Song Review: Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks”

The more I hear from Riley Green, the less I want to hear from him.

it wasn’t that long ago that I was excited about Green’s prospects in the genre: He’d rode a decent debut single “There Was This Girl” to #1, and had released a strong follow-up single “In Love By Now.” Then he unexpectedly swapped singles to the generic, unimpressive “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” (which stalled out at #12 on Billboard’s airplay chart), released an album that was surprisingly repetitive and filled with annoying filler, stuck his foot in his mouth during the Super Bowl halftime show, and basically sat out most of 2020. At this point, the man has zero buzz, zero momentum, and a lot of empty seats of his bandwagon (I gave up mine long ago), so he’s starting from square one as he makes his next foray onto the charts with his latest single, “If It Wasn’t Trucks.” Unfortunately, it appears that Green hasn’t hit bottom just yet: This is an irritating, unengaging, cookie-cutter track whose attempt to lionize the humble pickup truck is completely nonsensical.

The producer really dropped the ball of the production here: The pieces are all here to make this track stand out, and they simply didn’t use them. What they do use, however, is a deep-voiced electric guitar and a run-of-the-mill drum set, i.e. the same darn instruments everyone else relies on these days. Sure, there’s a steel guitar and even a fiddle (!) present as well, but they’re mostly left to languish in the background—you don’t even notice that they’re here until the fiddle finally gets turned loose on the bridge solo. (There might even be a mandolin in here somewhere, but if so it’s buried so deep in the mix that you can hardly hear it.) The deeper guitar tones, occasional minor chords, an overall spacious feel of the sound give the song a more-serious, almost reverent vibe, which feels a tad over-the-top given that we’re talking about an inanimate object (it’s not as bad as singing about a fake ID, but it’s not much better). In other words, it’s a generic, ill-fitting sound that does more harm than good to the song.

So what happened to all that “earnest charisma” I was gushing about during my “In Love By Now” review? The truth is that Green had pretty strong material to work with for his first two singles, and the junk he’s foisting on us now is exposing him as someone who really struggles to sell the story. The song is not technically challenging and presents no range or flow issues for Green, but as a generic song about a generic truck (we’ll talk more about the writing in a second), it puts a lot of pressure on the artist to give the lyrics meaning and convince the audience that the topic is worth caring about. In this regard, Green’s performance is way off the mark: His delivery is too clinical and matter-of-fact to feel personal, and he struggles to relate to the audience and convince them of the glory of pickups. Let this be a lesson to Green to work extra hard to find good songs to sing, because having him try to elevate mediocre material will be an uphill battle.

The lyrics depict a narrator listing all the important things we do in trucks and halfheartedly pondering how we could possibly do all the important tasks in our lives without them. Frankly, I can’t stand the writing here for several reasons:

  • First of all, the activities the narrator discusses are nothing but a stereotypical “country” laundry list: Cruising, kissing, drinking, “listening to Merle,” talking to God, chauffeuring old dogs, and so on. It’s a pair of cut-off jeans away from a generic Bro-Country song.
  • For all of the details the song provides, it’s missing some crucial information: Beyond a shortbed and bucket seat, what’s the truck actually look like? In better car songs (think Dan Seals’s “My Old Yellow Car,” Kathy Mattea’s “455 Rocket,” or even Luke Bryan’s “My Ol’ Bronco”) the vehicle feels like a fleshed-out character with a little personality to it, something that the listener can visualize and get attached to. In contrast, we don’t even know what color the stupid truck is here! It’s one of those intentionally-vague tracks that requires the listener to fill in the details with their own memories, and if you don’t, you’re left with an empty shell of a song.
  • The most irritating part of the song, however, is how the narrator talks about pickup trucks like they’re the only freaking thing on the road. You wanna know “where would I have raised all that hell” and “where…would a small town girl climb up”? I’ll tell you: In whatever decade-old bucket of rust we can afford, that’s where! Are you telling me we can’t kiss in a compact car, cry in an SUV, or raise Cain in a wood-paneled station wagon? Aside from hauling deer, none of the activities mentioned by the narrator actually require a freaking truck to do! Including so many easily-debunked claims makes the song feel completely pointless and the narrator come across as a fool, and fails to convince anyone to take this junk seriously.

“If It Wasn’t For Trucks” is a dumb, lazy song that not only fails to justify its own existence, it actively argues against it. The producer took the easy way out instead of crafting something interesting, the writing is complete garbage, and Riley Green is just another guy singing just another unimpressive song. This thing doesn’t even rise to the level of radio filler, and features none of the charm and insight that drew me to Green in the first place. He seems to be devolving into a generic Bro singer at a time when the genre is (kinda-sorta) trying to move beyond that era, and his window for country stardom already appears to be closing. Frankly, “If I Wasn’t For Trucks,” we wouldn’t have to put up with this nightmare of a track.

Rating: 4/10. Avoid this one.

Song Review: Riley Green, “I Wish Grandpas Never Died”

Are you telling me that Riley Green and Big Machine dropped “In Love By Now” for this?

Country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone these days, but avoiding the “sophomore slump” afterwards has proven to be a tall task for a lot of new artists. Riley Green appeared poised to break out of this trap following the success of “There Was This Girl,” but instead became the poster child for the phenomenon when his follow-up single “In Love By Now” took several months just to crack the Mediabase Top 50. Instead, however, a large grassroots swell of support emerged for a different song: “I Wish Grandpas Never Died,” which finally pushed Green’s team to switch horses midstream and get behind the song everyone else wanted. While I appreciate the quick response of both artist and label to give the people what they want (especially in an era when songs can spend 40-50 weeks on the radio despite the fact that nobody actually wants to hear them), I was really hoping that we would get something better than an inconsistent laundry wish list that makes it really hard to tell if the song should be taken seriously.

The production here is a safe, restrained arrangement that avoid getting in the way of the writing, but by itself it’s not a particularly interesting or memorable affair. The arrangement features an acoustic guitar on melody duty, some electric guitars to provide some volume on the choruses and a brief solo, a few steel guitar cameos that add little more than background noise and “country” cred, and a real drum set to keep time. It’s impossible to pick a lane that can suit writing this scattershot (we’ll talk about this more later), but the producer chose to emphasize the serious angle here, slowing the tempo, darkening the instrument tones, and using periodic minor chords to try and give the lyrics a bit more weight and power. The decision works when such solemness is warranted, but when it’s not, it just drains the song of its energy and make it plod along blandly until the listener’s patience wars thin. Overall, it’s the kind of standard mix you’ve heard a hundred times before, and only occasionally applies to the topic at hand.

Similarly, Green finds himself caught in the same predicament as his producer: How do you properly set a tone for a song that waffles so violently between serious and silly? In the end, he decided that there was safety in numbers and followed the producer’s lead, delivering a heartfelt-but-unbending performance that pretty much ignores half of the song’s subject matter. His technical abilities are not really tested here, but his all-in emotional approach feels really out of place at times. (He delivers lines about grandfathers not dying and cars having truck beds with the same tone and conviction, making him sound flatter and more lifeless than he should.) Green’s usual earnest charisma is still there, but it feels misplaced this time around, and when he covers a lightweight topic like Monday morning feeling like Friday nights, he appears to both oversing (with too much seriousness) and undersing (shouldn’t there be more energy here?) the line. Green’s far too talented to have to put up with a song like this (even if he wrote it himself!), and he deserves better.

Okay, I’ve beat around the bush long enough: The writing for this track is really bad, and sets every other piece of the song up for failure. In a word, the problem here is inconsistency: The narrator gives us a wish list for all the things they wish were true in the world, but it comes across as an unstructured brain dump that bounces from one topic to the next with little connection between each pair. Despite the title selling this as a serious song, it only occasionally tries to tug at your heartstrings (“I wish grandpas never died,” “I wish everybody overseas was gonna make it home”), and it mixes in so many lightweight (and surprisingly generic, and sometimes Bro-like) wishes like coolers that never ran out of beer, porches with swings, Mondays that felt like Fridays, etc. that it makes its serious points feel cheap and disingenuous. (There’s also an overemphasis on nostalgic here, which makes the song feel backwards-looking and pessimistic.) On top of this, some of these asks are completely nonsensical: What would naming every road “Copperhead” accomplish beyond a Steve Earle tribute? What’s so great about Birmingham that makes every state need one? Why would you ever want to learn to drive a second time? Throw in the laundry-list construction of the whole deal, and the only thing the listener is wishing for by the end of the song is that Green had found something better to record.

“I Wish Grandpas Never Died” is an incoherent mess of a song, with a terrible lyrical foundation that neither Riley Green nor his producer could ever hope to shape into something meaningful. It’s a significant step back from “In Love By Now,” and leaves the audience more confused than touched by the subject matter. Green had better hope that this switch pays off, because otherwise his hopes of becoming an A-list star will just be wishful thinking.

Rating: 5/10. I wouldn’t wish this song on anyone.

Song Review: Riley Green, “In Love By Now”

Is there still space on the Riley Green bandwagon? Because I’d like to reserve a seat.

Green turned out to be more one of 2018’s more-pleasant surprises, with “There Was This Girl” bursting out of the starting gate and earning both a spot inside the top-20 of my year-end song rankings and a place atop the Mediabase chart last Sunday. Since the man has been all over my blog this week (I referenced Green and BMLG’s perplexing decision not to release an album in my discussion over when to buy a song), it only seems fitting that we close with an inspection of his follow-up single “In Love By Now.” While “There Was This Girl” offered a tantalizing glimpse of Green’s potential, this song puts his talents on full display, as he spins a sad, overdone story into a fun, enjoyable listen with his sunny outlook and strong personality.

The production here is mostly the same nondescript arrangement showcased on “There Was This Girl,” but there’s a little something extra thrown in for fans of neotraditional country music. Where Green’s debut mix had both obvious holes that extra instruments could fill and a distinct lack of traditional instrumentation, this time around the producer killed two birds with one stone by bringing in a steel guitar and giving in plenty of room to show off beside the guitars. (If you listen really hard, there’s also a banjo buried deep in the mix on the choruses and bridge.) The standout guitar work I highlighted on Green’s debut is still here as well, and just like before, its “bright tones and lively feel…create a lot of energy and really push the song forward.” (The drums lack a bit of the punch they had on “There Was This Girl,” but there’s so much else going on here that you barely notice the difference.) The decision to go with such a relentlessly bright and happy sound might be a bit perplexing given the subject matter, but the narrator and producer team up to put a positive spin on some less-than-ideal circumstances, hitting the listener with such force that they can’t help but nod along. It’s a great mix that gives Green a solid foundation to build off of.

I’ve knocked a lot of singers lately for not selling their material as well as they should, but Green has no such problems here. While both his range and flow are decent-to-solid here, it’s his earnest charisma that really steals the show here. Consider the following: This song has basically the same narrator in the same situation as Morgan Wallen’s annoying “Whiskey Glasses,” but while Wallen whines his way through that track and comes off like an unsympathetic moron, Green flips the script and celebrates the progress the other person has made after their breakup, and while his true melancholy bleeds through on a few lines scattered throughout the song, he keeps his chin up and sounds so upbeat and positive that the audience genuinely believes that he is happy for his former partner. His excellent delivery complements the production perfectly, and he demonstrates that unlike some of the more-limited hacks in the genre right now (I’m looking at you, Adam Craig), Green’s got the chops and the earnestness to stick around for a while.

Of course, Green gets a lot of help taking the high road from the lyrics, which mostly ignore the dark cloud of the narrator’s breakup and focus on the silver lining instead. Rather than wallow in self-pity and cry “why me?” like Wallen does, this narrator makes several important decisions:

  • They shift the focus to the other person and speculate about all the fun things they’re doing right now, making her the hero of the story instead of portray them as the villain like most “they left me” songs.
  • They admit (at least implicitly) that the breakup was their own darn fault (“I bet she’s already found somebody else and he ain’t doin’ her wrong”), and own their faults instead of trying to paper them over.
  • They let just enough cracks show through their facade (for example, “I bet her heart ain’t hurting like mine”) to let the listener know that yes, they’re hurting over this breakup, but they feel strongly enough about the other person that they’re okay with the prospect of them moving on and finding true love and happiness. (It’s a much more mature take on romance than you’ll usually hear on the radio.)

While the imagery here isn’t terribly novel (window-down driving, cover bands, Ray-Bans, shotgun seats, etc.), it leaves enough hooks for the singer to take hold of the song and elevate it, and Green grabs on and performs a metaphorical clean and jerk to take the song to new heights.

“In Love By Now” didn’t really grab me the first time I heard it, but the more I listened the more impressed I became, as every facet of the track is perfectly executed to make the song much more than the sum of its parts. The lyrics were thoughtful and honest, the production stayed on the sunny side of the mountain, and Riley Green’s earnest, likable performance gave off a lot of Luke Combs-esque vibes. Based on what I’ve heard so far, Green’s got some big things ahead of him in the next few years, and I’m buying stock in him now before he really takes off.

Rating: 7/10. This one deserves a spot on your playlist.

Song Review: Riley Green, “There Was This Girl”

Dear Carlton Anderson: This is the sort of song I wanted from you.

Riley Green is an Alabama native who inked a deal with the Big Machine label group earlier this year, and he finally made the leap from social media curiosity to radio airplay contender by releasing “There Was This Girl” on…wait, this thing isn’t officially out for another week? It’s the first untested artist I’ve seen get noticeable airplay since Midland, and after a few listens, I think I see what people are excited about. Despite the fact that nothing’s particularly new here (it’s essentially a more traditional, less wild-and-crazy version of Chris Cagle’s “Chicks Dig It”), the pieces fit together so well that they become more than the sum of their parts, and Green demonstrates just enough talent to interest me in hearing more.

The production caught me a bit off guard, as it gives off a rollicking neotraditional vibe (similar to Luke Combs’s “When It Rains It Pours”) despite completely eschewing the two instruments—i.e, the fiddle and steel guitar—that are most associated with that sound. (There’s a mandolin floating around in the mix, but they don’t really do a whole lot with it.) Most of the credit for this feat goes to the electric guitar driving the melody, which uses its bright tones and lively feel to create a lot of energy and really push the song forward. The drums have some kick and the acoustic guitar helps fill in some gaps on the verses, but mostly it’s the electric axe that sets a positive tone and gives the song a toe-tapping groove. Whoever put this thing together deserves a lot of credit for taking what could have been just another guitar-and-drum mix and really making it stand out and shine.

To be honest, Green sounds pretty nondescript vocally—I’d compare his voice to Morgan Wallen (who’s already a Tyler Hubbard clone), and neither his range or flow are shown off much here. However, his saving grace here (and it may stem from sounding similar to devil-may-care party types like Wallen and Hubbard) is his earnestness: His plays the part of the narrator perfectly, injecting just the right amount of wonder/disbelief when speaking for others and taking a simple “you know how it is” approach when questioned.  Unlike his soundalikes, though, Green doesn’t go full-on Bro here, and keeps things classy instead of sleazy (and most importantly, selling that stance to the listener). If only Wallen and Hubbard could transmit so much emotional depth in their own songs…

The lyrics essentially mash several songs together into one piece: It starts with the time-honored trope of “guys will do anything for a woman,” but instead of taking the idea to the extreme as Cagle did in “Chicks Dig It,” the song pivots to address the narrator’s musical beginnings similar to Luke Combs’s “She Got The Best Of Me,” and then takes a more-traditional turn towards the time-honored trope of marrying the woman at the end of the song. Given the Bro-Country influence that doesn’t seem to be fading very fast, it was actually kind of nice to see the song give us a head fake with its “girl in a truck” setup and then pivot all the way to buying an engagement ring. Even though nothing here was really novel and the imagery felt so boilerplate, I liked how the song kept defying the listener’s expectations and gave us something that actually resembled story progression (the narrator goes from generic Bro to devoted fiancé). It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s a positive tale with a positive sound and a passable singer, and right now, I’ll take it.

I’d stop short of calling “There Was This Girl” a great song and Riley Green a great singer, but it’s a decent combination of artist and material that I wouldn’t mind hearing more on the radio. It’s a testament to how quality material can help or hinder an artist: Although Carlton Anderson comes across as a much better vocalist, I’d listen to Green’s debut tune ten times before I’d put up with “Drop Everything.” I’m a little unsure about whether or not Green has a future in the genre, but at least he’s being put in the best possible position to succeed.

Rating: 6/10. Give this a try and see how it suits your ears.