Michael Ray admits he's always had '90s country envy, that bummer of a feeling that comes from being born too young to be an artist in that classic era.
"Man, just for a weekend, I'd have liked to have gone back," the 32-year-old artist tells PEOPLE.
Just a weekend? These days, Ray has a weekly date with the 1990s, playing favorites and welcoming surprise guests from the era on his popular livestream show, "Honkytonk Tuesday."
What started out several weeks ago as just a way for Ray to entertain himself in the doldrums of the quarantine has turned into what he calls "this thing": a celebration for fans, like Ray, who've long adored the decade that gave us Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, Faith Hill and so many more; it's also just as much a primer for '90s newbies. In recent weeks, the show has been toting up viewership numbers equivalent to Madison Square Garden sellouts.
"I'm just having so much fun doing it," says Ray, whose current single, "Her World or Mine," has reached the top 25. "The response from the fans is really inspiring."
So far, his guests have included '90s hitmakers Mark Wills, Marty Raybon (of Shenendoah), Lee Greenwood, Phil Vassar, Aaron Tippin and Jeff Carson. Though Ray strays occasionally into the 1970s and '80s, his main focus is the music he heard as a boy growing up in Florida — and the music he covered as a member of his family band and later, when he struck out on his own.
In fact, Ray had sung so many of the songs in his early days, he started out the project tempting fate, assuming all the old lyrics were tucked away in his brain.
"The first show I did, I just waited till that day, and I was like, oh my God, I have forgotten so much more than I thought I did!" Ray says, laughing. "But it did start coming back. It's kind of like riding a bicycle."
Now, he's putting in long hours of preparation, picking songs, brushing up on lyrics and polishing his twang. Perhaps most fun of all, he's recruiting his idols to appear on the hour-long show, which streams on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. "This gives me a platform," Ray says, "to give back to the artists that inspired me and paved the way."
One of his favorite guests was Jeff Carson, who had a string of 1990s hits including "The Car," "Not on Your Love" and "Butterfly Kisses." During Ray's own performance of "The Car," he was shocked when he glanced at the Instagram comments scrolling by and saw Carson himself leaving a message. Long retired from his music career, Carson had been tipped off by a friend about the tribute and was able to catch it live.
"I was, like, wait a minute, Jeff Carson's on here," says Ray, who had never met the singer. Ray quickly followed up with a FaceTime call, and Carson appeared on Ray's May 5 show to sing his hits and reminisce. "We still keep in touch," says Ray, "and that's really cool."
His focus on the '90s has had other benefits, says Ray, including stoking the fire for his next album. He's now hard at work on the new record, and this one, he promises, will "really show what made me want to do country music."
"I'm very grateful for the success that I've had, and I'm very proud of what I've made," he says. But now, he adds, he's ready to "really put my roots in the ground," and he vows, this one is "a country record."
The six songs on the tracklist so far, he says, reflect "some old throwback '90s feel. I gotta be real with myself on this album. This is album number three. They're all important, but if you look back, there are so many artists that album number three really pivoted to help them take that next step."
There's another reason this album is destined to be set apart. The quarantine has kept musicians from gathering in the studio; instead, they've been recording their tracks individually at home and sending them in to be mixed. Ray has been laying down his vocals at his tour manager's home studio.
"It's weird because there is that spark when you're in the studio," Ray says. "But this has been cool in a different way, and I'm just grateful we have the technology to still cut a record and make the most out of this time."
Also, unlike his last album, Amos, Ray will be contributing co-writes. "I've kind of fallen back in love with writing songs," he says. "I think some of my stuff before was trying to sound like what radio would play, and what ends up happening is you kind of lose yourself a little bit because you're not being real to yourself."
Ray has had a bounty of authentic feelings to draw on since falling in love and marrying fellow artist Carly Pearce; they wed last October. "People will definitely be able to look at songs I wrote before and after and see the difference," he says. "She definitely has inspired more love songs, for sure."
The couple have spent their quarantine splitting their time between their Nashville home and their families' homes, including a month in the coastal Alabama home of Pearce's parents where, Ray says, "we went on a lot of 'wine walks.' You just drink wine and walk around a small town. I don't think I've ever walked more in my life. I felt like we were retired. We just didn't have anything else to do but walk."
Both he and his wife, he says, are getting restless being off their tours for so long — more reason for them to be looking forward to appearing together on the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. They'll be sharing the bill with Steve Wariner and Lee Brice (Pearce's duet partner on their smash "I Hope You're Happy Now").
Without a live audience, "it's going to be eerie," Ray says, but he's just happy for the opportunity to perform on his favorite stage. Of course, like every other artist, he can't begin to predict when he'll be performing in front of an audience again.
"It's been a hard time for everybody," Ray allows, "but we've really tried to find the silver lining in it, and go, 'We're not getting out of this, so how do we make the most of it?'"
Working on the new album and the livestream show, he says, have helped him "not to go too crazy."
A release date for the album has yet to be set, but Ray hopes to put out a lead-off single "sooner rather than later."
After taking a brief hiatus, "Honkytonk Tuesday" will be livestreaming again at 8 p.m. EDT/7 p.m. CDT next Tuesday. Ray says he's working to focus the shows more around themes, perhaps including at least one week dedicated to the women of the 1990s. He also says he's been in early conversations about possibly taking the concept to a podcast format. However the show evolves, this diehard '90s country music fan says he's committed to it for the foreseeable future.
"This isn't just something that is going to die down after the quarantine," he vows.
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