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Thomas Michael Riley is finally comfortable with a fact his fans have recognized for years: he is a songwriter. Photo by Phil Houseal

Thomas Michael Riley performs the third weekend of each month in the area. To see his calendar and listen to his music, visit www.thomasmichaelriley.com or go to www.myspace.com/thomasmichaelriley.

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Thomas Michael Riley:
Finally a songwriter

by Phil Houseal
August 6, 2008

Even after he had written 500 songs, including a Texas top ten hit, Thomas Michael Riley had a hard time convincing one person that he really was a songwriter: himself.

"Gary P. Nunn had picked up a couple of my songs, then a couple more, then he got up to about eight songs," Riley recalled. "I thought, wow, they must be pretty good because he put two of them on his Greatest Hits Volume II. But I still didn't believe in my heart that I was a songwriter."

Riley continued to work other jobs, including driving a moving van, working for a check printing company, even teaching high school. But finally there came a moment when he knew he had to follow his heart.

"You never know what your gifts are, until you finally know," he said. "It was when I wrote a song called American Dream... I thought, whoa... OK, Riley, you are a songwriter."

That is also when he realized he faced two choices: "fight it, or go with it." Thankfully for his growing number of fans, Riley decided to go for it.

Now the world can enjoy such songs as Redneck Riviera and Cow Pasture Pool, "the only song written about golf." That oblique approach makes Riley different from your average back porch picker.

He holds a degree in English ("I crammed four years of school into six and a half years"), and sprinkles quotes from Thoreau and Emerson into his conversation. Fortunately, his stint teaching English did not hamper his songwriting ability.

"I was always going to write the Great American Novel, but I couldn't focus long enough," he said. "So then I went to short stories. I always enjoyed playing and singing, so that's when it hit me - it is songs. For me, that's the ultimate short story."

At first he had a hard time convincing the rest of the world to listen to his songs. Like many Texas musicians, he paid his dues playing dance halls and bars, where catching the nuances of a songwriter's brilliant wordplay was not a high priority for partying patrons. Riley learned to sneak up on his audience.

"I'd have to play three cover tunes then slip in an original," he said with a laugh. "You'd watch the dancers. If they didn't recognize a song, they didn't know how to dance to it, and your job was to keep them dancing. That is when I knew there was no future in playing other people's music."

Playing his own music paid off. Now the world is catching up.

"I like to see people dance - don't get me wrong," he explained. "I'm just proud now that they are dancing to my songs."

One challenge for singer songwriters is cultivating their own voice, different from all the other talented musicians. For Riley, the difference is basic.

"That's a tricky thing to do, to put your heart and soul into a song, and still have a rhythm that makes your audience feel what you are trying to convey," he said. "For me, it's not about any thing other than stuff I experienced; I just write from my perspective."

Another thing that sets him apart is his easy manner on stage.

"Songwriters are probably some of the worst performers," he noted. "A long time ago when I first started writing, I had the mindset that you all sit there and you listen to every word. Later I realized they are here for the same reasons I am - they want to enjoy life, they want to have a good time. If I can capture them with my songs, that's great."

Even with his recent success, Riley knows more opportunity lies ahead.

"I'm probably unknown in 99% of world," he said, laughing. "So I've got a little room to grow."