Post-FGL, Tyler Hubbard Makes a Singular Splash with Debut Solo Album: 'I Have a Story and I Have a Voice'

When Tyler Hubbard says, "It feels good to be me," you just know — from the joy in his voice and the width of his grin — that he's talking about something much deeper than his newly minted No. 1 song or his highly anticipated debut solo album that's out on Friday.

For more than a decade now, Hubbard has been in the public eye as someone far more plural than singular, as he and partner Brian Kelley rode the wave of Florida Georgia Line, one of the most successful duos in country music history.

"Looking back now," Hubbard, 35, tells PEOPLE, "we didn't do a great job of introducing ourselves as individuals. It was always a duo. It was always a brand, always a partnership, and it was our story together, as opposed to our individual stories."

But today, Hubbard has a brand-new story to tell, and he's loving the fact that he maintains sole ownership.

A year ago, Hubbard told PEOPLE exclusively that he and Kelley were "taking a break," and he says he still holds to that description.

"It's hard to predict the future," he says. "I never like to say 'never,' so who knows what'll happen down the road. But I will say I have no plans of looking back, and this isn't a one-off for me."

"This" is the self-titled album that's already produced his first solo chart-topper, "5 Foot 9," and delivers 17 more radio- and concert-ready tracks. From the boot-scooting boogie of current single "Dancin' in the Country" to the sorrow-soaked wistfulness of "Miss My Daddy," Hubbard ably proves he doesn't need to share a spotlight. And while the album is still flavored with dollops of FGL-style brio, even more, it reveals an older—and wiser—artist who excels at musical storytelling.

tyler hubbard 2023
tyler hubbard 2023


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The growth, Hubbard says, has been hard won. "I've done a lot of mental and emotional work, and I really enjoy that space," he says. "So it's been really good to get to open that up to the world and to get to be vulnerable and real and raw and emotional, if it's called for. But also, there's still a big piece of me that wants my music just to be a good time. There's still that piece of who I was with FGL, and I think that's a big part of why I love music so much."

His love for music was what first drew him to Nashville 18 years ago, though — unlike so many who come to the city — he arrived with no burning ambition to become an artist, solo or otherwise.

Instead, the Georgia native dreamed of becoming a songwriter when he enrolled at Belmont University, where he connected with Kelley, another student, from Florida, who shared the same ambition. They quickly discovered their chemistry in songwriting sessions, and they began performing on the same bills in clubs and songwriter rounds. Deciding to make their own luck after college, they took a shot as a duo and spent three years scrapping for gigs, searching for a sound, and hoping for a big break. They got it in 2012 with the release of their career-making single, "Cruise," which turned them overnight into superstars and ignited a string of hits.

Given that history, perhaps it's no surprise that Hubbard happened into his solo career with just as little initial ambition. In fact, Kelley was the restless one, first pushing for the break in a conversation in the fall of 2020.

"He really wanted to go into the solo space and had a heart for doing a solo thing for a while," Hubbard recalls. "And I said, well, that's great. I want to support you in that. But I just decided, well, I'll just step aside from the artistry and be a songwriter and a stay-at-home dad. And I thought that sounded really appealing at the time to work 11 to 4 and just write songs."

By then he and his wife, Hayley, had a full house with their three children, Olivia Rose, now 5, Luca Reed, 3, and Atlas Roy, 2. And Hubbard's songwriting chops — beyond FGL — were well established: He's co-written over 60 cuts for other artists such as Kane Brown, Cole Swindell, Little Big Town and Thomas Rhett, including 12 No. 1 songs.

Tyler Hubbard
Tyler Hubbard

Tristan Cusick Tyler Hubbard

After 10 long years of recording and touring, he says, the songwriting life held a lot of appeal. "I could be home a lot, be really present," he says, recalling his decision-making. "I could still have my creative outlet as a songwriter, and I could just pursue that. And that really intrigued me because it felt like a new challenge."

But eight months of that new life was enough time for Hubbard to do a 180 and admit, "I don't know what I was thinking."

"For a little while I enjoyed it," he says, "but then I realized there's a lot of pieces missing that I really love. I love making albums. I love being on tour. I love connecting with the fans. And now I understand a little bit about why maybe BK [Kelley] was feeling this way. I have a story that I'd like to tell, and I have a voice, and I have an individuality that I'd love to put into art."

His wife, as well as close friends, had already been encouraging him to go solo, he says, but he also had to deal with a few naysayers — business associates who "really, really wanted FGL to continue and thought, why would you leave what you've built over here to start something new?"

Hubbard listened — and then chose to ignore them. "I appreciate the honesty," he recalls telling his doubters, "and what you're saying is not wrong, but, well, I'd like to try a new challenge, so let's go."

RELATED: Tyler Hubbard Gains Perspective and Gratitude as He Launches His Solo Career: 'A New Appreciation'

Of course, as FGL's lead singer, Hubbard also knew he held an ace in the hole: his instantly recognizable voice that millions of fans have already proven their love for. But when Hubbard sat down with album co-producer Jordan Schmidt to plot the project, they knew that fact also came with challenges.

"We intentionally wanted this to not be another FGL album," says Hubbard. "I wanted to differentiate Tyler Hubbard from FGL. But at the same time, I knew I couldn't go too far from it because it's still my voice. And I wanted to not try to differentiate too much and just accept the fact that, hey, my voice is what it is, and I'm actually thankful for that."

tyler hubbard 2023
tyler hubbard 2023

John Russo Tyler Hubbard

The change, the two men agreed, had to come in the music's production and content. Schmidt's presence helped take care of the sound. Though he's written for FGL, he had never contributed to the duo's studio work; together, he and Hubbard created a vibrant musical space fit for a voice unsupported by conspicuous harmony. Besides co-producing the album, Hubbard wrote or co-wrote every track, pouring himself into the new songs and discovering along the way how the creative process felt without having to be half of a whole.

"I didn't realize this, but what I found was a lot of times before I was thinking about BK and how it would affect him," Hubbard recalls about the years of collaboration. "Like within a marriage, you're just sensitive to the other person. And now that's completely gone. So, honestly, it's just taken away that weight of making sure your partner is in a good place, making sure everybody's feeling heard and appreciated and respected. And all those things, which we did pretty well, are also gone now. So it's just pretty freeing. I have to say, it feels good."

Starting over, Hubbard says, also has felt a lot like starting from scratch, which means he's had to practice what he's been preaching to the new artists he's mentored in recent years.

"You only get to make your first album once," he says, "so I was really trying to be patient, enjoy the process a lot, maybe even more than I was able to the first time just from having a little bit more understanding of the magnitude of what a first album can do for an artist."

Hubbard is well aware that a lot of his new music still relies on familiar FGL themes: jacked-up trucks, Friday night beer with the boys, a little hell-raisin' and a lot of down-home living. He also knows none of that bears much resemblance to a life now filled with raising a family, making music and running the small business empire that FGL built. Still, he says, the country themes remain an integral part of his identity.

"All those things really take me back to who I am and ground me," he says. "I love to sing about those things, and I know it's a lifestyle and a commonality that I have with a lot of my fan base, so it's fun to have those songs."

But there are other songs on the album that reflect more distinctive facets of Hubbard's character — such as the love songs inspired by his wife of almost eight years — and he noticeably brightens when he talks about those.

2022 CMA Couples
2022 CMA Couples

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock Tyler and Hayley Hubbard

FGL, of course, notched several hits with songs about the opposite sex, but this time around Hubbard's lyrics often feature a specificity far more suited for a solo artist than a duo. Of course, "5 Foot 9" is a delightful recitation of details about his muse, though famously, Hubbard misjudged her height. (Hayley informed him — too late to change it — that she's an inch taller.)

"Me for Me," Hubbard reveals, is a touching commentary on the couple's first days together. "Hayley always just loved me for me, and it felt like there was nothing I needed to change," he says. "And she inspired me to not only be myself, but be the best version of myself."

Another bank of songs draws from Hubbard's evolving insights into life experiences. "Tough," for instance, offers a gritty but hopeful message, partly inspired by the hardships of the COVID-19 era: "Hurts like hell when you're goin' through it all / Get knocked down, but we get back up / Whatever don't kill you makes you tough."

Written with Schmidt and Bebe Rexha (FGL's "Meant to Be" collaborator), the rousing anthem comes from "a real place," says Hubbard, "and not only from a place that I feel like me and Bebe and Jordan were in, but the world. It was 2021. We were going through a hard time and nobody can argue that. We wanted to write something with that message behind it — but something that could be uplifting."

Hubbard's deep faith has long made incidental appearances in his song lyrics, but he finally lets Jesus take the wheel in the lilting ballad, "Way Home": "Yeah, I got lost / Until I got found / Oh, and now that it's well with my soul / I just ride in the seat next to Jesus / 'Cause I know he knows the way home."

His witness, Hubbard says, was essential to the album: "My faith always has been a big part of who I am, and so I didn't want to leave that out. It also gives me the reminder that I'm not in control. A lot of times I'll try to jump over in the driver's seat and take over, and that's too stressful. Let me just ride along. I hope it's a good reminder for the fans, as well. There's a lot of freedom in that."

Perhaps no other song on the album speaks to Hubbard's heart more than "Miss My Daddy," a tender tribute to his father, who died, at age 43, in a private helicopter accident when Hubbard was 20 years old.

The lyrics exquisitely describe the hole that was left in his life. "… The nights our kids were born / I really cried some tears," he sings in one verse. "So thankful they were in my arms / But sad he wasn't here."

Hubbard wrote the song by himself during the two weeks in 2020 that he was quarantined on his tour bus after contracting COVID.

"It came out of an emotional night where I was really missing Dad and wanting to express that emotion in a song," he recalls, "and I had my guitar on the bus and thought I'm just gonna journal, if you will, and get these feelings out. It was a song I never thought would see the light of day, other than just myself and maybe a few close friends."

His team thought otherwise and talked Hubbard into including it on the album: "I was like, you know what? Yeah, it's right. It's important. Let's put it on there, and let's just go there because it's as raw as it gets. And I've never done that before, so let's go there."

Now, Hubbard says, "I just hope this song can cause some healing." It's a fairly novel goal for an artist who's made a career out of "feel good" music. But music, he says he now knows with clarity, "is more than playing shows and selling beer." (Though, he allows with a chuckle, "it's still that, as well!")

Music is about "making an impact," he says with new-found conviction. "It's connecting with people. It's getting to see the joy in people's eyes. I have a new perspective after being in it for 10 or 12 years and then also going through the pandemic. I have a whole new gratitude for even getting to play shows. So I think the goal is just maintaining that perspective and that gratitude every night and not taking it for granted, like we probably did at times with FGL."

Tyler Hubbard
Tyler Hubbard

Ryan Silver Tyler Hubbard

Part of this changing perspective is also finding a deeper appreciation for the success of FGL. Hubbard is fully aware he wouldn't have the opportunities or the creative freedom he's now enjoying if not for his years teamed with Kelley. Though he says the two have "kind of grown apart," no door has been slammed, as evidenced by the affectionate name-check of FGL House, the Nashville restaurant-bar the two men still co-own, in one Hubbard track, "Everybody Needs a Bar."

"I'm still FGL," he says. "I'm proud of those years and those songs and everything about it."

RELATED: Florida Georgia Line Performs Last Show After 12 Years as a Duo: 'Closing of an Incredible Chapter'

But he's also proudly moving on. Reaching No. 1 with a debut single certainly heralded the seismic nature of the shift — and Hubbard and his wife each got tattoos to mark the occasion. It was Hayley's first, and hers is a little butterfly on one arm. Not to be outdone, the already heavily tattooed Hubbard now sports five butterflies on the back of his left hand.

"They represent my family," he explains, "but also new life, new seasons, rebirth."

Thinking back on his formative years with FGL, he says he now finally realizes just how young he was back then. "We made music, and we played shows, and life was pretty simple, and there wasn't a lot of stress," he remembers. "I think that's a beautiful stage of life, and I lived it to the fullest, and I'm really grateful for those years."

But now, he says, "it's a different gratitude. It's kids and it's joy and it's my wife and our home and our community in Nashville. I guess it's just a little bit more mature outlook on it, but I'm thankful to be here … I feel like I'm just starting life."