"When I sit down and write a song, I always am looking for something that's going to tell a story and give somebody some type of emotion," the country star tells PEOPLE

By Tricia Despres
July 08, 2021 05:40 PM

Country music hitmaker Riley Green is the kind of guy that shakes hands and looks at you straight in the eye. And if that makes you uncomfortable — too bad.

It's just the Southern way.

"If you didn't say 'sir' or 'ma'am,' you risked getting a whipping when I was a kid," Green, 32, admits to PEOPLE in a recent interview. "That's just how I was brought up. There have been places since signing my record deal where people tell me that it's rude. I'm like, I can't go back on that, you know? This is how I was raised."

But in recent years, the chart-topping singer/songwriter has noticed the bad rap the South has received, a story that he works to debunk in one of the most powerful songs on his new seven-song collection Behind the Bar.

Riley Green
Riley Green
| Credit: Jim Wright

"The message in the song was pretty obvious to me and I hope to everybody else," says Green of "That's My Dixie," which he co-wrote alongside Jessi Alexander and Randy Montana last summer. "There are things about being from the South that I think people don't understand if you're not from there. We want to paint a true light on what it means to be from what we call Dixie, from the South and those values. It's tough to write that kind of song in this day and age and say it the right way."

But after sitting on the song for a few months and contemplating if he should make it a part of this new collection, Green decided to listen to what his heart was telling him.

"People are proud that we can get along and that everybody does have that same level of respect for each other, even when everybody grew up in different places, in different ways," says the 2020 ACM Awards new male artist of the year. "But that pride is there no matter where you're from. It's a very important song and I think the message is one that people need to hear."

Being a proud Southern guy is just one of the many sides of Green, sides that are increasingly becoming illuminated thanks to the success of hit songs such his No. 1 gold-certified debut "There Was This Girl" and the platinum-certified ballad "I Wish Grandpas Never Died." A Tim McGraw-esque artist with a tad more grit, Green is setting himself up as one of country music's most promising powerhouses who sings from his heart. A heart that was tenderly seen during a recent on-stage interaction with a little fan by the name of Olivia.

"I saw her before the show because I noticed she had a sign that said it was her first concert, so I took a picture with her," Green recalls. "And then during the show, she sat right in the front, and she was just belting out every word. So spur of the moment I called her up on stage and she stole the show."

Raised on legends such as George Jones and Merle Haggard, Green has always been intrigued by the storytelling held within the comforts of the country music genre and a tactic he has personally used in a number of cuts on Behind the Bar, including "That's What I've Been Told," "If It Wasn't for Trucks" and already a fan favorite "I Let a Damn Good Woman Leave." 

"The storytelling part of it is what's special about country music," he explains. "When I sit down and write a song, I always am looking for something that's going to tell a story and give somebody some type of emotion."

And its emotion that seems to be coming more and more easily to the once hard-nosed kid from Alabama, who utilized the time over the pandemic quarantine to get his priorities in order.

"It was an awful time, but there was a lot of positives that came out of it for me," he explains. "I had time at home and a great hunting season and I got to spend a lot of time with family."

Riley Green
Riley Green
| Credit: Andrew Klatt

And while songwriting has never been "a job" to Green, the time off did have him diving a little deeper into his craft.

"When you're playing a couple of hundred shows a year, sometimes you get off the road on Sunday and you want to put the guitar in the corner and not look at it again for a few days," admits Green, who will head out on tour with Dierks Bentley in August.

"Having that break was a great time to not only get back to just enjoying songwriting, but also it gave me the time to go back to a bunch of ideas I had stocked up. I wrote 'Behind the Bar' probably two years ago, but it had just fallen through the cracks. It can be cool to visit an abandoned song."

But far be it for Green to give himself too much credit when it comes to his music.

"I certainly don't think I'm going to write any songs that are going to fix anything," he concludes. "I've never thought I was the smartest person in the room — and I don't try to act like I am — but there's something about some of these songs that I think, to a certain extent, needs to be heard, you know?"