Riley Green has made no secret that one of his goals in following up his 2019 full-length debut album, “Different ‘Round Here,” was to not stray too far from the sound or lyrical personality of that first major label album.
That album, which brought together songs from three earlier EPs, gave Green his first two top 15 hits on “Billboard” magazine’s Country Songs chart in “There Was This Girl” and “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.” He knows he’s trying now to accomplish what he considers one of the biggest challenges an artist faces, beginning with his recently released EP, “Behind The Bar.”
“I think it’s really hard for a new artist to go from ‘Hey, I know this song, but I don’t know who sings it’ into ‘Oh, and that’s a Riley Green song.’” Green explained in a recent phone interview. “I think that probably comes from maybe too much bouncing (around stylistically) with your first few singles.
“Ten years ago, your average Joe couldn’t go into the studio and record something and put it out on Spotify or Amazon or iTunes,” he added. “Now that you have so much music, this overflow of music, you’ve got to find a way to stand out, and I think that’s kind of by having your own sound.”
Green, ironically, isn’t able to actually articulate just yet exactly what makes his songs or his sound stand apart from other country artists.
“I have no idea what it is about what I’m doing that’s working, but I just want to make sure I don’t mess it up,” he said.
Perhaps part of what is working for Green is the way he puts pieces of himself, his life and the people he’s known into his lyrics. His songs are solid musically, but that’s not what sets him apart. On uptempo tunes like “Jesus and Wranglers,” “If I Didn’t Wear Boots” (both from the “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” EP), and “Put ‘Em On Mine” (from “Behind The Bar”) he mixes a good bit of twang with muscular rock, creating a sound that fits well in today’s mainstream country. Even his lyrics, which incorporate familiar country themes about family bonds, faith, a blue-collar work ethic, small-town life and wholesome values, might not seem that unique.
Still, Green’s lyrics give listeners a tangible sense of where he’s from (the small Alabama town of Jacksonville), his down-to-earth upbringing, his outlook on life and his love of country and rock music. Of course, plenty of country singers grew up in small towns in the South with tight-knit families, but Green sounds authentic when he references his life and times in his songs. And he knows fans respond to something in his music.
“I mean, a great example is I’ve got this song called ‘Georgia Time’ that I wrote when I was 22 or 23, I guess,” said Green, who is now 32. “I recorded it and put it out myself. It’s a demo at the very best. I recorded it at like Bob’s garage or something and spent a few hundred bucks on it. But that song has got 30 something million streams, and it’s just like at every show they scream for it at the top of their lungs. And I don’t know, I don’t know what it is about the songs I’ve written...I wrote a lot of songs about myself because I didn’t have anybody else to write with, but something about them was very relatable to fans.”
Green certainly came to country music honestly and he put in plenty of time and effort to reach the point now where he’s a major label artist (signed to Big Machine Records), with a couple of hit singles on his resume that helped him win the prestigious 2020 Academy of Country Music award for New Male Artist of the Year.
It all began in Jacksonville, Alabama, where he spent plenty of time, not only with his parents and siblings, but he grew close to his two grandparents, Buford and Lendon (which helps explain why “I Wish Grandpas Never Died”—one of a number of earthy, acoustic-leaning ballads that sit along the rockers in his catalog—is so personal to Green).
Buford, in particular, was a big country music fan and introduced his grandson to legendary artists like Roy Acuff and Merle Haggard. And it was at Buford’s house-turned-music-hall where the idea of having a music career formed for Green.
“Neither one of us was a really good singer, but we enjoyed it,” Green recalled. “We’d sit on the porch of that old house and play. And he’d get my grandmother to bring down the yellow pages, and he’d call up so and so that used to play the banjo or the guitar or the mandolin or whatever, and these old men started coming over and we started meeting up weekly and playing. Then people started to come to listen.
“We had a saw mill there, and my dad and his brother, we were always in construction, so we tore the floor up and built a stage and people started showing up every Friday,” Green continued. “We called it the Golden Saw. We painted an old saw blade gold on the front so people could see it when they drove by. It went on for 14 years. They never missed a Friday. It was anybody who wanted to play and sing could play and sing. The older ladies would bring snacks. There would be a break time. It was a really miniature Grand Ol’ Opry to us, and it was kind of a place that kept a lot of people alive. I’m sure there were a lot of older folks that didn’t have anything to look forward to all week except for that show on Friday night. That was where I got confidence enough to get up on stage and play, and I learned to play guitar by watching how these old men made chords and it was a very accidental thing that turned into something really cool.”
Green found himself writing songs, and by his early 20s, he had started getting gigs around the Southeast. He posted songs online and self-released several EPs, gradually building a following that was large enough to allow him to make music a full-time venture. This self-made career was what eventually got noticed in Nashville.
“I played for probably 10 years before a record label ever showed up at a show,” Green said. “I had never been to Nashville. It wasn’t because I was just amazing or I had some big hit song that I got discovered. It was because I was selling a lot of tickets and people were coming to my shows and downloading my songs.”
After spending much of 2020 unable to tour, Green returned to the road, playing in an acoustic format for what were largely socially distanced shows. But he’s now back to playing plugged-in format.
The tour will be an opportunity for Green to debut songs from the seven-song EP, “Behind The Bar,” which he finished just before he started the acoustic tour in April. Like the “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” EP, “Behind The Bar” has a mix of rock-edged uptempo tunes such as “That Was Us,” “Put ‘Em On Mine” and the title track and acoustic-leaning ballads like “That’s My Dixie” and “That’s What I’ve Been Told.”
Green likes doing EPs because it involves fewer songs and he can get music released soon after songs have been written and recorded.
“Now there are so many platforms where you can put music out and for me it’s just, the only way I can really disappoint my fans is by not putting out music,” he said. “And so it takes awhile to go do a full-length album. That’s months and months and months of planning and picking songs and (scheduling) studio time. You know, when you put out a project like this EP, it buys you some time. And I think it will probably be similar to how my debut album was, ‘Different ‘Round Here,’ where it was actually three EPs that became an album. That, to me, is sort of an easier way to give fans (a larger batch) of music, but also not jump the gun and go hey man, we’ve got to go cut 12 songs right now.”
Green will bring his ‘We Out Here Tour’ to the Enmarket Arena stage in Savannah for its first ever show, and will be joined by special guests, Georgia’s own Corey Smith and Mike Ryan. The show is set for Jan. 14.