Here's an (incomplete) list of what, in the eight years since their ridiculously successful debut, the men of Florida Georgia Line have become: headliners, husbands, restauranteurs, record label owners, whiskey makers, music producers and publishers. Tyler Hubbard, the Georgia half of the act, just announced that he and his wife Hayley will welcome a third child later this year. Brian Kelley, along with his wife Brittney, run the popular clothing brand Tribe Kelley. But what occasionally gets lost in the shuffle is that the duo has also emerged as one of the format’s premier musical shapeshifters, the latest evidence of which arrives today with their raucous new single “I Love My Country.”
“We haven’t had anything that hits this hard since ‘Round Here,’” says Kelley, the Sunshine State’s representative for the group, referring to their stadium-sized 2012 No.1. (It was their third to scale the Airplay Charts off their debut LP, Here’s to the Good Times.) “This one’s loud—it punches through the speaker,” he says of the song, a thunderous ode to down-home living. He’s right, though the last handful of years have hardly been quiet. Across their three ensuing albums, they’ve flirted with ethereal pop, reggae, folk, hip-hop, and R&B, and collaborated with the likes of Backstreet Boys, Ziggy Marley, Jason Aldean, Bebe Rexha, Tim McGraw, and Jason DeRulo. Most recently, they threw a pedal steel and a hick-hop flow on the country remix of Justin Bieber’s “Yummy.”
“This was one of the first songs we did [for our upcoming project],” says Hubbard of "I Love My Country." “And it’s just made us feel so good and gave us so much joy.” It’s something they thought the world might need, the singer adds, given the uneasy energy surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic: “Considering the time that we’re living in right now, with everyone quarantined and maybe living in a little bit of fear, it felt like a song that could bring a little light to people.”
When Florida Georgia Line released “Cruise,” their first ever single, in 2012, Hubbard and Kelley were blips on the country music machine’s radar. But the song, which doesn’t so much fold a confluence of sounds from hip-hop, dance, and stadium rock into its slow-living, country fantasy as much as it mashes them together in a musical WWE Smackdown, took off. “At the time, we just knew our sound,” recalls Kelley, “and we knew we wanted to push it and see where it could go.”
No one could have predicted the ascent. “Cruise” is the only diamond-certified country single ever and the best-selling song in the digital era of the genre. A true crossover success, it cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the remix, which featured Nelly, broke into the Top 5. In all, it spent 24 consecutive weeks in the top slot on the Hot Country Songs charts, at that time an all-time record. (Sam Hunt staged a brief coup in 2017 with his “Body Like a Backroad,” which enjoyed a 34-week run, though FGL quickly snapped the title back. “Meant to Be,” their duet with BeBe Rexha logged a staggering 50 straight weeks between 2017 and 2018—a stat that isn’t likely to be outdone anytime soon.)
It’s a testament to their widespread influence that listening to the cut almost exactly eight years following its release, the anthem sounds downright ordinary. Their particular, surprising blend became the very center of the Music City mainstream in the wake of its rise. But just as quickly as they created a new sub-genre—the often critically maligned, but wildly popular sound known as "bro country"—Hubbard and Kelley moved on. “As fast as the bro country thing happened is about how fast that went away,” recalls Hubbard. “We never even slowed down enough to think about that.”
Songs about girls in cut off shorts and bikini tops were soon replaced with explorations of faith, family, and monogamy. Both men are married, and their 2016 album Dig Your Roots largely meditated on settling down. The music felt equally new, dipping between sheeny pop and easy-listening island and R&B infusions. By 2019, they’d pivoted again with the sprawling, 19-song Can’t Say I Ain’t Country, which welcomed Mumford & Sons-esque folk-rock singalongs, soul, and even the blues into their fray.
“We’re not afraid of change,” Hubbard says, succinctly. “We're proud of where we came from, but we're excited to grow. We’re always evolving—whether it's our personal lives, whether it's our career, whether it's our marriages, whether it's friendships. We're always trying to better ourselves and just continue.”
Kelley echoes the sentiment: “We’re just hyper creatives. And we’re always writing with great, young songwriters in town.” Increasingly, he adds: “Worlds are colliding, from L.A. to New York to Nashville, even people from Europe hopping into co-writes. Especially with streaming, artists have an option to be a real global presence. So for us, it’s about how far can we push ourselves?”
“I Love My Country,” which features Charlie Handsome (Travis Scott, Kanye West) in its credits, feels just as big as the cuts with which the outfit made their introduction in 2012, but it’s musical North Star has shifted towards an electrified take on '90s country. Put shocks on an Alan Jackson track and you’re coming pretty close. “We’ve been craving the organic elements of what we do,” says Hubbard. “We’re taking it back to recording with a full band, and then having fun bringing in different programming. It feels like a cool hybrid of a really country feel with different elements of rock and hip-hop.”
After four albums with producer Joey Moi at the helm, they’ve also got a new face behind the soundboard in-studio for their next project: Corey Crowder, a member of FGL’s Tree Vibez publishing company and frequent collaborator of Chris Lane. “We decided it was time to freshen up our sound,” says Hubbard. The results were, they say, immediate: “It rebirthed the fun in making music,” Hubbard adds. “We can’t wait to get to work every day.”
But what motivates you when, as you near your middle thirties, you’ve played the biggest rooms, sold a mind-boggling amount of records, and logged more than a dozen No.1 songs on country radio?
“We’ve reached a lot of our goals,” Hubbard allows. “Now we’re really focused on letting what we’ve built in the last eight years sustain itself so that we can go out and play shows. That’s in our DNA—we want to play big venues.” “Entertainers are hosts,” Kelley adds. “We’ve prided ourselves on that, be it with our live show or our restaurant," he says, referencing their popular Nashville outpost, FGL House. "That's what we do." (The venue is currently closed due to the spread of COVID-19, but the duo generously gave each employee $1,000 when they were forced to shutter.)
It’s also time, they say, to pay their good fortune forward. “We’re really focused on creating opportunities for other artists,” says Hubbard. “We actually look forward to taking the artist hat off and making sure our publishing company and record label is running smoothly, and that we’re building a strong team and bringing in and signing artists and songwriters. There are a lot of moving pieces now within our organization, we find a joy in that. It’s fun to be in a building phase.”
It’s almost daunting to consider what Kelley adds: “We’re just getting started.”
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