Even casual listeners of Riley Green’s music know how much he loves his home state . He pretty much wears Alabama on his sleeve, and it seems like there’s a good chance he always will. Riley Green feels at home in the Black Belt.
Like most budding country music stars, he tried Nashville on for size, but realized he was more suited to the place where he grew up. It’s the small city of Jacksonville, Alabama, just over 200 miles away. “That’s home for me,” says the singer/songwriter who is an avid outdoorsman. ”My whole family lives within 10 miles of my house..”
He describes his hometown like this: “Growing up, there was one flashing light, and everybody had lots of cousins.” It’s a good three-hour drive from Music City, but in his line of work, moving from one place to another is just part of the deal—increasingly so, in fact, as the 34-year-old adjusts to nationwide notoriety after years of regional acclaim.
Besides traveling from show to show to perform, there are countless other commitments that include radio station appearances, media interviews, and meet-and-greet sessions with fans and industry insiders. He’s certainly grateful for all the success that has come his way, and he feels even more fortunate if he can find some time to himself in the great outdoors.
“Doing something outside just makes me feel better,” Green says. The way he says it makes it sound like it’s something of a revelation to him, as if spending time outdoors is something that maybe he once took for granted. The longtime athlete (who played quarterback at Jacksonville State University) keeps fit by playing golf and visiting gyms on the road. But to truly unwind, he loves heading into the woods to hunt, especially for turkeys or white-tail deer. It’s also where he seeks the solitude necessary to recharge himself mentally—and maybe find the inspiration for another song. “It’s so easy to be distracted by a million different things,” Green says, “but when you’re in the woods, you’re very free of all that type of thing, so it’s just easier to focus on everything else, which fortunately is the fun part and the easy part about writing songs.”
EXPLORING THE ALABAMA BLACK BELT
Thankfully for Green, there are nearly boundless opportunities for outdoor pursuits not far from where he lives. A largely uninhabited region called the Alabama Black Belt has some 10 million acres of forested lands, much of it prime hunting grounds. Green’s favorite targets are wild turkeys and white-tail deer, but this vast swath of land that sweeps across Alabama’s midsection also has sizable populations of ducks, doves, and quail as well as small game and wild boar. And pretty much year-round, anglers are drawn to central Alabama’s many lakes, rivers, and creeks that teeming with bream, crappie, catfish, and several species of bass. With all that Alabama has to offer, it’s now wonder Riley Green is at home in the Black Belt.
In all, the Black Belt covers 23 counties in Alabama, which is roughly a third of the state. The name isn’t some martial arts reference, and is not a reflection of the area’s strong and historic African-American heritage. Instead, the alliterative appellation comes from the fertile ground itself. “It’s known as the Black Belt region because of the dark, rich soil,” explains Pam Swanner, director of the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association. “For centuries, this soil has supported an abundance of wildlife and a strong agricultural industry as well as forestry and of course has created jobs for the residents.”
It’s Swanner’s job to promote all of the Black Belt’s attributes to entice more people to discover a part of Alabama that may be under their radar. The Black Belt is a bit removed from big population centers like Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile as well as beach communities like Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The area’s natural resources are its top draw, but the Black Belt has many cultural attractions, too. They include the lovely and laidback town of Monroeville, famous in literary circles as the hometown of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee and her childhood pal Truman Capote.
“I think the hunting and fishing opportunities are probably what we’re best known for,” Swanner says. “We’re extremely rural for the most part, and we offer long hunting seasons and generous bag limits.” These factors and others add up to big business for the area, with hunting and fishing accounting for nearly 25,000 jobs and an annual economic impact of over a billion dollars, according to a recent study.
Many visitors to the Black Belt are from out of state while others, like Green, are local. For many people in this part of the country, spending time outdoors is a deeply rooted part of life, a passion that’s been handed down through the generations. Swanner says he believes it’s no coincidence that two of the most important modern figures in outdoor sports are Black Belt natives. Ray Scott, founder of B.A.S.S., and Jackie Bushman, founder of Buckmasters, both hail from Montgomery, which is the state capital and the region’s largest city.
Scott, who passed away this past May, served for years on the Alabama Black Belt Adventure Association’s board of directors. He and Bushman both were longtime promoters of the region, which has received an unexpected and significant boost in visitation in recent years. As a result of COVID-19, there was a surge in outdoor activities nationwide, and, for many, the idea of a trip along the back roads of the rural Southeast was suddenly very appealing. “With the pandemic, people wanted to get outside, and the rural areas provided that safe haven, if you will,” says Swanner. “People had cabin fever.”
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Besides hunting and fishing, visitors to the area can also enjoy activities like canoeing, rafting, hiking, horseback riding, and bird watching. In addition, the Flavors of the Black Belt program call attention to the many locally handcrafted food items to enjoy.
The Black Belt includes a mix of public and private lands. Within the territory are several wildlife management areas maintained by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which even offers a mentor hunting program for adults wanting to get into the sport. There are more than 50 outfitters and numerous private lodges that offer a range of experiences to suit different hunters’ tastes, whether they are looking for a rough and rustic getaway or one that’s more pampered or luxurious.
Green is one of those hunters who generally prefers a more primitive experience—the fewer amenities, the better. “Sometimes I just like being outside away from everybody or where my phone doesn’t work half the time,” he says. “You’ve got everything in the world to think about and nothing to think about at the same time.” That’s also why he favors bow hunting, which he considers more of a solitary pursuit whereas duck hunting and turkey hunting tend to be more social. “I really do a lot of focusing when I’m out deer hunting.”
BACK WHERE HE BELONGS
The performer has gained an ardent following for his homespun and heartfelt tunes like “I Wish Grandpas Never Died,” “Bury Me in Dixie,” “There Was this Girl,” and “Different ‘Round Here.” His profile got a huge lift in 2020 when he was named the ACM New Male Artist of the Year.
Success on this level is still pretty new to him, though he had worked hard on his music for about a dozen years before experiencing a groundswell of popularity aided by word of mouth and passionate fans sharing concert videos. “I played two or three nights a week for five or six years, and it went from small restaurants to bars to clubs to actual venues, and that’s when the record labels started coming around,” Green says. He kept his day job of framing houses until 2018, and says, “I hope I don’t go back to it.”
When he’s not out on the road or tending to business in Nashville, Green enjoys the relaxed pace back home. He believes remaining in his hometown turned out to be a good move for him, giving him a different perspective for his honest and straightforward songs that often celebrate his own neck of the woods. “In Nashville, it’s easy to get caught up in what everybody else is doing. If there’s a song on the charts, or the top 10 songs sound like this, you want to go write with those writers and try to write that kind of song. I think it causes a lot of it to sound kind of the same and get a little monotonous after a while.”
Instead, Green keeps doing what he’s always done. He writes songs about his own life and the places and people around him, without regard for whether it’s going to be a hit or not. For a guy like Green, that seems like a dream job—as long as he’s got some spare time to spend outdoor.
For more on Riley Green and hunting, click here.