To Riley Green fans, he’s the real deal in country music, and nowhere near those mainstream pop country lightweights like Dan + Shay or Parmalee. Riley Green is an actual country music star singing actual By God country music songs. And when bringing an honest assessment to the musical accompaniment and lyrical content of his songs, that judgement is generally fair. There’s ample steel guitar, some fiddle too, and the tracks definitely touch on rural themes.
But just because something is real country doesn’t always mean that it’s real good. Riley Green might be more country than most of what you hear in the mainstream. But when listening through his second full-length album Ain’t My Last Rodeo, you also most definitely hear the mainstream in his country.
Riley Green songs are all about good ol’ boys, being raised up right, saying yes sir and ma’am, saluting the flag, putting your faith in God and country, and beating your old lady with a rubber hose. Oh wait, that last one’s from a John Prine song, but you get the point. Then Riley and his co-writers fill out the verses to these self-affirming odes with plenty of references to cans of tobacco, back roads, beer, tailgates, trucks, and all the usual bluster that accompanies these kinds of songs.
In a nutshell, Riley Green and the two or three co-writers, and three or four producers he employs on each song compile the kind of list-tacular songs that in 2015 were an annoyance, in 2019 began to feel outright repugnant, and in 2023 are so antiquated and tired, it undermines the entire listening experience, no matter how “country” they are.
Hank Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” is an all-time country music classic. But even Bocephus would tell you one is enough. The B-side to “Country Boy” was “Weatherman,” for example. Meanwhile, Ain’t My Last Rodeo is like one version of “A Country Boy Can Survive” after another. The second song on the album “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That No More” even borrows the Bocephus line “shotgun, rife, and 4-wheel drive.”
Ain’t My Last Rodeo is a merciless run of list songs that doesn’t relent. It’s not that the premise of a song like “Mississippi Or Me” is entirely terrible, or that “Damn Good Day To Leave” isn’t a good song idea. It’s the boilerplate way the songs are fleshed out with paint-by-the-numbers country-isms that makes Riley Green songs like living clichés.
Take any one or two of these songs and separate them from the herd, and sure, they’re clever and entertaining. You understand why he has an audience, and it’s not exactly Riley Green’s fault that the list style of country songwriting has been so worn out over the last many years. But even though he might be one of the most country performers in popular country, his music is still basically Bro-Country, just without the hip-hop beats or cadences.
There is some respite from this formula though, thankfully. “Workin’ On Me” is still kind of a standard mainstream country love song, but it’s not a list song, which is a relief. The ending song “Ain’t My Damn To Give” ain’t a Riley Green co-write, it but concludes the album strongly. And unquestionably, the title track “Ain’t My Last Rodeo” makes for the album’s best moment. Sentimental and sincerely written, it’s no surprise that it’s also Riley’s only solo written track on the album.
This is the way mainstream country goes: The more cooks in the kitchen, the more generic the outcome, and the more repetitive the music. In fact, a study published earlier this year affirmed this as a statistical certitude. Riley Green and Ain’t My Last Rodeo is a great example of this. And when you see the CEO of an artist’s label in the producer credits—in this case, Scott Borchetta of Big Machine—it’s never a good sign.
The album also starts with the song “Damn Country Music.” Yes, it’s the same one that was the title track of Tim McGraw’s 2015 album. Not that it’s forbidden to cover someone else’s song in country music. Far from it. But it’s a strange decision to make the opening track to your album a song that was the title track from a previous album from the same record label.
Though Riley Green has certainly found his successful niche in the mainstream as country music’s good ol’ boy who’s not going to bend to the trends, whether they’re “woke” songs or wiggy thump production, he’s surprisingly and frustratingly unoriginal. He could be a really big part in the country revolution helping to reshape mainstream country in a more country frame. But for now he’s the reason when listeners hear Zach Bryan or Tyler Childers, it seems like night and day. The songs of Riley Green just can’t compete.
If you’re truly “country,” you don’t have to field an album of songs affirming it. It’s self-evident. Being country is more of a state of mind than it is posturing and a series of positioning statements. Riley Green is better than many of his mainstream counterparts, and Ain’t My Last Rodeo is probably better than this review would lead you to believe. But his upside potential remains much higher than his output, because his songwriting is still so stuck on the mainstream sauce.
1 1/4 Guns Up (6/10)
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