Starting on the fiddle, Riley quickly moved on to the banjo, building his first instrument from scrap wood with his father. With friend and neighbour, Kirk Sutphin, Riley began honing his musical skills. Together they visited elder traditional musicians throughout North Carolina and Virginia, learning the Round Peak style at the knee of National Heritage Award winner Tommy Jarrell and other traditional musicians of the area, including Dix Freeman, Chester McMillian and former Camp Creek Boys members Verlin Clifton and Paul Sutphin. Over the years, whilst working as a weldor and a blacksmith by day, Riley played with many old time string bands, including the Old Hollow String Band and the Red Hots. His self-produced recording, "Life Of Riley" (Yodel-Ay-Hee, 2001), showcases his masterful, elegant banjo playing and his rich, raw boned singing voice.
One fateful day, Riley got a call from longtime friend and collaborator Dirk Powell. Dirk was involved in the music direction for the Academy Award-winning film "Cold Mountain" and had convinced the producers that they needed Civil War era banjos made in the Carolina hills, specifically Riley’s handmade banjos. They also needed an authentic acapella ballad singer for the voice of Pangle, played by Ethan Suplee. Riley put the hammer down on the anvil and didn’t look back. A whirlwind Hollywood experience ensued, culminating in a place on the star studded "Great High Mountain" tour.
From there, Riley has made his own path, building in-demand instruments and performing at festivals all over the world. He made musical contributions to the Appalshop film, "Thoughts In The Presence of Fear", and to a film by Erika Yeomans; "Grand Gorge: No God But Me". He has worked with the Lonesome Sisters as producer and performer on their recording "Going Home Shoes". Riley collaborated with Laurelyn Dossett and Preston Lane of Triad Stage on theatrical presentations featuring original and traditional southern Appalachian music. His next recording, "Long Steel Rail" (Sugar Hill Records, 2006), produced by Tim O'Brien and Dirk Powell, appeared to critical acclaim, with Billboard Magazine heralding it as "..quintessential American old-time music. The instrumental component is impeccable, while Baugus' vocals sound like they've been echoing through the Appalachian Mountains for about 150 years."
In 2008, a call from T-Bone Burnett put Riley back in the studio in Nashville, this time as a contributor to the Grammy award winning Album Of The Year, "Raising Sand" - the multi-million selling album by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Two years later, Riley's banjo playing was featured on Willie Nelson's Grammy nominated recording "Country Music". Riley has taught at camps and festivals around the world, including Augusta Heritage Festival and Augusta Old Time Week, Mars Hill College's Blue Ridge Old Time Music Week, Midwest Banjo Camp in Lansing, MI, the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA and Sore Fingers Week in the UK.
When not teaching or building banjos, Riley can be found out on the road performing. He plays with the Dirk Powell Band and with Kirk Sutphin. He is a frequent guest of Polecat Creek and of Tim O'Brien with Dirk Powell. With Ira Bernstein, he presents the show "Appalachian Roots", a unique showcase of Appalachian music and dance. Riley makes his home near Winston-Salem, North Carolina.