How Riley Green Took Hometown Success Nationwide: 'I Was Writing What I Knew'

Riley Green
Sam Crabtree

Riley Green

The rising country star also shares a behind-the-scenes look at the video for his breakout hit "There Was This Girl."

Riley Green didn't think he was a good singer growing up in the small town of Jacksonville, Ala. His first performances were at his grandfather's makeshift club he called the Golden Saw Music Hall, singing covers for an enthusiastic but mostly geriatric audience. It wasn't until Green started performing his own songs for crowds closer to his age that he realized his early listeners weren't just being nice. His hunch was right: The now-30-year-old singer is aiming to crack top 20 on country radio.

Sitting at No. 21 on the Country Airplay chart (dated Dec. 1) is Green's debut single “There Was This Girl,” a twangy love song inspired by the “dumber things” he has done for love. It’s a dream come true for an artist who, before he had any professional ambitions with music, knew the connecting power of songwriting. 

“On baseball trips, coaches used to let me take my guitar on the back of the bus and I'd write songs about people,” Green recalls. “It was really just a thing where I played around campfires and wrote songs my buddies would laugh about.”

A career in music first seemed tangible in 2015, when a booker for Birmingham venue Iron City called Green about playing a show there. A week prior, Chris Stapleton — then an up-and-coming artist — had played to a crowd that what was, Green estimates, about half the size of Iron City’s 1,300-person capacity, so Green assumed he’d sell even fewer tickets. Instead, he sold 900 pre-sale tickets and had sold 1,270 total by show time. “I had no idea that people even knew who I was then,” he says.

At that point, Green hadn’t spent any time in Nashville, let alone writing with any other songwriters. Instead, he wrote sincere songs like “Bury Me in Dixie” by himself and paid tribute to his hometown. “I didn’t have any choice but to write about what I knew,” he says. “It's funny, because I remember how simple the song was. Simple's a nice way of saying my writing is just dumb and plain, [but something] that people can relate to.”

Indeed: For the past four years, Green has played roughly a hundred shows each year, and he’s found that, even in cities like Chicago, fans sing along to his portraits of small-town life as if he were singing about their own hometowns. Green describes his success as “accidental,” which is perhaps his humble Southern way of saying he simply put in the work the old-fashioned way. No gimmicks, no viral moments, no co-signs from a more established artist, just playing shows — a lot of them. “I didn’t do anything better than anybody else,” he says. “[People] just came to my shows and streamed my music to where people in Nashville were like, ‘Holy hell, take a look at this.’” 

Credit his aw-shucks attitude to his home life — Green still lives in Alabama just down the road from all of his family. “I signed my publishing deal a week before I signed my record deal,” Green remembers. “I go home and I've signed to Big Machine, I have a song on the radio, and my mom's like, 'That's so great! You want macaroni and cheese?'”

He’s also making sure to give back to his fans. He filmed the video for “There Was This Girl” at Zydeco, another Birmingham venue where he used to play, and invited his longtime supporters to be in the video. “Those fans are the reasons I signed a record deal,” he says, adding with a laugh, “plus, I didn’t want to do any awkward acting.”

With plans to release his debut album in 2019, Green is hoping to grow his audience even further than he has with “There Was This Girl.” One thing that won’t change, however, is his work ethic. “If there's somewhere I can go play,” he says, “I'm going to do that until I've got a gray ponytail and I just can’t do it anymore.”

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the "There Was This Girl" video filming below.