The environment in modern country music right now is such that we celebrate anyone with two ‘X’ chromosomes who can crack the Top 20, yet there’s so many of these middle-tier mainstream males crowding the scene that you can barely keep their names straight. You have male performers who’ve received three #1 stamps without releasing their second full-length record and are on their way to becoming millionaires, yet half the office workers on Music Row have never heard of them.
That is where the handsome, clean-cut Florida native Michael Ray resides, as yet another mid-range country star who winked his way to #1 with a song called “Kiss You in the Morning,” and might be headed right back there with his next single, “Real Me Love Jesus.” Who he is, and how he got here seems unimportant. He’s just another guy with great hair. But for the record, he won some contest hosted by Big & Rich, and next thing you know he’s signed to Atlantic.
Mentioning Jesus in a song is like mentioning politics in a song: it’s always a dicey proposition. Yes I’m sure if you’re someone who holds Jesus in a high regard, the idea that someone could be offended by his name is a completely foreign concept. At the same time, there’s an entire world out there where any time Jesus is mentioned, the talk immediately turns to the Crusades and pedophile preachers. You can get away with mentioning ‘God’ a lot easier, and if you’re singing Gospel, well then mentioning the J-man is just part of the job description. But in secular music, a Jesus shout out is setting yourself up for a divisive situation.
So those are the preconceptions we have to work with before we even hear a lick of music from “Real Men Love Jesus,” and not to mention this title was a fairly popular marketing phrase for Christianity a few years back and is a recognized TV Trope, so that may also grant it a few additional saddlebags. And for the people that do know who Michael Ray is and heard “Kiss You in the Morning,” if you’re on the traditional side of the country music divide, he more than likely got off on a wrong foot already. That’s a lot of demerits against this song before we even get started.
But “Real Men Love Jesus” is not as terrible as it may look on paper. It’s certainly not good, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat surprised at the style of the music, and the somewhat acceptable nature of the words, however dull and contrived the thing felt. Hey, he mentions the title to a Kris Kristofferson song. I guess that counts for something.
“Real Men Love Jesus” feels like it was styled with popular country music from ten years ago, when country was going through its kinder, gentler phase—in the era that welcomed in Taylor Swift and soccer moms. The music is not all entirely terrible, and the melodic approach fleshed out with actual humans playing instruments feels refreshing, dare I say inviting, after your expectations have been stretched so far in the wrong direction by mainstream country in the last couple of years.
Michael Ray doesn’t have a voice that would be considered exceptional, at least not from what one can hear on display here, but he understands the warm nature the material is meant to be handled with, and even though there’s no linear narrative to this song, it’s not exactly a checklist song either. Beer and of course Jesus are mentioned, but not in that rapid-fire nature that makes for bad Bro-Country. At the risk of sounding corny, there is a reverence to the sentiments expressed in this song that may only be pertinent to a particular segment of people, but can be appreciated for the tenderness they’re delivered in by many.
But if you’re feeling a “but” coming about this song, you’re intuitions are pure. Despite some valiant efforts in this song—that I may even say render the whole “Jesus” concern if not inert, then at least downgraded—the premise here just feels somewhere between dated and wrong-minded. I don’t really want to get all wrapped up in how we now live in a world where Caitlyn Jenner is a popular figure, but do we really want to go down the path of laying out qualifiers about what makes “real” men, and what doesn’t, especially when you add the wild card of religion and Jesus into the equation? The music is 2005, and so is the message, and not in a good way.
But hey, does “Real Men Love Jesus” pass the, “If this song came on the radio, would I immediately change the channel in disgust or anger” test? I guess it does. And maybe this is a minor victory we can all celebrate, regardless of our religious affiliation. Now if Jesus would just come back throw all of the money changers out of the country music temple, we could really get somewhere.