Riley Green has spent his career listening to his fans. He’s known for taking weeks- or even hours-old songs to the stage, using the feedback he gets from live shows to pick his radio singles and build his album track lists. So when touring shut down in 2020, Green could easily have floundered — but instead he tapped into a different skill set. He leaned into listening to himself, carefully revisiting older songs and taking time to write and live with new ones.
His new Behind the Bar EP is a mix of both: Some of the songs are a couple of years old, like the title track, as well as his current single, “If It Wasn’t for Trucks.” Other tracks were written more recently. “That’s What I’ve Been Told,” for example, started taking shape soon after he sold his house in Nashville and moved back down to his home state of Alabama to ride out the pandemic.
“That song was written about something that I’ve heard said by some old man who lives on the same road I live on,” he tells Country Now. “It’s really just a country way to talk about how I was brought up, some of the values I learned.”
Though he co-wrote the song with Bobby Pinson and Chris DuBois, Green says he’d already written most of the song before he ever brought it into a co-writing session. That was intentional: He wanted help with the finishing touches, but he also wanted “That’s What I’ve Been Told” to keep a personal, intimate quality.
“I wanted it to be a really me song. For lack of a better term,” he laughs. “…I took that song into a couple co-writes, and tried things with it. I’d never done that before — literally, to have a song 99% written, and not be able to [finish it]….but Bobby and Chris just got it.”
That’s not the only song on Behind the Bar that Green began writing in one context, and then finished in another, after a period of reflection. “That Was Us” got its start as a co-write with Thomas Rhett during a duck hunting trip in Arkansas. As it took shape, Green realized it was evolving into a love song, and he quickly pinpointed exactly which co-writer could best help it along in that direction.
“I always look to get with [songwriter] Jessi [Alexander] when I write that kind of, like, sexier love song — she’s just so good at that,” Green explains. So, during his next co-writing session with Alexander, he asked Rhett for permission to work on the song they’d started. Not only were Green’s instincts spot on about Alexander being the right person to finish writing the song, but she wound up being his duet partner on it, too.
Alexander — along with Randy Montana — also served as Green’s co-writer for “That’s My Dixie,” a song that grapples with racial tensions and inequality while simultaneously expressing Green’s love of the Southern state and lifestyle in which he grew up.
“And nowadays you just can’t believe what you see on the news / ‘Round here we ain’t just Black and white, we’re all red, white and blue,” Green sings in the second verse. “They’re turnin’ these towns into battle grounds, and that don’t sit well with me / Ooh, ‘cause that ain’t my Dixie…”
“To understand a lot of things about the South, when you haven’t been there, is probably pretty hard. I can’t be from that side [of not being from the South.] I’ve always been around it,” Green explains, recalling the conversation he and his co-writers had when they sat down to write “That’s My Dixie.” “I think it was important that we were saying it in a way that everybody got that it was a positive message we were trying to convey. That the values we got growing up — that you shake somebody’s hand, look them in the eye, say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, ma’am’ — all that is something people are really prideful about.”
In 2020, in tandem with a galvanized Civil Rights movement unfolding nationwide, new and rejuvenated conversations began to take place in country music surrounding racism and equality for Black fans and artists alike. Mickey Guyton released her powerful “Black Like Me,” the Chicks dropped the “Dixie” from their name, Lady Antebellum became Lady A (and subsequently faced a legal dispute from soul artist Anita White, who performs under the name Lady A) and Morgan Wallen was benched by the industry after video footage surfaced showing him shouting a racist slur. Like everyone else in country music, Green says, he was affected by watching those events unfold.
But he also stresses that the message of “That’s My Dixie” comes from his experience of being taught that equal respect for all people is a southern value.
“And I mean, this song is about how when I grew up, we were taught to give everyone a certain level of respect. If my parents or my grandmother or my Aunt Patsy caught wind at the grocery store that I hadn’t done that, I’d get my butt whipped,” he points out.
“I think this song has a really important message,” Green adds, admitting that the song’s subject matter falls a little out of his comfort zone. “I’m not usually the guy to speak up and be the guy to give the message, but man, when we wrote it…it just seemed like it was really something that needed to get out.”
Still, he “sat on that song for about two months” before he let anybody at the label hear “That’s My Dixie”. But when he finally did send it to his label, the reaction was immediate: He even got a call from Big Machine Label Group head Scott Borchetta, encouraging him to cut the song.
“That’s the fastest turnaround I’ve ever had on getting a song written to recorded. To me, it kinda just spoke that everybody heard it the way we meant them to hear it,” the singer says.
In order to keep making music, Green has had to learn to listen to his inner compass in 2020. But even though he had far fewer opportunities to play live music for fans, he’s never completely let go of the special relationship he has with the crowds at his live shows. Now, with pandemic restrictions lifting, the singer is getting the chance to bring his newest batch of songs to his native habitat: The stage.
“It’s just cool, I think, when fans make songs about their own life,” Green explains. That’s what he sees his fans doing with “If It Wasn’t For Trucks,” and now, that’s what they’re starting to do with “That’s What I’ve Been Told.”
“The coolest thing about that song is, [lyrics like] ‘Girls don’t like a kiss that tastes like Skoal’ — those type of lines are super personal,” he offers as an example. “And then, going out and playing them at a bar, or arena, whatever it is, and hearing the crowd react to those lines…that’s what’s so cool to me. To find something that’s so specific to my life, that people can relate to.”