20 Questions With ACM Awards' New Male Artist of the Year Riley Green

Ryan Smith

Riley Green

It’s fair to say that a few weeks ago, Riley Green got the surprise of his young career when Keith Urban popped up on a Zoom call with Green and executives from BMLG Records to reveal that Green had been named the Academy of Country Music Awards' new male artist of the year.

“Winning ACM’s new male artist of the year was something that I honestly never dreamed of," he tells Billboard. "Just being nominated was an accomplishment to me.”

Green won on the strength of such powerful and personal hits as “There Was This Girl” and “I Wish Grandpas Never Died" -- which have resonated with fans of traditional country and made the singer-songwriter a regular presence on radio, with the singles peaking at No. 3 and No. 12 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, respectively.

ACM New Male Artist of the Year Announcement: Riley Green

If It Wasn’t For Trucks, Green’s new EP out today (Sept. 11), builds on the promise of previous efforts. He embraces familiar country tropes of trucks, boots, mama and God, but brings his own homespun perspective on such tunes as “Better Than Me" (which features Alabama’s Randy Owen) and the nostalgic “Behind The Times." The influence of his hometown of Jacksonville, Ala. plays a prominent role in his accessible, winning songs.

"Growing up where I did and having family as close as I did definitely helped shape me not only as a person but as a songwriter," he says. "I think you hear that in a lot of my music."

Speaking with Billboard below, Green reflects on making his new EP during the pandemic, his ACM win and why breaking up a fight between girls has its own special challenges.

What do you want people to learn about you as an artist on If It Wasn’t For Trucks that they didn’t from Different ‘Round Here

With If It Wasn’t For Trucks, I didn’t want to stray too far from Different ‘Round Here. I wanted to continue to let people know more of who I am. I think it's a continuation of my story, and how I was brought up and some of the values that I have as not only a country music singer but also as a southerner growing up from a small town in Alabama.

How did you celebrate being named the ACM Awards’ new male artist and what does winning mean to you in terms of boosting confidence? 

Winning ACM’s new male artist of the year was something that I honestly never dreamed of -- just being nominated was an accomplishment to me. So it's definitely something that has given me a little bit of validation, that people are buying into me not only as a as a country music artist but as a person. And to have something that's voted on by so many influential people in the music industry, it keeps you going -- and makes you want to write more music, put out more music and keep the momentum rolling.

You just launched the four-part Golden Saw Music Hall series, which will raise money for ACM Lifting Lives COVID-19 Response Fund. How did you pick your guests, and how emotional is it for you that the venue is your great grandparents’ former home-turned-venue?

The Golden Saw Music Hall series is something that's definitely very personal to me. With it being at my great grandparents' house, where I first learned how to play and got my first opportunity to get on a stage of some sort, it means a lot. As far as how I pick guests -- it’s really just people that I'm a fan of. It's songwriters that I write with, and also people that I think can tell a good story. I’ve always enjoyed hearing the story behind songs, so it's a good place to share that with people.

How did Alabama’s Randy Owen end up on “Better Than Me?”

Randy Owen went to Jacksonville State, where I went to school and played football. That’s where our relationship began by doing a benefit concert for the university after a tornado. I sent him the song and he said he was a big fan of it and wanted to cut it with me, so we were able to go to Dann Huff's house and record it in his studio. It was a pretty special thing to get to do this song with somebody that I’ve idolized for so long growing up.

Talk about the idea behind “Behind the Times,” which references Ronald Reagan and an earlier time.

“Behind the Times” is a song about an era when I think people learned from a different generation. I grew up learning from my grandaddies and some of the values they had -- although [they] maybe aren't as relevant today -- I think are still pretty important, and I don't think you see that as much anymore. I don't think people go and talk to somebody that's been on this earth for 80 years. I think now they go Google how to do something, or YouTube it. So, the song is definitely about a generation that lived in a simpler time and how they valued things.

How much of this was recorded during the pandemic and how did that affect making the EP?

All the recording was done during the pandemic. I obviously spent a lot of time in Jacksonville, but we also came to Nashville where we were able to be socially distant and still get our EP recorded in the studio. It was a little different, but we were still able to get it done -- and I’m thankful to those musicians and Dann Huff for making the time.

This is the first half of an album that will come later. A lot of artists are putting out albums in two pieces. Why are you doing it? Is the rest already written? 

I think that a lot of artists are doing that now, because it's such a time-consuming thing to go in the studio for several days. When you're on the road constantly, it's tough to find those times, and you also are probably not going to write an entire record at once. So it's a way of going and putting out music and keeping your fans listening, giving them something new to hear -- but also giving you time to go write and try to come up with the best possible songs you can for that project.

What artist have you been in touch with the most during the pandemic?

I’ve been in touch with a lot of artists, done some Zoom writes and some podcasts. I did a podcast with Justin Moore, and we’ve been talking about trying to get in the studio. The thing is, you've got time to do a lot of recording right now. So a lot of that talk has been going on, and it's a good opportunity to try to find time to cut new music.

What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself?

The first piece of music that I can think of that I bought for myself would probably be a Lynyrd Skynyrd cassette tape. Growing up in Alabama, that was probably my favorite at an early age.

What was the first concert you saw?

First concert I saw was a KISS concert in Birmingham. Not that I was a big KISS fan, but one of my buddy's dads was a big KISS guy. I kind of decided to go in the other direction with my career, I guess.

Who made you realize you could be an artist full-time and what did you learn from being an athlete that helped prepare you to be an artist?

I don't know that there was really a moment or a person that helped me realize I could have a career in country music. I think it was a lot of fan feedback and success with some of the songs that I'd written. Playing a little bit of college football definitely helped, in the sense of giving me some accountability and setting goals for myself. I probably use a lot of those lessons I learned on a football field in what I'm doing today.

What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?

There's a lot of things that were on my bucket list that I've already accomplished. Playing the Ryman was very close to the top, so getting to do that will be hard to beat for me.

How did your hometown/city shape who you are?

My hometown comes out in a lot of my songs. Growing up where I did, and having family as close as I did, definitely helped shape me not only as a person but as a songwriter, and I think you hear that in a lot of my music.

What’s the last song you listened to?

“Cowboy Hat” by Jon Pardi. I like a lot of his newer stuff. He does a good job of straddling the line of traditional and contemporary.

If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?

I’d probably have to go with Merle Haggard. I took my grandmother to see him at probably one of his last concerts, and that was a pretty special thing. He's a little larger-than-life to me.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your sets?

There's not a lot of fights at my shows, but a girl fight is always a lot more tense than guys fighting. It seems like it’s a lot easier to break up when two guys are going at it, but a girl fight seems to get a little more intense.

What’s your karaoke go-to?

I don't really karaoke, but probably any old George Jones song would be something I might try.

What movie or song always makes you cry?

I watched Legends of the Fall about a week ago and that one almost got me. At the very end when the dad hugs the guy… that’s pretty serious.

What TV series have you watched all the way through multiple times?

I got hooked on The Ranch on Netflix and that was pretty hard for me to turn off. Then I started flying and traveling all the time, so I would just watch it on repeat. That's one of my favorites.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would just say constantly write songs. When things get busy and you're on the road and you don't really want to fool with it, it would be nice to have a big stockpile of songs -- and that’s something, hopefully, that I’ll be needing to put out for several years to come.

ACM New Male Artist of the Year Announcement: Riley Green