Caught a Big Wave // Florida Georgia Line on Country Success

By L. Kent Wolgamott
There is no fiddle or steel to be heard when Florida Georgia Line hits
the stage. There is, however, lots of electric guitar, rapping, a drum
solo and some of the biggest hits in country music from the last three

Songs like “Sun Daze,” which hit No. 1 on the country airplay chart in
February, “Dirt,” “Round Here” and “Shine,” the duo’s breakthrough
smash, have propelled Florida Georgia Line to country’s pinnacle.

The duo has sold more than 2.5 million copies of its two albums
(2012’s “Here’s to the Good Times” and 2014’s “Anything Goes”) and 21
million digital tracks, has been named CMT Artists of the Year two
years running and is now packing arenas on its first worldwide
headlining tour.

“Since 2012, we’ve caught a massive wave,” said Brian Kelley, the 29 year old singer and songwriter who started out writing Christian rock songs in the style of Casting Crowns. “People have gravitated to our music.”

That music has been tagged “bro country,” a sound that’s been
derisively dismissed for its far-from-traditional hybrid sound and
lyrical focus on back roads, trucks, tailgates, girls and

Those detractors may not like it. But thousands of others do — and
that’s what’s important to Kelley.

“That’s what it’s about, connecting with everybody,” Kelley said.
“It’s hard to put a label on it. People like to shout it down. But
we’re having a great time, going out and connecting with people. We
don’t worry about any of that. Call it what you want. We like what we

What Florida Georgia Line does is fold rock and hip-hop into its
country, with Kelley and partner Tyler Hubbard swapping vocals
on songs they, unlike a lot of country stars, wrote themselves.

“We always just had our own sound; we call it the Florida Georgia Line
sound,” Kelley said. “There’s nothing calculated about it. We started
writing songs together, and that sound developed. Then we met up with
[producer] Joey Moi, who helped us with that sound. We took all our
influences, put them in the mix and let the music happen naturally.”

So, does Kelley think the duo’s music is changing country?

“We never set out to do that,” he said. “But I think it’s definitely
happening. It’s a product of influences coming together to create a
new sound. You know what, my favorite thing to hear is when somebody
tells me, ‘I never liked country music until I heard you guys. Now I
can’t get your CD out of my player, or Justin Moore or Miranda Lambert
or Thomas Rhett.”

Florida Georgia Line is also connecting live. The “Anything Goes” tour
continues through most of 2015.

“It is a hot ticket; a lot of people are showing up,” Kelley said. “If
you’ve ever seen us, know that it’s hotter, it’s brighter, it’s bigger
and more intense … It’s go-time, party time.”

Kelley is right about the show being, hotter, brighter and bigger. The
duo and band use a giant stage with a runway that extends out onto the
arena floor. Laser lights and video screens crank up the visuals.

The live shows are also a lucrative good time. Forbes magazine
estimates the duo has earned $24 million last year, much of it from

Kelley and Hubbard realize that the party could end as quickly as it
began if they ever lose the key element to their success.

“We know the songs are what’s going to keep us going, and you’ve got
to stay open to the creative process,” Kelley said. “You’ve got to
have your iPhone out and write down lyrics or get a voice memo and
sing a piece of the song when it comes up.”

Kelley, 29, didn’t start out dreaming of playing arenas and selling
millions of albums. A star high school pitcher, he earned a
scholarship to Florida State University and had visions of throwing in the major

“That dream kind of ended for me when I didn’t get drafted,” he said.
“But I was already thinking I should write songs. I couldn’t sit in
class without writing down a song or an idea, same thing when I was
out shagging balls in left field.”

So Kelley transferred to Nashville’s Belmont University, where a
friend from a music composition class introduced him to Hubbard.

“It was immediate,” Kelley said of bonding with Hubbard. “We became
best friends, moved in together, started writing songs, drinking
together, playing together. We figured out together we were better
than on our own.”

The duo started playing Nashville’s ubiquitous songwriter shows in the
summer and fal of 2009 and almost instantly developed a
following, playing to hundreds rather than a couple of dozen in just a
few months.

In 2010, the duo met Nickelback producer Moi, who encouraged them to
rewrite and polish their songs. With Moi in charge, they put together
the band’s second EP, an independently released effort that contained
a little song called “Cruise.”

When “Cruise,” now the best-selling digital country single ever,
caught fire on crossover radio, Florida Georgia Line signed with Republic Nashville, part
of the Big Machine label group, whose roster includes Taylor Swift,
Tim McGraw, The Band Perry and Rascal Flatts. Then their wave came in.

The biggest challenge on the way to the top, Kelley said, was
surviving the early days on the road.

“I always thought, ‘Once we get on the bus, we’re good,’” Kelley said.
“When we were in the stinky van, we weren’t getting any sleep, we
couldn’t talk, our voices would be shot. Once we were on the bus, it
was all go.”

For the last two years, it’s been go, go, go for Florida Georgia Line,
and Kelley quickly confesses to embracing a cliche to describe it.

“I say it every day — it is a dream come true,” he said. “It’s crazy
it happened to us, the things we’ve seen and done. It is a dream come
true, 100 percent.”

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