Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps, Ben Johnson and Michael Hardy co-wrote “Holy Water,” a song on Michael Ray‘s 2021 EP, Higher Education, but the song speaks to him on a deep level. Its story about a Florida preacher who’s running moonshine on the side may as well have been inspired by his family.
Ray’s family has lived in Eustis, Fla. — a lakeside city in central Florida slightly north of Orlando — for generations, and he grew up with his relatives always nearby. As such, he heard plenty of family stories — but one in particular really piqued his interest.
Below, Ray shares the family history that drew him into the story of “Holy Water,” in his own words. He also explains why the song fit his musical vision overall.
I was very lucky to be raised around all my family … and growing up and hearing their stories … Grandpa’s been riding the same streets I’m riding, but he did it back in the day when there wasn’t a lot of people watching him, you know?
And so, there’s this story I found out one time we were having a get-together at my dad’s house. My grandmother asked to do a shot, and so I did a shot with my grandmother, and when she set it down, she goes [to my grandfather], “Amos, this tastes like the moonshine we used to run.”
And I was like, “Well, you can’t just say that and let it go. You’ve got to tell me.” And, so, yeah, my grandparents were running moonshine through Florida and up the East Coast as a Bonnie-and-Clyde duo until, I think, they got word that they might have been noticed a little bit …
The church we grew up in was this tiny, white church on the end of this two-lane dirt road … [The nearby community center] was my great-grandmother’s elementary school, and then her dad was one of the people that built the church. So my dad preached at it for a long time; I grew up there, my dad grew up there …
I miss old story-songs, you know? And I wanted some old Jerry Reed fill, Florida swamp — just something that made me feel like I was back in the swamp of Florida when I played it live — something for the show, but also just something that was like, man, this is a stamp of where I’m from. And [“Holy Water”] is about that little white church and my grandparents …
As soon as I heard it, I was like, “Oh, this is, first off, exactly what I’ve been looking for, what I’ve been trying to nail here,” but also, like, it’s that story-song. It put my mind at Cassia Baptist Church and put my mind at my great-grandma’s little yellow house … You don’t forget your grandmother telling you that they ran moonshine.
Listen to Michael Ray on Taste of Country Nights, On Demand: