"As soon as I heard this song, 'This is too good. This is too perfect,'" says Michael Ray. He's speaking about "Holy Water," one of the tracks off his 2021 Higher Education EP, and his new radio single.

Written by four Nashville songwriting heavyweights — Ashley Gorley, Ben Johnson, Hunter Phelps and ACM Songwriter of the Year Hardy — it's no surprise that "Holy Water" is a vivid story song, with crisp imagery and compelling lyric after compelling lyric. But that's not the only reason why it grabbed Ray's attention.

"As soon as I heard the first verse, I was like, 'I have the church for this music video,'" he remembers.

Long before he knew it was going to be a radio single, Ray had an exact video treatment in mind for "Holy Water," and that idea came to fruition when he and director Spidey Smith went down to the singer's hometown of Eustis, Fla., to film a mini-movie starring the very church that Ray grew up attending. A little white country church dating back to 1889, it's got a long-standing family history for the singer: "My dad grew up there. My grandpa grew up going there. It's been there for generations and generations," he explains.

The church's artifacts — a bible that dates back to the Civil War, a picture above the pulpit of Jesus and the sheep, the same pews that his great-grandparents sat in to worship — serve as family history for Ray, but equally important to the meaning behind the music video are the people in the congregation.

"Everybody...is part of that church or part of the community [in real life]," he explains. "There's two actors in the video: The preacher is an actor, and one of the deacons. The other deacon is my cousin; the one with the beard is actually my cousin Lee."

The rest are people that Ray knows from his hometown, including the church's real-life preacher, Pastor Mark Douglas, who plays a member of the congregation. Other scenes have a personal connection, too: One scene was shot in front of a convenience store that used to be owned by Ray's uncle. The bonfire scene was filmed at a trailer owned by another cousin of Ray's and her husband.

"It meant a lot to me to really have that authenticity of the people there, and really give back to that community and the place that really gave me my childhood," the singer continues.

Giving his community their moment in the spotlight was special to Ray, as many of those same congregants were some of the earliest supporters of his career. "They've always had an ownership in my career, my success, even when I was godawful, probably, and playing the bars down there," he says.

"They were having to sit and listen to it for four hours straight while I was trying to learn what I wanted to do," he continues with a laugh. "Nobody ever told me I couldn't do it in that community. Anytime I can get back and shine a light on them, the mom and pop places in my hometown, the little church that helped grow me, I do. Because they had a real big hand in getting me here."

"Holy Water" tells the story of a small-town preacher running an underground moonshine operation on the side, and Ray says that his congregation didn't shy away from the song's seedier elements.

"Oh no, we're a country church," he says, flashing a grin. While there was some moonshine on set, most of the liquid in the shots is actually water. "We didn't get any kickback for the moonshine. I think we got kickback that we didn't bring any moonshine."

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