Florida Georgia Line's 'Dig Your Roots' Aims For Maturity In Chaotic Times
Country music's resident party boys go deeper on their third album.
Teaming two superstar acts — an edgy-sounding young duo still hungry for new experiences and a grainy veteran who has pretty much seen it all — is an obvious attention-getter. But lodged in the chorus are a couple of lines that quietly speak volumes: “You learn to fly/If you can’t, then you just freefall.”
It’s an embrace of risk-taking, of jumping off a cliff, and it’s something that’s increasingly difficult the higher you soar. Florida Georgia Line had practically nothing to lose when it introduced its tight harmonies and hip-hop influences with its 2012 breakthrough single, “Cruise.”
But in 2016, there’s plenty at risk. “Cruise” spent a record 24 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, crowning the list when Billboard published a summation earlier this month of the genre’s all-time greatest singles. FGL became one of the poster acts as country attracted legions of young followers, and Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley went on to claim three straight Country Music Association trophies as duo of the year.
Admirably, Florida Georgia Line takes some notable creative risks with its third album, Dig Your Roots (out now). The pair’s trademark hard-edged harmonies, rhythmic intensity and Hubbard’s identifiable twang still form a basic sonic foundation. But the duo veers more frequently from its past. The tempos are more restrained, Kelley takes more lead vocal turns, and the songs tend to avoid back-road parties in favor of familial celebrations. It’s as if they took that “free-fall” line to heart, gambling that the audience will follow them as they transition from rebel kids to driven adults.
“B.K. and I are being really vulnerable,” suggests Hubbard, acknowledging the topical shift. “That’s always risky when someone’s vulnerable. You put yourself out there, you risk your emotions, and you risk the reputation you’re going to have and what people are going to think about it. But for us it was important. We just want to be real; we want to be transparent. We think that’s what our fans deserve and especially with this record, we’re going a little deeper. We’re letting the fans in on our life and who we are.”
The results are noticeable. Dig Your Roots is meatier, more substantive in its subject matter and more reserved in its tempo. “H.O.L.Y.,” the lead single, set the pace with its rich, piano-based arrangement and spiritual-leaning lyrics, and the public responded, vaulting it to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs for 16 weeks. Where FGL’s first hits, including “Cruise” and “This Is How We Roll,” buzzed with urgency and living for the moment, the material on Dig Your Roots embraces a wider, calmer view. It takes a hard look at the loss of previous generations in the title track and “While He’s Still Around,” and aims for a dependable, long-term future in such ballads as “Lifer” and “Grow Old.”
“Being that we’re both around the age of 30, you really start to think about starting a family, raising kids,” says Tyler. “What are you going to teach your kids? How are you going to raise them? I mean, all these things you start to talk about, which lends itself to us creating that same type of conversation in the writing room.”
It makes for a winning dynamic on the concert stage. Historically, ballads weighed heavily in country’s success, and plenty of acts fought against sagging live shows, stocking as many uptempo album cuts and covers as possible between their slower hits to keep a semblance of energy. When FGL showcased the Roots material during an Aug. 2 concert for a few hundred Pandora-listeners in Nashville, they had no such difficulties. The newer songs fit in nicely among its established hits. The frenetic, high-energy stuff was still a major component, but it allowed FGL to introduce its new, more mature titles without creating a lull.
“It has given us a pretty diverse set, and it’s creating moments and dynamics that we haven’t had,” says Kelley. “That makes it interesting not only for us onstage but for the fans. We were kind of party-heavy — or feel-good heavy, if you will — but now that we’ve got ‘Dirt’ and ‘H.O.L.Y.’ and ‘Confession’ and these new songs, I think it’s well-rounded, and it’s showing depth as well. You can’t just label us [as] one thing.”
Many of the sounds that influenced Florida Georgia Line are apparent on Dig Your Roots as it folds other artists into the lyrics and guest list. McGraw’s vocal and a reference to George Strait’s “Check Yes or No” in “Lifer” reveal the country lineage in their personal histories. Backstreet Boys show up on “God, Your Mama, and Me,” underscoring their pop roots. Ziggy Marley — whose father Bob Marley got a nod in the lyrics to FGL’s 2015 hit “Sun Daze” — aids the island sensibility on “Life Is a Honeymoon.” The duo’s hip-hop background likewise gets recognized with a Tupac Shakur name-check in “May We All.”
All of those influences are presented with a certain authority. The vocals on Dig Your Roots are approached with a relaxed confidence instead of a fiery bravado.
It makes for an interesting mix. With a few exceptions, producer Joey Moi (Chris Lane, Jake Owen) layered a lot of atmospheric sounds underneath the music. FGL’s unwavering vocals hint at the same attitude that Kenny Chesney presented in “Noise”: Amid the commotion and distraction of the digital era, Kelley and Hubbard seem intent on cultivating their own unique voices.
“There’s tons going on around us,” says Hubbard. “Everything’s happening at 100 miles per hour, and it’s important to be able to kind of block that out at times and just kind of remember who you are and just stay focused. Maybe the noise that you’re hearing is the chaos of the last couple of years.”
If so, the strength they apply above it may be the sound of two guys finding order in all of that madness.