It's safe to say that few people have a first-concert experience like Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley. For starters, that initial show as a fan -- a Backstreet Boys homecoming concert at the House of Blues in Orlando, Fla., in February 1998 when Kelley was a sixth grader -- was stylin'. His best friend's parents had rented a limo for their daughter's birthday, and Kelley was part of a group that might have arrived at the venue in better transportation than the headliners.
"It was nuts," remembers Kelley of that show. "People were just screaming, hooting and hollering all around."
Putting an unusual coda on that first concert, Kelley and his FGL partner, Tyler Hubbard, are now linked to Backstreet through "God, Your Mama, and Me," a collaboration that meshes seven voices and also crosses genres and generations. Just four weeks after BMLG released it to radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 9, it's already at No. 36 on both Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay, early numbers that suggest it's bound to become a hit.
"To have the Backstreet Boys featured on it was something we kind of envisioned in the studio while recording it," says Hubbard. "To have that come to fruition was amazing. It really, really took that song to the next level."
It helps that BSB bought into the song right away.
"I'm a father of two boys, so I like how the song could have a double meaning," says Backstreet's Kevin Richardson. "You could be talking about your children, or your spouse, or your love interest. I think it's poetic, and it's got a great melody."
Richardson's interpretation is exactly what the songwriters envisioned when they wrote it on Sept. 18, 2015, in the third-floor office of Josh Kear ("Drunk on a Plane," "Neon Light") at Yellow Dog Music in Nashville. Kear's daughter had turned 6 just weeks before, and he had a father's unwavering love in mind when he conceived that phrase, "God, Your Mama, and Me." Co-writers Gordie Sampson ("Storm Warning," "Jesus, Take the Wheel") and Hillary Lindsey ("Blue Ain't Your Color," "Dirty Laundry") were both sold on his title, and they expanded the concept.
"It wasn't until I tossed the title into the room with Gordie and Hillary and heard them talking about how appropriate that sentiment was for partners, friends, et cetera, that I realized that it was just a great thing to say about anyone you loved," notes Kear. "Who doesn't want to be loved unconditionally?"
"Unconditionally," in fact, becomes as significant a word as the title. It's functional, for starters, appearing frequently as a rhyming companion to "God, Your Mama, and Me."
"It's six syllables, so it just sat in the pocket," assesses Sampson. "The rhythm of that word was important to the song."
But it also offers an unspoken depth. It's one thing to love someone with strings attached; it's another to offer love without requiring anything in return. "That's the heart of the message," says Kelley.
Kear pulled up a programmed beat, while Sampson found some chords on electric guitar, setting the tone for the song's easy-going, pop-flavored melody and pinging chorus. For contrast, they built in a brief, two-line bridge that underscores the singer's commitment before the song returns to its affirmation: "No one's gonna love you more than God, your mama and me."
"In this day and age, a bridge has to be really, really short and not take your eye off the ball too much," says Sampson.
Kear sounded like Keith Urban when he recorded a vocal over the beats that day. Lindsey added some harmonies, and Sampson worked on the demo for the next week. FGL producer Joey Moi (Chris Lane, Jake Owen) and manager Seth England put it on hold after one listen during a pitch session, then sent it to Hubbard and Tyler, who both found it perfect for their current mind-set. It's not entirely coincidental that the first single from their album Dig Your Roots was the similarly themed "H.O.L.Y."
"Love and spiritualism, they go hand in hand," says Hubbard. "Those songs don't come around every day, and when they do, you have to take advantage of it."
Moi programmed a new drum beat and layered instruments on top of it one by one, starting with Ilya Toshinsky, who added both acoustic guitar and a slinky-sounding electric. Keyboard player Dave Cohen, bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas and steel guitarist Russ Pahl filled out the arrangement, and FGL did several vocal sessions on "God, Your Mama, and Me." Each time, they lived with the performance, then came back with a mind to beat the previous version. "It was right in Tyler's wheelhouse," recalls Moi.
By June 2016, the track was completed as an FGL-only cut and ready to be placed on the album Dig Your Roots, which would be released Aug. 26. "That song was completely done," notes Moi. "Then the Backstreet Boys thing happened."
BSB vocalist Nick Carter had become friends with FGL, and he attended its CMA Music Festival set at Nashville's Nissan Stadium on June 11. The duo played him some of its finished songs on the bus, and it was particularly interested in his reaction to "God, Your Mama, and Me." Carter liked it, and FGL thought about asking him if Backstreet could sing on it. But the pair held back.
"I think we were kind of intimidated, like, 'Should we just ask them to be on this song? Should we just shoot them an email?' " says Kelley. "You can't be afraid to ever just ask, you know."
England got in touch on their behalf within days, and after pulling together all five BSB members - Richardson, Carter and A.J. McLean from California; Howie Dorough from Florida; and Brian Littrell from Georgia - Moi produced a vocal session at NightBird Recording Studios in the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood.
"We each went in and took a stab at the second verse," says Richardson, "and we're like, 'Look, it's your song. You pick whoever's voice you think fits the emotional tone of the song and whoever delivers it the best.' "
Carter sings most of the second verse, McClain and Richardson handle the bridge, and all of them have ad-lib moments. They were, says Moi, mostly self-directed. "They don't sound like the Backstreet Boys until they're all singing, and then you're like, 'Holy crap, there it is.' You don't have to do anything. There it is."
Several BSB members pushed photos from the studio out to social media during the June 27 session, and it was then that the songwriters had an idea what their creation might become. "When I started hearing from friends about the Backstreet Boys tweeting from the studio and sending me online Billboard coverage about the FGL/Backstreet Boys song, I knew we might have landed on something pretty special," says Kear. "People seemed to be excited about the combo even before they heard the song."
After the album's release, "God" spent two quick weeks on Hot Country Songs, peaking at No. 28 in September, thanks to big digital sales and streaming activity. In the process, BSB became the second boy band to hit the country chart by teaming with an established act on a song with "God" in the title. 'N Sync shared a top five single with Alabama for their joint 1999 version of "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You." "That was a smashola," enthuses Kelley.
Backstreet Boys were a surprise guest during FGL's Oct. 13 show in Nashville, where the two acts performed "God, Your Mama, and Me" live for the first time. And it likely won't be the last. "We're talking about doing some shows down the line this summer with FGL," says Richardson.
Meanwhile, the recording is everything Florida Georgia Line hoped for.
"It really does sound like how we envisioned," says Hubbard. "It doesn't always work out that way, so you really appreciate the times that it does."