Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley are laughing and talking music. It’s clear more than the good times so much of Florida Georgia Line's music promises, the pair of barely 30s from Monroe, Ga., and Ormond Beach, Fla., are consumed by music in any genre or time frame.
“If I were on a desert island,” Kelley muses, turning the possibilities over in his head, “I would take the Elvis gospel record, and Bruno Mars’ latest. And I’d take a Florida Georgia Line record, ‘cause we’re gonna party on that island.”
As ubiquitous as the duo is, it’s hard to imagine anyone forgetting what the hip-hop, deep rhythmic groove country hybrid that the pair cooked up sounds like: big guitars, loops that ensnare listeners, swooping choruses and melodies that are earworms. The former worship leaders who met at Belmont University have created perhaps the most genre-blurring kind of country since Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Friendship is key to Florida Georgia Line. The pair realized they had a common vision and wanted to see what they could do when it came to chasing an impossible dream. Like so many who come to this town, they started writing songs, making tapes, playing shows and hoping they could put it together.
This summer, the four-time Country Music Association Award winners, who’ve teamed with the Chainsmokers, Ziggy Marley, Luke Bryan, Sara Buxton, the Cadillac Three and Tim McGraw, will further blur genre lines. Teaming with the Backstreet Boys and Nelly, they’ve added three stadium shows to this summer’s Smooth Tour: Boston’s iconic Fenway Park on July 7, Minneapolis’ Target Field on July 29 and Chicago’s legendary Wrigley Field on Aug. 12.
Beyond the obvious scale of where they’ll be making music, Kelley, who once wrote songs for Christian group Casting Crowns, has a deeper reason for being thrilled at the opportunity. Growing up near Daytona Beach, the gifted athlete earned a baseball scholarship to Florida State University.
“I dreamed of playing baseball at a stadium,” Kelley explains. “But it didn’t work out. So, yeah, it blows my mind to be playing those stadiums. It’s music, but it’s the same halls and the same grounds.”
It also shows how vast the reach of FGL’s vision is. If not a critical favorite, they’ve gone straight to the fans – and made music that captures the reality of how people live and what they like. In 30 years, today’s college students and young adults may well look back on the pair as the soundtrack to growing up in much the same way so many look at the Backstreet Boys, who swept a couple generations into hysteria with their clean cut contemporary pop.
And like the reunited BSB, FGL shares that same awareness of the people they sing for. Hubbard admits recognizing certain similarities, offering, “We’ve done enough with Backstreet to know they’re awesome guys who are passionate about their music and what they do. They attract all different kinds of people in all different age groups and ethnicities – and it all meshes together under one common roof: life.
“We’re all driven. We’re all about music. We’re all about the fans.”
Photos: Delaney Rover for BMLG Records
Kelley also sees the collected willingness in artists to see beyond labels, to recognize kinship as a way to make the music stronger instead of just the obvious marketing push.
“I think we’ve all been part of a lot of hits across a lot of different genres. That’s what all of us – us, Nelly and Backstreet – do,” Kelley said. “It’s hard to put a label on the music because it stretches across so many kinds of music. But (whatever you call it), these are all (people who’ve made) some of our biggest hits from the last several years.”
But even more than the tags or names or negativity, in the end, it comes down to people.
“There’s always a cool camaraderie among artists, because we lead the same kind of life, know the same stories and have the same kinds of experiences,” Hubbard said. “So there’s always potential friendship, but with these guys, the friendships have been building over the last few years, so we’re actually going out as friends.”
FGL’s first independent EP, 2010’s Anything Like Me, contained “Black Tears,” which Jason Aldean later recorded. While trying to put the pieces together, detailing cars and other odd jobs to make ends meet, they met veteran Nickelback producer Joey Moi at a fair who saw something in them – and agreed to sign them to a publishing deal, as well as work on how their music sounds.
With the help of SiriusXM, FGL’s next ep It’z Just What We Do ignited. “Cruise” became country’s first Diamond Awarded single, marking 10 million sales, and earned a spot as the No. 4 song in all music for 2012. “Get Your Shine On” followed with almost as much force, and Hubbard and Kelley signed with the Big Machine Label Group’s Republic Nashville label.
Republic took the six songs, adding some new recordings and released Here’s To The Good Times later that year. Proving country fans don’t care about labels, FGL took Black Stone Cherry’s “Stay” to the top of the charts – and cemented their place as one of country music’s biggest acts.
“In the summer of 2012, during the Country Throwdown Tour, we sensed something was happening,” Kelley says of feeling the momentum kick in. “Every week, sales were going up. My parents were calling. Radio stations were playing ‘Cruise,’ and we were starting to hear it. We were playing second in the day on that tour, but more and more fans were showing up. They were coming out early to see us. Then, signing the record deal and keeping the creative stuff up, getting to really focus on writing the songs that connects us with the fans.”
“When we first could make music our business, our life changed,” Hubbard said. “When we signed our publishing deal with Big Loud Shirt, we got $1500 a month, and we didn’t have to wash cars or paint houses anymore. We could just concentrate on writing and playing. It was awesome.”
Awesome didn’t begin to cover it. They racked up hits – “This Is How We Roll,” “Dirt,” “Sippin’ on Fire,” “Anything Goes,” “Confession,” “H.O.L.Y.” and “May We All” with Tim McGraw – and sold millions of albums. They toured with some of the genre's biggest stars and forged their own trail.
And they never forgot their roots. In 2014, the duo served as the face of the Outnumber Hunger Campaign, a charity that teams up with General Mills to help Feed America’s network of over 200 food banks across the country, feeding 46 million people through food pantries and meal programs.
For the duo, it seems like the logical thing to do.
“Faith is a huge part of our lives,” Hubbard said. “It definitely impacts our life, and our fans know we’re believers. But musically, it’s about celebrating life.”
“And to be on a platform and tell people why we’re here (and) to be able to inform lives (about faith) on a larger platform is what we do,” Kelley said.
Scott Borchetta, president and chairman of the Big Machine Label Group and American Idol adviser, recognizes the deeper part of who the best-selling country duo of this century is.
“When we were looking for an artist who embodied giving back, making sure people are being fed and cared for, FGL were a perfect fit. They come from a place of such deep faith and charity, I knew we could harness their good times feel for a much larger cause – and bring people into this cause.”
Some folks don’t think of FGL as anything more than an industrial-sized party band. The duo will open the multi-level FGL House in Nashville’s Lower Broadway party district during CMA Music Fest, and their hits certainly support the notion that this is a band about good times, throwing down shots and partying with hot girls.
Perhaps not since Rascal Flatts has a mainstream act been as maligned. Yet, the pair shrug off any naysaying and turn their vision to the fans. To them, those are the only people who matter – and they, as they always have, focus all their attention on what kind of music they will deliver for the ones who come out, who download, who stream their music.
“It’s been an amazing journey, and we’re so motivated to keep striving and pushing the boundaries of (all of this),” Hubbard explains.
“Big was not only what we saw, but what we felt,” Kelley explains. “(When we were starting), we saw arenas, amphitheaters – and stadiums! We saw big parties – big parties – because our music was going to create an environment where people could come and forget their troubles, forget their worries. They could just hang out with the music and have a great night under the moonlight.”
And the pair don’t intend to get bogged down in negativity. Say what you will, they know who they are.
“We really don’t care,” Kelley shrugs. “We put a label on the labels, so we can dismiss them.”
“Yeah,” Hubbard said. “We know who we are, who we’re going home to. We make music we feel good about for people who we respect and love. We dismiss those other people.”
Pausing for a moment, Hubbard said, “I think people like to root for the underdog. Whatever makes you root for someone, that’s what it’s all about.”
“And putting a generic label on it – whatever it is – misses it, even when it’s not a bad label,” Kelley adds. “Our roots are in a lot of levels. ‘Dirt,’ ‘H.O.L.Y.’ – taking people to church. That’s all part of it. Our fans are lovers of music in general, and they get their fix on a lot of different kinds of stuff.”
“What I’ve noticed with the people who come to the shows,” Hubbard continued, “they may say that (they want to party), but they also know there’s a lot more to it. They come for all of it, not just that, whether they know it or not. And the people who don’t know that, well, they’re just not our people.”