Album Review – Riley Green’s “Behind The Bar”

Before it was Morgan Wallen who was considered country music’s bad boy, it was Riley Green who was raising a stink when some discovered his song “Bury Me in Dixie” had the audacity to not only drop the Southern nickname in the title, but goes on to name check Robert E. Lee in the lyrics. The song really wasn’t much more than just a list of things Riley appreciates about his home state of Alabama, with the General Lee reference dropped as a non-sequitur since he was a Virginian. It stirred its own little controversy, but now thanks to Morgan Wallen, it’s one that is remembered as a tempest in a teapot, if at all.

But similar to Morgan Wallen, Riley Green sits outside of the politically correct fold of mainstream country. And somewhat similar to Morgan Wallen, Riley Green writes deep songs for shallow listeners. As much as that might come off as an insult to some, it’s nonetheless a fair assessment of his music, and one that in the venue of mainstream country, secures him a place firmly towards the more favorable side, even if the denizens of independent country and Americana only need a verse or two before eyes start rolling and the pronouncement comes, “not for me.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not for everyone.

Starting with his hit “I Wish Grandpas Never Died,” Riley Green has delivered one song after another that labors and often achieves to touch something deeper in the listener than just their vapid, passive-listening pleasure zone placed in the bullseye of the likes of 101.1 FM, while still staying very much within the mainstream fold of making lists of countryistic buzz words and delivering them rapid fire. Riley Green also avoids the pitfalls of electronic beats, hip-hop cadences in the lyrical phrasing, while favoring fiddle and steel guitar in songs when it fits.

This is perhaps exemplified best by Riley’s Green’s current single “If It Wasn’t For Trucks.” Simply mentioning “trucks” in the title is a non starter for so many who’ve seen this trope so mercilessly run into the ground that it measures on the Richter scale each time a song like this is released. And just like with “I Wish Grandpas Never Died,” it’s not that the hook doesn’t catch, it’s that the list-like lyrics are so achingly predictable. And not to take things too literal, but you can do all the things Riley lists off in a four-door compact, or a hand-me-down minivan too. In fact, that’s what most of us did.

But listeners used to hearing Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Maren Morris hear a Riley Green song, and it touches something these artists can’t, or don’t. Listeners actually feel something. And it’s not just the way Riley employs heavy emotional hooks in his songs, but how he pairs them up smartly with mature chord movements that avoid the regular and worn-out song structures of the mainstream until compared to his contemporaries, he sounds like damn Mozart.

This is how Riley Green is earning high praise for his new, 7-song album Behind The Bar, even if he continues to be mostly ignored by radio, and by much of the press. It’s a grassroots following Riley Green has garnered, and his underdog and outsider status has only aided his ascent. If you polled these people, they would tell you the reason for their loyalty is because his songs actually mean something, and he’s actually country. Country hipsters may guffaw at this flattering assessment. But from the perspective of the mainstream, it’s proportionately accurate.

In one song after another, Behind The Bar strives to strike an emotional chord, from the nostalgia of “That Was Us” with Jessi Alexander, to the wisdom and regret of “I Let a Damn Good Woman Leave.” Really only the title track doesn’t try to leave one emotionally touched, but every single one of these songs rely on lists and buzzwords to move their stories along. This remains Riley Green’s flaw.

One of the other issues with this release is it’s only 7 songs. In fact that’s a problem with the entirety of Riley Green’s catalog, is it’s one EP after another, and a 2019 LP Different ‘Round Here that includes songs previously released on EPs. And I’m not just talking two or three of them. By my count, there’s been no less than eight Riley Green EPs that at one point or another have populated his discography, including one from last year called If It Wasn’t For Trucks titled after the single. It’s an absolute mess.

But this is what happens in the mainstream world when you can’t launch big radio singles. Riley’s debut track “There Was This Girl” did fine at #3, but despite all the fanfare for “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” and a Certified Platinum sales record, all it could muster was #12. “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” sounds like a radio hit to me, but has been stalled out in the mid 40’s. Even with the cliche lyrics, apparently it’s still too good for country radio.

One of the best moments of this short album, or long EP is that it ends with a song called “That’s My Dixie,” which sees Riley Green come full circle on the whole controversy stirred in his career back in 2019. Like almost all of Riley Green’s songs, it’s a list song. And like almost all of Riley Green’s songs, it comes with a strong hook that’s hard to ignore. Then a fiddle solo comes in, and it stirs something deep in the emotional receptors of country fans.

As “That’s My Dixie” tries to express, just because you’re proud of where you’re from doesn’t mean you embrace all the sins of the past. It doesn’t mean you have hate in your heart for others. As many in the intellectual class look to systemically downgrade anything south of the Mason-Dixon, they fail to recognize how shared the Southern experience is between black and white, and brown. They fail to address how once you’ve demeaned and erased someone’s culture, there’s rarely anything else to replace it with aside from addiction, anger, and often, hate.

If it wasn’t for the Bro-Country era wearing out list songs, perhaps Riley Green would be regarded even more favorably. Even with the striking emotional moments, his music just lacks the spontaneity and originality you want to hear in the best of country music. But it is country, no matter the protestations of traditionalists. And it is better than most in the mainstream. It’s just if Riley would work beyond the list-style of lyricism, even for just a few songs, he would find an even more appreciative audience beyond the gaggle of mainstream listeners hungry for the “something more” that Riley Green nonetheless delivers.

1 1/4 Guns Up (6.5/10)

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