At 15, a bored Greg Bates decided to use his study hall constructively: He penned a song and titled it “I’m Gone.”
The high school freshman went home and put the words, a little number about a man leaving town, to music on his guitar.
Though that first song never made it to the radio, he kept drafting what he hoped would be hits one day.
The 25-year-old Nashville native said he’s surprised he waited until he was a teen to write his first set of lyrics.
“I was always around country music and songwriters, since I was 5 years old,” he said. “Honestly, I’m surprised I waited that long to give it a shot.”
Now, most popular country music listeners have heard his name and his recent Billboard U.S. Country Airplay Top 5 hit, “Did it for the Girl,” a twangy tune he co-wrote that incorporates a nod to one of Bates’ idols, George Strait.
The hit set him apart as one of the few musicians to break into the Top 5 with a debut single.
“I think every song I write and record, I’m proud of,” he said. “I’m so proud of all the hard work that had gone into that song. As much as I’d like to say that I expected it to do that, I really didn’t. For the first song out as a new artist, you hope something in it connects with fans and country radio.”
Though it was the songwriting that drew him in as a kid growing up in Music City, it was the connection with fans that wowed him most as he toured the country and saw first-hand the reaction to “Did it for the Girl.”
“It’s been fun to go on the road and watch people sing it back to me and tell me stories about the song,” he said, adding that he aims to help concert-goers lose themselves in the experience of country music.
“It’s not necessarily just a stand-and-sing kind of show,” he said. “When people come to the show, they want to forget all they have to worry about.”
He mixes in covers of country favorites he admires, such as Brooks & Dunn’s “Brand New Man,” which he said can get a crowd chanting.
“I pride myself on putting songs in that, if I had the chance, I would have cut and recorded.”
After a couple years performing across the nation and often alongside country heavy-hitters — Darius Rucker, Willie Nelson, Alabama and Alan Jackson — Bates has returned to Nashville to cut his next album with producer and songwriter Jimmy Ritchey. But he takes with him all he’s learned from his interactions with fans.
“A lot of the songs (from my debut project) are two to four years old now,” he said. “After being on the road, I write from a different place; I record from a different place. I have always kind of thought of myself as a people watcher, and I love to write songs about the people around me, the people I see at shows every day.
“It’s one of those things where a good country songwriter is somebody who can write songs for the fans and not themselves all the time. I try to write what other people can relate to.”
Recording again, Bates says, keeps him growing as an artist.
“Every part of this process is totally different,” he said. “I always loved writing songs and being in the studio. But then you do songs differently live sometimes, to make them work live, so for every part of the process, you’re tweaking it a little. I always feel like I’m being creative.
“It never gets boring.”