Riley Greenmight have one of the best takes I’ve ever heard when it comes to the country music debate.
And I’ll be really honest, it surprised me a little bit.
He was on outdoorsman Chad Belding’s podcast last year and talked in-depth about the state of country music now, and some of his current favorite artists/songwriters who are wielding the sword in the quest to keep real (and good) country music alive for the next generation.
It was a captivating conversation that actually got pretty deep, and Riley had a lot of interesting things to say about who he’s listening to and the importance of quality songwriting.
But on the flip side, many don’t consider him to be a “sellout” or force in the pop-country world by any stretch of the imagination, either.
He’s right there in the middle, garnering newer, younger fans of country music while trying to keep the old, more neo-traditional sound alive at the same time. It’s quite a balancing act, yet his true appreciation for the history of the genre and the music he grew up on seems to keep him grounded right where he needs to be.
So, how does he define his music exactly?
“The very short answer to your question is I have no clue. I don’t know what it is about some of my songs that people relate to so well, but a great example is “Georgia Time.” It’s a song that ended up going gold this year.
It’s not on my debut album with my record label. It will never be played on the radio. It’s about a very small portion of the state of Alabama that’s close enough to the eastern time zone that they call it Georgia time.
So that regional of an idea, but they sing that song all over the country and if I went into any record label in Nashville to try to sign a record deal to play that song for ‘em, they’d shrug their shoulders and say ‘I don’t get it, going to the next person.'”
Because as he’s obviously figured out, when you write with honesty and sincerity, people can sense that from a mile away. He continued to explain how he’s done that in his music:
“So my point is, something about me being from a small town in Alabama and just singing about how I grew up, I think a lot of people grew up the same way. And that’s what’s helped me a lot in my career.
It’s kept me from… selling out maybe isn’t the word, but it’s kept me from trying to model my writing after things that are working on the radio.”
And here’s where I think some people need to get a pen and paper out and jot some notes down:
“I never sat down and wrote a song like the top two on the charts to try to get on the charts, I never thought I’d be on the radio. So it helped me stay true to what I was writing. But having the goal of not necessarily radio play, but just trying to relate to my fans that I was seeing.”
Between all the hunting photos and trips to the Flora-Bama, he’s nailed down a really solid view of what feels like the never-ending debate about “real” country and all of the different segments within the genre.
“Brent Cobb’s a great example, because Brent Cobb doesn’t have a song on the radio, something about what he does is so cool to me… what we call ‘underground country’ or ‘outlaw county’. They’re writing things that they know about and I think that comes through to people.
I enjoy songwriters. I enjoy hearing a story of how somebody wrote a song and when somebody lived what they’re singin about, I think people can tell that.”
What he said next is my absolute favorite part of the entire interview. I don’t think I’ve yet heard a better, simpler, or more poignant description and diagnosis of what we’re seeing in country music.
As they note in the podcast, artists like the aforementioned Brent Cobb, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson and so many others are earning fans all over the country with absolutely no radio play whatsoever. He kind of blew my mind with this response:
“I also have called this era that we’re in the era that everybody wants to know about the guy nobody knows about first. Everybody wants to be the guy that tells their buddy ‘Hey man, have you heard this dude here yet?’, and them say no and go ‘Oh man, go check it out’ and play their whole playlist for them.”
How that’s even happening without radio play and big money marketing these artists to the masses is due in large part to social media and the internet:
“There’s so many ways for people to hear music, and people to find music. If it wasn’t for Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Instagram, Facebook, all that stuff I woulda never signed a record deal. Because there were people listening to my stuff on Spotify and I didn’t even have Spotify.
I didn’t even know you could do that, you know, so that technology is what’s allowed people like Tyler Childers to have a huge following.
To be able to go sell tickets in places and not have a song on the radio. And granted, Texas country has its own kind of radio station, and I’m sure there’s some places it’s played at, but that Brent Cobb type thing… I think people will find it, I think there’s enough people that appreciate it now.”
I want Riley to be my guide navigating me through this path of constant debate over genre lines and who fits where. He has such a clear, deep understanding of the most revered artists who paved the way and made country what it is, like George Jones, whom he specifically mentions.
Of Jones, he jokingly says he’ll sometimes decide to play one of his songs on a whim at a show thinking it’s going to crush. The reality is often the whole front (read: younger portion) of the room just stares at him, waiting to hear something they’ll actually know.
The key to all of it is being true to who you are. Country music has always been about stories and real life, and if you stick with that you really can’t go wrong.
“I think the guys that have their own sound and a uniqueness about their music are writing for themselves and not so much being too influenced by other things that are becoming popular, cuz it’s always gonna change. There are several lanes of country music right now.
I think people care more about the stories and the songs. I think people care more about who writes these songs and how they wrote them. I think that’s cool to people now.”