Owen Riegling is the kind of artist so down to earth his boots are always dirty. He’s a small town kid with his roots firmly planted in the songs he sings.
When he sings about old dirt roads, young love or the simple pleasure of a cold beer on a Friday night, it’s not just words. He’s lived it. Like a drinking buddy with wisdom beyond his years, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter effortlessly captures the relatability of the most timeless country hits. At a time when big city anxieties have many people searching for small-town freedom, Riegling is grateful for what he has and where it could soon take him.
“I grew up in the middle of nowhere and that’s who I am as a person,” he says. “I’m a pretty simple guy, happy with simple things.”
Riegling is the winner of the 2022 Emerging Artists Showcase at the Canadian country music mega-fest Boots & Hearts. That’s opening doors to major labels, to Nashville and beyond. But his journey began somewhere a lot smaller, in Mildmay, Ontario – population: 1,200. Growing up riding dirt bikes and playing pond hockey on his family’s hundred-acre farm, he’s a small-town boy through and through. But he’s ready to spread his voice far and wide.
In Mildmay, professional musicians are rare. Riegling’s friends are millwrights, electricians and welders. Ever since hearing his farmer grandfather play the radio for the cows in the barn, Riegling has been itching to make music. He wrote his very first song at 10 years old on a toy piano, then started writing religiously as a teenager when he got a Nova guitar from the Sears catalogue.
Wednesday nights were spent jamming Merle Haggard with his guitar teacher, which led to gigs in local bars playing cover tunes of his favourite artists: country singers like Eric Church, but also genre-spanning bands like Bon Iver, Weezer, Green Day and Steve Miller Band. He’d call up all the bars in the towns surrounding his, then play long sets in the corner of the room while people drank and ate dinner. Occasionally, he snuck in one of his originals. Soon, he was seeing the same faces pop up at all his gigs and bars started to call him, not vice versa.
With shows nearly every Friday and Saturday night, he still felt something was missing. So he enrolled at the Ontario Institute of Recording to hone his craft. It was there that he first cut “Smoke Man,” the first song he ever released, which set him on his musical path. It was actually his third semester project. He woke up in the middle of the night to jot down the words he heard in his head.
Despite his small-town origins, Riegling’s talent has garnered him immense hometown support. At the rural Ontario festival Music In The Fields, his side-stage performance gathered crowds as big as the mainstage artists he was there to support. His breakthrough started right from his wood-panelled hometown bar, Harley’s, where the owners shut down for business so he and his band could record the barnburning one-shot performance of “Getting Full” that earned him a coveted slot on the stage of Boots & Hearts before country icons like Lindsay Ell and Shania Twain.
“It was mind-blowing,” Riegling says. “I had never been on a stage that big before. The bars I was playing before that, we could fit four or five of those inside of that one structure.”
He ended up winning the Emerging Artist contest, which led to professional press photos and a single release through Universal Music Canada. But he made such an impression, that the major label signed him to a full deal. That’s brought him to sessions in Nashville and with big-time industry co-writers. Next on the docket is a series of singles that Riegling calls “a huge step forward.” Songs about long-distance relationships, riding around on the weekend and moments both big and small strike a balance between universal feelings and personal stories performed with his trademark laid-back charm.
Owen Riegling is ready to make his mark on the music industry, but his ambitions are humble: a house, a truck, the occasional fishing trip. Time, too – time to make music every day. At the beginning of the year, he wrote 20 songs in one month. That’s not out of the ordinary for him. No matter what he does from here, it will be genuine. And it will be good.