Riley Green Talks Alabama Pride, What His Granddads Taught Him
As a teenager growing up in Alabama, Riley Green received some important musical education from his grandfather Buford Green, whose old Epiphone guitar they’d use while learning how to play a few classic country songs. Later, his grandfather called up a few musician buddies to come join, then word got around and people from the area started showing up to watch their gatherings. Eventually, Green and his family repurposed his great-grandparents’ old home as a makeshift performance space, adding a stage and a kitchen to accommodate the growing numbers of visitors. They called it the Golden Saw Music Hall, named for an old saw mill on the family property.
“It got to be where it was two or three hundred people out there watching 15 or 20 people on stage, playing,” says Green, who enjoyed a breakthrough hit earlier in 2019 with the charming, Nineties country-indebted tune “There Was This Girl.” “I didn’t sing. I just watched their hands to figure out what chords they were playing.”
Green has maintained a deep connection to his home and the people who live there since signaling his arrival in 2017 with “Bury Me in Dixie,” a love note to the Yellowhammer State in which he expresses his appreciation for geographical features like the Coosa River and Cheaha Mountain, along with several of its towns. Green rolls many of these same themes into his newly released debut album, Different ‘Round Here, mixing his soulful croon with twanging Telecasters and generous helpings of sturdy country-rock. The title track is a midtempo rocker that lets Green cast his hometown as an idealized bastion of old-fashioned values and simplicity, where “right is right and wrong is wrong.” Old flames still flicker, as Green recalls a first love in the shimmering “My First Everything,” then chides himself for letting someone slip away in “In Love by Now.” And with a chord progression that recalls Goo Goo Dolls’ “Name,” Green’s new single “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” honors the men who helped raise him and, in the case of Buford Green, taught him to love country music.
“Me and him would sing a little bit,” says Green. “Neither one of us could sing really well, so we goofed off with it. That was something we bonded over. I [never] had any visions of it going anywhere.”
“Bury Me in Dixie” had some specific references that people who aren’t from Alabama aren’t likely to know. What does the idea of home and being from Alabama mean to you, and how does it play into the way you write?
I would put my state pride up with anybody’s in the sense of where it comes out in my music. One thing that helped me a whole lot as a songwriter was I never came to Nashville. That’s not to say there’s not great songs coming out of Nashville, because there are, and great songwriters, but I was writing from Jacksonville, Alabama, and I was writing from in front of people every week. I wrote [“Bury Me in Dixie”] the night before I opened for Marshall Tucker Band in Anniston, Alabama. I played it at that show the next night and people just went nuts. It was the first song that I’d ever written where I thought, man, I can get a following like this.
Do you think if you had come to Nashville first that it might have sanded the edges off somehow?
Well, because I never thought about having a song on the radio — I never thought that a record deal was even a possibility — I never wrote towards that. And I can see where if you are writing towards something, you start looking at what’s working for somebody else. And of course, you know, you’ve got guys who’ve got 20 Number Ones that you go sit in a room with and they have a style. At a certain point, things will start to sound the same if it’s all coming from the same place.
Different Round Here stems from that same idea of home. What did you hope to say with the album and that song in particular?
That song seemed like a perfect title to the record because of that message. The kind of music I’m writing and the kind of music I’m playing is kind of different. People have asked me several times, “Who do you think you sound most like on the radio?” and I don’t know of anybody. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but I always say it’s a good time to be different right now.
The things you list as differences in the song, do you see those as being radically different than any other place?
Certain things, yeah. I guess if there is such a thing as controversial line in the song, it’s “We stand for the flag and if you don’t like it, we don’t care.” That’s a very simple thing where I grew up. First thing in the morning before class, we did the Pledge. I was of course out of school before that type of thing started becoming such a big issue in the world. It was a lot simpler time and a simpler place for me. The references get a little songwriter-y — “Brave as 18, wearing Army green” and “Free is how you feel, not what you pay.” Some of that is songwriting stuff, but there are parts of it that are I’m sure a lot different in small town Alabama than they are other places.
Your grandfathers play a big role in some of these songs, particularly “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.” What message did you want to convey with that?
I never thought it was a big radio hit or anything like that. I just thought it was kind of a personal thing for me. Kind of a tribute to my granddaddies, and saying these are some of the things they thought were important that also mean something to me and that maybe aren’t so important in this day and age. My granddaddy Buford, we’d have a handshake competition when I’d go over to his house. He’d make us practice giving him a handshake. I didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t a big deal. But I don’t know if that’s taught as much anymore as it used to be. Those type of things — looking somebody in the eye, “Yes, sir,” “No, ma’am” — that was a big deal to him, so that carried over into the song.
There’s a line in the song where you say you wish “country music was still played on country radio.” You’re part of an emerging new group of guys like Luke Combs and Jon Pardi who are steeped in more old-school sounds. Have you had a chance to take that in?
I never mind being thrown into categories with somebody that’s bringing back traditional country sounds. There’s some stuff on my record that’s got a very Nineties sound. “There Was This Girl” has that little guitar lick — that was the thing from the Nineties, the guitar intro, you always recognized the song as soon as it came on. When I write songs, especially by myself, I don’t put as much thought into lines as maybe they come out sounding like. That was really just a situation of me sitting down and going, man, my granddaddies, what reminds me of them is Merle Haggard, George Jones, that type of stuff. You don’t hear that anymore; it doesn’t get played on the radio anymore. I’ve gotta go and pull it up on something else to hear it now. I do love that there are guys like Luke that are bringing that traditional sound back, and I hope that it makes a swing toward that. There’s definitely room for all types of country music, but my lane is certainly toward more traditional.
You included both of your grandfathers as co-writers on that one. Why did you decide to add their names?
Of course they weren’t in the room with me. Both of my granddaddies had passed away [by then]. But beyond the obvious — the song is about them, the song is inspired by them — it’s taken from ideas that I learned from them. It’s taken from things they instilled in me as being important. There’s no way I could have written the song without them, so I felt it was a really good tribute to them. And more than that, on a song called “I Wish Grandpas Never Died,” what cooler thing to do than put them on something that’s gonna have their name on it forever?
“Get That Man a Beer” is an interesting twist on the “one that got away” theme. You’re almost expressing empathy for the guy who ended up with this woman.
I’d never heard a song that was about that. That’s always a cool thing if you can stumble across it, because there’s so many country songs out there. To think about a guy you got in a fist fight with and he won and took your girl, and then to actually know what he’s been through and feel sorry for him, is a completely crazy thought to me. I thought it came out a little humorous, talking about having two mean kids and his old dog. It’s something cool about that to me to name a bar and picture that guy sitting in a corner with a [Georgia] Bulldogs tattoo.
Do you feel like you’re attempting to represent in Alabama what Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and all those guys do in Georgia?
I watched, I don’t know how many [artists] from Georgia [succeed in country]. And the cool thing was they all helped each other out. Cole Swindell going out with Luke. And Luke going out with Aldean. There just wasn’t a guy like that from Alabama for me. I was a huge Jamey Johnson fan, still am, but he’s not doing the radio thing. Jason Isbell’s one of them but he’s not a mainstream guy. Beyond that, it was Randy Owen, and that was years and years ago. One thing that really helped me out was there wasn’t many of those guys so Alabama put me on their shoulders when I wrote “Bury Me in Dixie” and started playing. People couldn’t avoid me. I played every hole-in-the-wall there was in that state for about 10 years so they had to listen to me.