Life has a way of getting us right where we need to be. And while that may be true, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few pit stops along the way.
While Greg Bates may be known around Nashville as a producer and songwriter these days, those who’ve been around Music City long enough may remember him as an artist that charted his debut single, “Did It for the Girl,” in the top five on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Still, even ten years after his voice was emanating over the airwaves, listeners continue to hold “Did It for the Girl” close to their hearts, giving the song a longevity that has allowed it to live beyond the countless radio stations and stages, including the Grand Ole Opry, where people first fell in love with the song.
Save for one single release in 2015, Bates has largely set his artist career aside to serve as a producer for some of the best up-and-coming talent in Nashville, using his own artistic experience to serve as a mentor to those embarking on their own artistic journey. And if you ask Bates, that’s exactly where he wants to be and what he wants to do.
Before all of that, though, Bates was an impressionable kid from Nashville falling in love with the music that he heard on the radio.
“I was born in 1987, so I really started listening to the music from the Class of ’89. That’s what was on the radio station as a kid. I don’t remember ever not listening to country radio in the car,” says Bates. “My first concert was Garth Brooks on the Sevens tour when he came through Nashville. I had the bug for all of that stuff early on in my life.”
While many people who catch the musical bug pack their bags and head to Nashville, Bates was soaking in Music City from an early age.
“I never knew any different. In elementary school, everybody had someone in their class whose dad, mom or grandparent was a songwriter,” says Bates. “I remember being in 5th grade and Phil Vassar came and did a writer’s night in our cafeteria. I was just always around music and songwriting. I was always the weird kid that read the liner notes and knew every writer on every song, every session player and who was producing what.”
It wasn’t long before Bates began putting pen to paper himself, scribbling down lyrics that eventually found their way on stage.
“I was a freshman in high school when I started writing. I’d be in study hall writing lyrics, and I’d go home and put chords to them because I couldn’t bring a guitar to school. I vividly remember writing my first few songs that way,” says Bates. “Mark Alan Springer was a songwriter that had a bunch of hits in the 90s, and he was actually my brother’s baseball coach. He built a gym on his property and he would do writer’s nights every Friday night in the summer. When I was probably 14 or 15, they would get me up on stage to open the writer’s nights. I would sing whatever terrible song I had just written, and a lot of people got to see me play.”
With writing and stage experience already under his belt, Bates attended Belmont University to study Music Business, immersing himself with the talent at the University and learning all he could about both sides of the music industry.
“At that point, I knew I loved to write, but it wasn’t in my head that I had to be an artist or a songwriter. I just loved the business. I wanted to learn as much about publishing, record labels and distribution as I could,” says Bates. “It turned into a thing where all of my friends there were artists or songwriters, so I was surrounded by unbelievable talent. Belmont has a way of either making you want or quit or go back and get better, and it made me want to get better and find the best way to compete in that world. It was a good precursor to what the music business is like: you’re surrounded by the most talented people at one thing, and your job is to try to outdo them, but also still be a fan of them at the end of the day.”
As he entered college, Bates also entered with a publishing deal at just 18 years-old, offering him learning experiences outside of the classroom as well.
“I honestly didn’t know any better; I thought everybody got a publishing deal at 18. Now in my 30s, I realize how insane it was that that happened,” says Bates. “I didn’t know what it meant or where it was going to lead, but I knew it was going to make me better. It was a year and a half of somebody paying me to write songs. Looking back, they barely paid me, but I got to learn. I learned a lot from that deal.”
As he graduated from Belmont in 2010, Bates found himself with more offers on the table, one of which lead to a record deal that Bates admittedly wasn’t seeking out.
“When I graduated, I had seven publishing deals on the table. I signed with a company called Elevation, and they did a joint venture deal on me with Big Machine. I was in my early 20s, and I had nothing else to do but write songs. I told them to book me with everybody they could. Jimmy Harnen, who was running Republic Records at the time, heard a demo of a song we were pitching to Eli Young Band, and asked who the kid singing was. Within a week, we had a meeting. I brought my guitar, and I played three songs and two demos, and by that afternoon, we had a record deal on the table. Everybody trying to get a record deal would be so mad at my story, because I wasn’t even trying. I was happy just writing songs.”
One of those songs Bates wrote, “Did It for the Girl,” was selected as his first single for Republic Records. Released in April of 2012, the song gave Bates the unique experience of hearing himself on the radio for the first time.
“I remember being in Tampa driving over a bridge over the ocean, and the song came on,” says Bates. “It’s very surreal, because it doesn’t feel like you. In my head, I had always kind of separated myself from the recording artist version of myself. You almost get to hear it as a fan and not just as a person who created it.”
Though the song ultimately proved successful on the charts, it had a long climb to its peak.
“That song was on the charts for 37 weeks, which in today’s world, isn’t that long, but at that time, it was a long run. We would get it up to 54 and it would sit there for three weeks, and you’d think it was dead. Then it would get to 45 and sit there for three weeks. It did that for a long time; all of the major artists were jumping it. Jason Aldean would release a new song and it would enter at 25, so everyone below that either dropped or stayed the same. By summer, it felt like we were beating out heads against the wall,” says Bates. “It hit a point in the fall where it started to really move. It got past the hump of being stuck in the 40s and 50s. I could tell the label was excited, because they’d seen it a million times. It started to become apparent to me that we might get a top 15 out of it, and that would’ve been great. It ended up going number five, and the rest was history.”
As “Did It for the Girl” peaked on the charts, Bates found himself and a song he co-wrote amongst some of the biggest names in the genre.
“It was surreal to see the amount of times it was spun that week against Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood and Kenny Chesney,” says Bates. “There were so many new artists coming out, and that song was one of the few songs that got through the gatekeepers. There weren’t many of us that got songs that high on our first single. It was crazy to see it do what it did once it got up there.”
The crazy moments kept coming for Bates as he was invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and be introduced on stage by country music legends.
“To this day, getting to play the Opry as much as I did is the best part of that time in my life. John Conlee introduced me, and Little Jimmy Dickens introduced me the next time. I still have the note card that Little Jimmy wrote with notes about me,” says Bates. “At the time, the Opry was trying to be very proactive with having new artists on. Once they let me in the door, they said that it was up to me to come back, and I told them I’d be there every week.”
With the success of “Did It for the Girl” under his belt, Bates released a self-titled EP on Republic Records, and a new radio single, “Fill in the Blank,” though by that time, the music scene had begun to change.
“’Did It for the Girl’ got to number five the same week that ‘Cruise’ by Florida Georgia Line went number one, and we were on the same label. It changed everything for everybody; the whole town shifted to ‘this is the sound now,’” says Bates. “I had an entire record of shuffles, fiddle and steel guitar, and overnight, those songs sounded fifteen years old. There was a lot of pressure within the label to have more of that sound, and I didn’t fit that bill. We tried ‘Fill in the Blank,’ and it went to 45. It didn’t work. Coming off of a top five, it was extremely disappointing. There was a lot of pressure to make it happen again, and I think that that pressure, coupled with what was going on with the music, was why it stopped working.”
As “Fill in the Blank” stalled, Bates found himself in an odd situation where he could sense that there was an audience for both the song and the kind of music he made.
“When ‘Fill in the Blank’ stopped, I can remember the label calling me to tell me they were pulling the single. Traditional country-sounding stuff sounded dated up next to ‘Cruise’ and the stuff like that that was coming out at the time,” says Bates. “I think that song got pigeonholed into what they thought was music for an older generation. The day they pulled it off the radio, we did a show at the University of Minnesota in a packed room of college kids that sang every word back to me. It was a weird juxtaposition where I was seeing that it was working, but it wasn’t working on the business side. I would play the shows and they would go well, and then I would get back on the bus and talk to anyone at the label and it felt like the world was coming to an end. It felt very weird.”
As “Fill in the Blank’s” time at country radio came to an end, so did Bates’ record deal with Republic.
“There wasn’t a blow up or flipping tables in our final meeting. It just kind of fizzled out. It was one phone call. It was a, ‘Hey, we don’t think this is working for us,’ and ‘I don’t think this is working for me.’ That was it,” says Bates. “I figured I could get back to work and do things the way I wanted to do them. Losing my deal was disappointing, but it felt like I was moving forward in a lot of ways.”
Bates headed back to the studio, laying down songs that he hoped would land him a new record deal. Though a new deal never came to fruition, the song “Sand” was released from those sessions.
“I did some recording with Frank Rogers for a project that we owned and paid for. We were hoping to find a label home for it, but it wasn’t happening,” says Bates. “I’ve said that if I had tried to get a record deal in 2013, I would have never gotten one, but I got the deal in 2011 and barely had to try. The timing was perfect for me to have one hit song. That’s just the way the business goes sometimes.”
After his deal went away, Bates says he spent “a year on the couch,” before his wife, Shelley, helped him find clarity with the next phase of his musical journey.
“Shelley and I met because she was an artist and a songwriter. She understood the confusion that I was feeling, but she also knew me well enough to know that I needed to get it together. I couldn’t just sit around and hope things would be different; I needed to take a baby step forward,” says Bates. “The biggest thing she did for me was one night, she looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I looked right at her and said, ‘I want to write songs, I want to play guitar on records, and I want to produce people.’ She said, ‘You didn’t say you want to be an artist.’ And I said I didn’t want to be an artist. She said, ‘Then don’t be an artist. Just let that go.’”
That conversation made Bates realize that he could change his course and be successful in Nashville on the other side of the music industry.
“It was a moment where I realized that just because I had been an artist for the last three years and that’s what the entire city of Nashville knew me as, I didn’t have to keep doing it,” says Bates. “Shelley was super instrumental in making me feel like I didn’t have to pigeonhole myself into one thing that I was miserable doing.”
Though he admittedly had little production experience, Bates found a partner and learned on the job.
“I always loved behind the scenes stuff and the process of creating. Even when I was an artist, I was always hands-on in the process. I wasn’t listed as a producer, but I always had an opinion in the room,” says Bates. “I was finding that some of the artists I was writing with wanted to make a record. They weren’t really asking me to produce, but I found myself convincing them that I could make a record for them, even though I had no idea what I was doing. A buddy of mine that used to play drums for me, Ben Jackson, had just gotten off the road and wanted to produce too, and he had built a home studio. I called Ben and told him that I had artists that wanted to make records, and I didn’t want to do it by myself, because I needed to learn. I knew what I wanted things to sound like, but I didn’t know how to get it from A to B. He suggested working on them together and splitting everything up, and I did that for two or three years. I learned so much about production during that time.”
Bates says his experiences as a songwriter and artist have helped him in his production role, as he stays active in writing rooms and uses his artistic experience to offer insight to up-and-coming artists.
“My experiences as an artist have helped me a ton. I’m only 34, but a lot of times, I write with people where I feel like the old guy in the room. People tell me that they were in high school when ‘Did It for the Girl’ came out, and I always tell them ‘Thanks for that,” Bates says with a laugh. “It gave me a little street cred with songwriters and artists. I write with a ton of people before we talk about producing. When it gets to a certain point, I’ll tell them that I know what a certain song should sound like and that I can help them. I don’t foresee myself being a producer to take projects I don’t know anything about, it’s got to be something I’m a fan of, and that usually comes out of the writing room. I enjoy being on a team and giving any experience and expertise that I can give.”
Still, ten years after “Did It for the Girl,” Bates jokes that it took him time to convince Nashville that he was a producer.
“It took me until two years ago to convince people. It took six or seven years for people to stop calling and asking when I was making another record,” Bates says with a laugh. “People still do to this day, but it doesn’t upset me anymore. Especially now that it’s been ten years since ‘Did It for the Girl.’ I just tell them that I’m still working that single and hoping that it has a resurgence.”
Though it may never have a resurgence on the charts or on the radio, a quick peak at Bates’ Spotify page proves that the song has never left the hearts and ears of country music fans.
“I don’t check it that often. My publisher likes to tell me what’s going on with it. It’s just a testament to the song. There have been so many successful artists in the last three or four years that I’ve heard from that still talk about it. A songwriter buddy of mine says that I got the last traditional song through before bro-country happened,” says Bates. “It’s not surprising that the numbers are what they are, because I feel like that style of music is back, and people have remembered the song. It’s crazy how many people will come up to me and sing every word. I have a hard time remembering every word, and I wrote it and have sung it for ten years. It’s crazy how it’s touched people.”
As the midpoint of 2022 approaches, Bates has a handful of projects he’s produced set for release, and may even have something up his artistic sleeve in the coming year.
“The guys in Southerland have new music coming out at the end of summer or the fall. Peytan Porter just released a song and has a full EP coming out on June 24th, with maybe another release in the fall, so it’s exciting,” says Bates. “On my end of things, I’m always thinking about recording new music and putting it out. It’s mainly about finding the time to do it. I would imagine in the next 12 months, I’ll probably have something to hang my hat on with new music.”
While Bates has worn many hats during his time in the music industry, he’s thankful for the journey he’s been on and proud to have found himself exactly where he wants to be.
“It sounds cliché, but the high point is now for me. I got to experience so many things in a short amount of time that a lot of artists will never get to experience. I never have to wonder what it’s like to be an artist that has a radio hit and to see that side of the business,” says Bates. “For me, the high point is working with people like Southerland and Peytan. Jody Williams is my publisher. I get to go to work every day and work with people that I love being around. Whatever I had to do in my 20s to get to where I am at 34, I would do it all over again.”
*Greg’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*
**Check out this playlist full of Greg’s songwriting credits!**