Ray Fulcher Interview - "I want people to think, 'Oh man, well if Ray's got his own struggles, then it's okay if I do too.'"
Ray Fulcher's written smash hits with Luke Combs, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and now he's set up his own mental health foundation, 'Pretty Good Ball'. Maxim talks to the budding Country star about his journey so far - and where he's headed next.
Hey Ray! Thank you for taking the time out to chat today! You recently released the ‘Girl in it’ EP. The title track has a high energy that reminds me of ‘Anything Like You Dance’, while ‘Way Out’ and ‘Bucket List Beers’ are also great feel-good songs. Was it a conscious decision to make this new music uptempo and positive?
Yeah, that’s a great question! I think what I naturally lean most towards is on the slower side - writing the sadder Country stuff is what I love. But about a year ago I challenged myself to write songs that have the same depth and lyrics that really said something, but paired with an upbeat message and track. I ended up loving how these songs do feel good, but if you break down the lyrics they hopefully give the listener something to latch onto. For them to find themselves in the song is really the main objective.
One of my favourite things about Country music is the wordplay - ‘Girl in it’ and ‘Way Out’ are testaments to this with how the phrases change meaning throughout song. We’ve also seen it from you before on ‘Got It All’. Has this playful lyrical style always been something you’ve aimed to include in your music?
I’ve always been drawn to that, and I love the challenge of taking an idea and presenting it in different ways. Obviously you don’t want to do it on every song you put out, but at the same time, I do love it being a trademark of my work. If we can get it right, then hopefully it comes across in a really cool way and gives the listener different ways to process and think about it, which also adds a different layer to the song.
This year, you set up the Pretty Good Ball Foundation, which aims to improve mental health awareness for musicians, as well as offering artists free access to therapy. What inspired you to start this foundation?
For me, coming from a very small town in Georgia, I didn’t really know a lot about mental health - it was always something you didn’t talk about. No-one around me educated me on it, it was always a case of pulling up your boots and toughing things out. But last year, the pandemic gave me a chance to slow down and reflect on my own mental and emotional health. I got talking to people about their own experiences with therapy, and I thought, ‘You know what, I want to give this a try. Let’s see what I’ve been missing along the way that can help me be a better me.’ A big part of that was learning things about myself, and realising, ‘Oh okay, I see how I could have been the problem in that particular situation or in that particular relationship.’
What motivated you to focus on musicians’ mental health in particular?
Nashville can be a really tough town, especially when you’re first moving there, and as a songwriter or musician, it can wear on your shoulders. Trying to navigate all that is tough. I’d talked to my manager, Neil, about setting up some kind of charity, but I didn’t know what I wanted it to be yet. After about a month of thinking about it, it just hit me. We’d always talked about starting a foundation called 'Pretty Good Ball’, which is a line out of my song, ‘Love Ya Son, Go Dawgs’, and I remember sending him a text saying, ‘Let’s set up a mental health fund for musicians and songwriters who need to talk to someone, but can’t afford it.’ They might be scared, so this can give them the anonymity and outlet to go for it.
I also want to try and de-stigmatise a little bit. One of the main messages that I want Pretty Good Ball to spread is that two things can be true at once - you can still kick ass, write Country music and be a ‘Country person’, and still be just who you are, but at the same time recognise that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes, and that’s normal. It’s okay to talk to someone about that. The analogy I keep coming back to is that if something’s wrong with your car, it’s okay to take it to the mechanic, because we just don’t know enough about cars ourselves to fix it. Why are we any different? We teamed up with the Music Health Alliance, and they have the infrastructure to put our funding into place, and people can fill out an application to receive grants to talk to someone totally anonymously, which is awesome. At the same time, I want people to think, ‘Oh man, well if Ray’s out here talking about mental health, and if Ray’s okay with it, and Ray’s got his own struggles, then it’s okay if I do too.' That’s what made me want to put Pretty Good Ball in place, and people already seem to be rallying around it and asking questions in very much the same way that you did, saying, ‘What made you want to do this?’ It gives me the opportunity to talk to them about it and let them know it’s okay to be feeling how I’m feeling.
That’s inspiring to hear, especially given the fact that Country music hasn’t historically been hugely open about mental health. Did this make it more difficult to take that step of founding Pretty Good Ball?
There was a little anxiety about how it was going to be received, because no-one’s really heard me talk about mental health. Something I’ve learned in therapy is that the things you find uncomfortable are the things you should lean into. I just thought that, even if I’ve never navigated these waters before, on the other side of that uncomfortable feeling there’s something that’s hopefully really going to help people.
On June 15th, you made your debut at the legendary Grand Ole Opry. What was that moment like when you received the invitation?
Oh my gosh, that was such a bucket list moment. Both for me as a kid, being so into Country music, and also outside of music being such a history fan - I went to the University of Georgia and got a Social Sciences Education degree and a Masters degree where the emphasis was History - and when you combine music and history, the Grand Ole Opry is the mecca. There’s just something magical about that place. It felt a bit surreal, and you get a little bit excited and a little bit nervous at the same time. It’s hopefully a testament to how far we’ve come, and what kind of opportunity we have moving forward. It was a dream come true.
You’ve written some of the biggest Country songs of the last few years with Luke Combs - such as ‘Does to Me’, and one of my favourite Country songs of all time, ‘When it Rains it Pours’. I wanted to ask you in particular about ‘Even Though I’m Leaving’, which is such a moving song about a boy’s relationship with his father. I read that it’s not based on real-life events - if that’s the case, how did you manage to get into that headspace and tell this story in such a personal way?
That song was the first time Luke and I had ever written with Wyatt Durrette, who’s got a bunch of hits with Zac Brown and a couple of other guys. We were in there talking and we really didn’t have a good idea that morning, and then Wyatt goes, ‘Hey, I don’t know if y’all would be into this, but my son’s in high school now, and he’s gonna be going to college in a few years. I’ve always wanted to write a song for him because I need him to know that, when he does leave, I’ll always be there no matter what.’ All of us put ourselves in that first verse where you’re a little kid and you’re scared of monsters under the bed. After that, we talked about how we had a real opportunity here to impact people, so let’s figure out what the next verses need to look like in order for people to see a bit of themselves or someone they lost in the lyrics.
In the third verse, the guy’s going off to war and the dad has to stay back - in that case it’s about war, but it can also apply to leaving home for the first time and going to college, taking a job and taking a chance, or chasing your dream and moving to Nashville, where it’s your first time having that real separation. The dad is just saying, ‘Wherever you’re at, I’m still gonna be behind you’, and I think that’s a really strong message. Even the end of the song, when someone passes on from this life, the message is that a part of them is always there, and I think a lot of people can relate to that and feel that. That song has drawn more messages and people coming up to me with tears in their eyes talking about it than any other song I’ve written.
"You can still kick ass and be a ‘Country person’, but at the same time recognise that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes, and that’s normal.”
COVID-permitting, when can fans next expect to see you perform in the UK?
I’m super excited to be going on tour in the US with Ashley McBride and Luke Combs this year, as well as playing a few festivals. As for the UK, I absolutely want to come over there - before COVID, I was supposed to play a couple of small shows in London, and I was really bummed that I couldn’t come. Neil works with The Cadillac Three, who love playing in the UK, so it’s always made me excited talking to them about it. I’m looking forward to it and hopefully in 2022 we’ll be over there a lot!
Finally, we ask all our interviewees to name their favourite three songs that have a theme of mental health. What would be yours?
1. 'I’m Movin' On' - Rascal Flatts
2. 'Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On' - Jimmy Buffett
3. 'Love Can Build a Bridge' - The Judds
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