Michael Ray has a great Kid Rock story, although the rap-rocker-turned-country-artist may not agree. Talking to Taste of Country Nights, the "Whiskey and Rain" singer explained how he hooked the multi-genre veteran for "Higher Education," the title track from his new EP.

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Lee Brice and songwriter Tim Montana also join Ray on the song. Montana was the lynchpin for all of it, but now you get the impression that Ray could just call or text Kid Rock any time he needs a favor.

"For me, just being good buddies with Kid Rock ... he’s been there for me during some low times. He’s just one of my favorite artists and people," Ray tells Evan and Amber during this interview about his new music, his very difficult 2020 and his plans to celebrate, should "Whiskey and Rain" become his second career Billboard Country Airplay chart-topper.

The new EP speaks to all of Ray's influences and finds him getting to the core of who he is as an artist. Lyrically he covers a lot of ground (skip to about 4:45 to hear Ray talk about how he handled his divorce from Carly Pearce on this record), and sonically, he presents a more traditional, if not rock-centric, mix than ever before. ZZ Top is one of his dad's favorite bands ever, which makes this song even more special.

It all started when Ray and Montana were sitting in the garage, playing songs for each other. They had the idea to make "Higher Education" into a superstar event.

“He (Montana) is how I know Kid Rock and Billy Gibbons," Ray explains. "Him and Billy Gibbons have a hot sauce together, they're in business together so they're really, really tight, as well as Kid Rock. So I was like, 'You think they would do it?' And he’s like, 'Yeah, man, absolutely.'"

They were in quickly, and later, Brice came on board when presented the song during a hunting trip to Arkansas. Talking to ToC Nights, Ray acknowledges the full circle moment; Kid Rock's Devil Without a Cause album was the first CD he ever bought.

"This kid … when we were in sixth grade, this random kid on the school bus was like, ‘Hey man, you play guitar … I got a CD for $2, bring it tomorrow,'" the country singer shares, starting to smile. "I think I did my first drug deal like this (Laughs). It was like, ‘You bring the money, I got the stuff.'"

That album dropped in 1998, and Ray says he burned lines in it he played it so much. Years later, when the younger singer told his new friend his favorite anecdote, Kid Rock was only partially amused.

“He goes, 'How old were you? Like six?’ I go, 'Man, I think I was 12!'" Ray says, laughing now.

The Higher Education EP is available now. Look for a full, unedited version of this conversation on Thursday (Sept. 2), as part of Taste of Country Nights, On Demand.

Warner Music Nashville

Best Country Albums of 2021 - Critic's Pick

There have been many creative country albums in 2021, but not all have hit the mark. Artists are more than ever toying with distribution methods and packaging as much as they are new sounds, so you get double and triple albums, Part 1 and Part 2, and digital EPs in lieu of a traditional 10 or 11-song release.

The bar for an EP on this list of the best country albums of 2021 is higher than an LP, but one project did crack the Top 10. Too much music proved to dampen other artist's efforts, although Alan Jackson's first album in years was filled with country music we couldn't turn away from. Where Have You Gone has 21 songs, but somehow no filler.

More than ever, this relied on staff opinion and artistic merit to allow for some parity among major label artists and independents. The 10 albums listed below are not ranked, although the year-end list published in the fall will crown a true best album of 2021.