Holy Water

Album: Higher Education (2021)
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Songfacts®:

  • Here, Michael Ray tells the tale of a small-town church pastor who sells "more than the Word of the Lord." He runs a secret operation making moonshine (the titular "Holy Water") in the church's basement.
  • Ashley Gorley, Ben Johnson, Hunter Phelps and Hardy wrote this tale of a preacher operating an illegal still at the end of an informal two-day camp at Gorley's Nashville-area home on June 10, 2020. Having already penned several tracks, they wanted to try their hand at an old-fashioned story song. The guys came up with the title "Holy Water" after they went kayaking on a nearby river in the morning. Gorley then suggested a tale of a reverend's bootlegging side hustle. Not knowing where the plot might lead, they wrote verse one first, stuffing it with internal rhymes.

    He loved his congregation but he ran an operation
    Sellin' more than the word of the Lord


    "That's freaking terrifying," Phelps told Billboard. "There's nothing scarier than writing the first verse of a song, or the first line of a song, that has three inner rhymes in it. Then you have to do inner rhymes the whole time, or it's not going to be as cool as the first line."
  • By the end of verse three, the pastor and the church deacons all own a pricey Lincoln Continental, while the church has gained new stained-glass windows and a new set of pews. "What makes the song so intriguing is you're not really sure what his motives are," Johnson said. "He's putting the money back into the church, and so I think that makes him almost a redneck vigilante."
  • Hardy sang lead on the demo, which got pitched to Blake Shelton before ending up with Michael Ray. The singer is sympathetic towards the bootlegging pastor. "I think he's a good guy that's running some moonshine and doing some dark stuff, but paying it back," Ray suggested.
  • Ray loved the song because it reminded him of the little white country church where he grew up in his hometown of Eustis, Florida. "I miss old story-songs," he told The Boot. "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."
  • Producer Ross Copperman lowered the key of the swampy track, making "Holy Water" just slightly darker than the original demo. "Michael has such a nice low register," he noted. "I really wanted to shine a spotlight on that."
  • After hearing the song for the first time, Michael Ray started picturing a video treatment set in the church he grew up attending. "My dad grew up there. My grandpa grew up going there. It's been there for generations and generations," he explained to Taste Of Country.

    Director Spidey Smith brought Ray's idea to life, incorporating people the singer knows from his hometown; everybody in the video is part of the community except the preacher (played by an actor), and the deacon with the beard (played by Ray's cousin).

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