Riley Green has plenty of reasons to be happy about his first year on the national stage, given that his debut single, “There Was This Girl,” fought its way to No. 3 onBillboard's Country Airplay listing, on the chart dated March 23.
It took 36 weeks to get there, but in a radio format where better-established artists often trudge 40 weeks or more to reach their peak, Riley could certainly take that as a win.
“I’m still kind of in shock the first one did as well as it did,” he says. “The song just blew up the charts. I didn’t have, I guess, what they call a bad week.”
Riley is following a don’t-mess-with-success philosophy for his sophomore single. “In Love by Now,” a rambunctious uptempo song with prominent pedal steel and a hooky Telecaster riff, has a ’90s country vibe that makes it a kid sister to “There Was This Girl,” and he doesn’t pretend otherwise.
“It’s tough on a new artist on that national scale to get past ‘I know that song, I like that song, but I don’t know who sings it,’ ” says Riley. “I feel like if I had jumped too far in enough of a different direction with my second single, I might have lost a little bit of that momentum I’ve had with radio listeners.”
The Riley party hadn’t yet started at radio when “In Love by Now” came together in March 2018. He had signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Nashville that month, and one of his first writing appointments teamed him with Warner staff writer Rhett Akins (“Look What God Gave Her,” “Dirt on My Boots”) and two THiS Music writers — Marv Green (“Consider Me Gone,” “True”) and Ben Hayslip (“Small Town Boy,” “I’ll Name the Dogs”) — at Marv’s second-floor office.
The room — filled with images of classic country icons Waylon Jennings, Gram Parsons and Willie Nelson — was an appropriate fit for Riley’s retro plans. He walked in with the “In Love by Now” title, hoping to capture the same vibe as Shenandoah’s “Two Dozen Roses,” a song about a guy who mucked up a rewarding relationship. But where “Two Dozen Roses” has the protagonist visiting his ex at home with heart — and bouquets — in hand, the singer of “In Love by Now” assumes his woman has already partnered up again and is having a great time.
“One position I write from quite a bit is the guy that’s kind of sitting in a lawn chair with a cooler of beer, watching a girl drive away, thinking, ‘Man, I messed up — but you know, the beer’s cold right here,’” muses Riley. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve lived that guy or what, but that was kind of the way we set the table.”
The man’s view comes through more in the musical framework than the lyrics since the words are almost all about the woman. The singer figures she’s riding shotgun in a new boyfriend’s vehicle, listening to Tom Petty songs, flashing freshly painted pink toenails and holding her hair back with Ray-Bans. And, most importantly, finished with the singer.
“We just decided on this carefree, happy-go-lucky girl who’s not going to put up with much bull crap,” says Akins. “It’s not that she’s a wild girl or anything. It’s just like, ‘Hey, I had my chance. I blew it.’ ”
How he blew it is unclear, but that uncertainty makes it possible to accept the guy’s I’m-not-cryin’-in-my-beer sonic attitude.
“The reason why you’re not feeling terribly heartbroken when you hear it is because you don’t know too much of the story,” explains Marv. “You just know that he lost her, he regrets that he lost her, and he’s also saying, ‘Man, you are fine, and I’m lucky enough to have had you at all. Thank you for breaking my heart — no, really, thank you.’”
The song drives forward relentlessly, the speedy tempo masking the near-tragic plot until the bridge, which slows to a half-time beat as the singer finally confesses, “Wherever she is out there tonight/ I bet her heart ain’t hurting like mine.” It’s the only legitimate crack in the guy’s veneer. “We wanted to make sure the information was there without being overly vulnerable,” says Marv. “It’s kind of cool the way that worked out in half time, too, because that is the only spot we say it. So it was a transitional moment in the song.”
Akins developed a hooky guitar riff for the intro that becomes a repetitive signature, adding to the song’s ’90s country feel. “We’ve lost a lot of guitar licks over the years,” laments Akins. “It used to be you knew a song right when it came on because of the guitar lick, and now I feel like nobody even cares anymore.”
They cut a spirited work tape that got immediate thumbs-up from the publishers and from Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) executive vp Jimmy Harnen. They rushed a proper demo at Ocean Way and had the final mix on that recording completed by April 11. Producer Dann Huff (Brett Young, Keith Urban) then rounded up a studio band for the master that included drummer Chris McHugh, guitarist Rob McNelley and pedal steel player Dan Dugmore, and encouraged them to let it rip.
“In Riley’s live show, you’ve got three guitar players in the band, and it’s supposed to have a little bit more recklessness, pandemonium, all that kind of stuff,” explains Huff. “That’s just how they play. It’s not real measured; it’s not a totally composed thing. It’s a jam.”
McNelley double-tracked the signature riff on a Telecaster, a sound Marv compares to The Desert Rose Band’s “One Step Forward. Huff played seven additional guitar tracks, and the production was stuffed with two 12-string guitars and a double-time banjo, reminiscent of the Eagles’ country/rock era. That’s particularly appropriate since that Eagles tenor heavily influenced the ’90s country that Riley reveres.
The background vocals enhanced the retro effect, with the chorus split between tight, George Strait-like harmonies and Eagles-esque “oohs,” all appropriate for Riley’s classic tendencies. “He knows who he is, and he knows his audience — obviously wants it expanded, but he’s not putting on airs,” says Huff. “He’s not trying to be what he’s not.”
“In Love by Now” was so inspired that Riley and the label had some last-minute discussions about making it the lead single, but decided to leave “There Was This Girl” in place. BMLG shipped “In Love By Now” to country radio PlayMPE on April 15. It checks in at No. 53 in its ninth week on Country Airplay as Riley cements the throwback identity he established with his debut single.
“People will know who this is,” he says. “I think they’ll hear the song and know that’s the guy that sings ‘There Was This Girl,’ and that’s a positive for me.”