Emerging Country: 'I Wish Grandpas Never Died' Singer Riley Green Credits Love of Music to Grandfather

Riley Green
Ryan Smith

Riley Green

For Riley Green, music was something he shared with his grandfather growing up. The Alabama native vividly recalls days spent at his grandparents’ home where he and his granddaddy Buford would sit around and play an old Epiphone guitar. That same home would eventually transform into a music space where much of his childhood was spent listening to locals perform traditional country music and occasionally getting on the stage himself.

Green launched onto the country scene last year with “There Was This Girl,” his infectious debut single on BMLG Records, which peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. The singer admits that having a song of his played on the radio was never something he imagined.

“I can honestly say the thought of radio success is certainly a new thing to me,” Green tells Billboard over the phone from California ahead of a headlining performance at the Troubadour. “My dreams or aspirations in country music are growing all the time, because I'm doing things I never thought I would do.”

The singer released his debut album Different ’Round Here on Sept. 20, and the 14-song project includes heartfelt love songs like fan favorite “Runnin’ With An Angel” and introspective ballads including standout “Numbers On the Cars,” about his late grandfather Lendon’s love for NASCAR and his battle with Alzheimer’s. Green wrote or co-wrote every song on the album.

“I'm certainly not opposed to outside songs. There’s really amazing songwriters in Nashville,” he says. “I've been fortunate to write with some really great writers. But I just feel like, as an artist, it's a lot easier to sing something and it really, truly be from the heart if it was something you came up with. It is that much easier for me to have a connection to a song when it's something that I either went through or thought of.”

In the midst of album release week, Green spoke with Billboard about his new album Different ’Round Here and his journey as an artist and songwriter.

When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?

I don't think that there was really a moment where I figured out that that was going to be by my calling. I was playing because I enjoyed it, and they let me come into bars and drink for free, and my buddies all came down and we had a good time. My motivation early on was just writing songs [that] people would relate to, coming to shows, and sing those songs back to me. That was something I always get a lot of enjoyment out of, even to this day. There’s a lot more people in there now. Getting a song on the radio makes a big difference.

When was your first public appearance?

I wasn't really all that interested in music as far as a career in high school. Then, I was playing football and baseball and basketball, so I was a lot more into sports. I was a big hunter, I liked being outside fishing and hunting and all that kind of stuff. Music, for me, was just something that me and my granddaddy Buford shared as a common interest in. He was a big fan of Merle Haggard and George Jones and he had an old Epiphone guitar at his house, and we’d sit around and play.

We ended up turning my great-grandparents’ house into a music hall. That was the first time I ever played and sang in front of somebody. It was me and a bunch of old men and women in there, playing old country music. It was a pretty easy place for me to gain some confidence, I guess you can say. The first song I remember singing was “Mama Tried.” That was one of my grandaddy’s favorite songs, and one of the ones we loved to play together.

What was the first song you ever wrote? 

I wrote a song called “Escalade” when I was in high school. I think it was about having a nicer car than I had. I had a beat-up truck. Early on, I wasn’t writing with any sort of goal. I was just writing because I got tired of playing [cover] songs and I was trying to make my buddies laugh.

Once I started getting a little more serious about it, I realized it was a way for me to get fans. If I could get in front of a crowd of people that are in a bar or restaurant, play a song that I wrote and that was something that was really special to me, it would be different than something somebody else could come up with. I never really thought I was all that great of a singer, I just thought maybe if I can write songs people like, that'll help me get some fans and make a little more money on the weekends.

Who’s career do you admire most and would like to pattern yours after? 

I was a really big Jamey Johnson fan growing up. Still am. He's one of those guys that when he plays and sings, the type of songs he writes, he definitely has his own sound. So that was something that I really admired growing up. Some of his stuff wasn't as popular in the mainstream, but he keeps doing his own thing. Eric Church is one of those guys. He certainly does his own thing, has his own sound. It's really cool when you put in the work and you get to where everybody really wants to listen to you when you have things to say.

What is the first album you remember buying? 

I can remember my dad throwing a Lynyrd Skynyrd cassette tape out the window of his truck rolling down the road one day because I listened to “Sweet Home Alabama” over and over and he was tired of hearing it.

Who is your dream collaborator? 

I definitely lean more towards the traditional country and the old school guys. There was a song that Randy Travis did with George Jones called “A Few Good Ole Country Boys.” That type of [song] with somebody like Randy would be a cool thing for me.

What’s the story behind your latest single “I Wish Grandpas Never Died?”

It has been really, really neat to see the reaction to “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.” I had my album done and we had a different single on the radio, and it was just a song that I wrote for myself. My granddaddy Buford is one of the reasons that I got into country music in the first place and had a passion for music. My granddaddy Lendon just passed away in February of this past year and I wrote it as a way of dealing with losing two guys that meant a lot to me and also a tribute to them. I played it at a show, some guy filmed it, put it on YouTube and got a million something views. I was going out and playing these shows and people were singing this song back to me that wasn't even recorded yet, much less on the radio.

It was definitely a big sign for me that it was touching people, and it meant something to somebody besides me. So we went and recorded the song and put it out. It’s been really crazy to see the way fans are really running to the song and how they find a line that means something to them. As far as putting my two granddaddies as co-writers on the song, I really don't think that I could have written the song without the things that they taught me and the values that they instilled in me growing up. They weren't technically in the room when I wrote the song, but I figured what better way to honor those two guys then than to put their names on something that’s going to be around forever -- especially on a song called “I Wish Grandpas Never Died?”

What song of yours best describes you as an artist?

The title track was a pretty easy decision for us, the song “Different ’Round Here.” This is really the first body of work that a lot of people are going to hear from me. I think that song describes where I'm at in my career because I've always said the best thing that I can be right now is different [and] have [my] own sound. We do things a lot different down in a small town in Alabama than they do in other parts of the world. But, I'm really happy to see that people grew up like me all over the place. The more I travel; I realize there's country music fans everywhere.

What’s the most autobiographical song on Different ’Round Here?

I don't know that they're all 100-percent true stories, but there's definitely some truth in probably all of them. I wrote “Bettin’ Man” after me and a girl I dated from Birmingham broke up. I went to try to win her back and she had already told her mom and her sisters and all her friends how horrible a boyfriend I was. So, I wrote this song about how I probably couldn't get her back, and how she already told her mom and them all about everything. It's not always exactly the way it happened, but I definitely write from personal experience.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about the music industry? 

There was a guy named Corey Smith in Georgia who I was a big fan of growing up. I remember him telling me to do as much as I could on my own for as long as I could. I really took it as write songs, put out music, and go play shows and get in front of people and try to hone your craft: what kind of songs people like, what works in the live show, and get better as an artist and musician. I tried to do that, and I think it helped me quite a bit because I didn't come to Nashville and try to talk people into signing me and giving me a brand. I had one when I got there, and it definitely was a big help in my career that I wrote songs for the fans.