piece of music that I am sure Carly will play live, with or without Ashley.

The album begins with Kelsea Ballerini co-write Diamondback, which starts off with strings and opens up with a toe-tapping beat and a lyric full of pain. It sounds like Carly is singing over a Kelsea demo and I hadn’t realised how similar their voices were. It’s no surprise that Shane McAnally was in the room too, as Carly tells her ex (let’s call him Ray Michael) that he can keep the house, the truck and the dog but he’s ‘never getting the diamond back’. It’s brilliant, and in the tradition of songs about wedding rings. The best compliment I can pay is that it sounds like a Brandy Clark song.

Emily Shackleton, who co-wrote Every Little Thing, returns to the room on two tracks. What He Didn’t Do is a brutal list of Ray Michael’s flaws with which I am sure other ex-wives will be familiar, while All The Whiskey In The World is a mandolin-flecked waltz where Carly paints Ray in a sad light. It is even more ironic that Whiskey and Rain was the title of Michael’s attempt to control the narrative. ‘Keep on running, keep on hiding so you never face your demons, and tell yourself it’s freedom’ is cutting; Carly as Miss Loretta is a fabulous career move after two albums of iffy pop-country (with apologies to her late collaborator busbee).

On a similar theme Nicolle Galyon and Sasha Sloan were there for the funky Your Drinkin, My Problem: ‘4am, stumble to the bedroom again’ sets the mood and again paints Ray Michael as a bad husband. I love how the groove matches Drink In My Hand by Eric Church and how Ray’s problem is Carly’s. I wonder if this is the real reason they split up.

Natalie Hemby helped Carly write Easy Going, whose intro and bluegrassy long outro remind me of Sheryl Crow and whose punch was lacking from Carly’s first two albums. She sounds like a true artist now, with vocals fluttering around her in the chorus which delivers the Hembyesque punch ‘you made it so easy going’, ie so easy to go.

The album closes with Mean It This Time, where Carly plays a cross between Dolly, Kelsea and Hillary Scott from Big Machine labelmates Lady A. It’s a weepie which puts the focus back on Carly, who will be sure to pick the right second husband. You might as well call it Next Guy, a companion to Next Girl. The next guy is going to be lucky to encounter Carly, a Grand Ole Opry member, in this form. One of the most fully realised projects of the year and kudos goes to Scott Borchetta for letting Carly put her story on record. It’ll make Big Machine some money after all.

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