But on Friday, just over four months after the release of FGL’s fifth studio album for BMLG Records, Kelley will step out on his own with his full-length debut solo album, the boots-and-beaches-themed Sunshine State of Mind.
“Me and Tyler had been talking about this for years,” Kelley says. “We made that fifth record our milestone to create some extra freedom for ourselves and have some things in addition to FGL.”
Often, when a duo makes such a shift, fans wonder if a split is imminent. In late 2020, rumors of an FGL breakup spread after Hubbard and Kelley briefly unfollowed each other on social media around the time of the presidential election. In January 2021, Hubbard and Kelley personally set the record straight with a 10-minute video they shared with fans, announcing they would simultaneously pursue solo and FGL endeavors.
“It was just important to just tell everybody, ‘Hey, we're good. We're going to keep crushing FGL, but we’re going to do some solo stuff,’” Kelley says. “Tyler’s focused on songwriting. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets songwriter of the year this year. He's on a damn mission, and I couldn't be more proud of him, his songwriting and collaborations.” FGL’s I Love My Country tour kicks off Sept. 24 in Atlanta.
In mid-2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced tours to shut down, Kelley also kept writing music and recalls the resulting songs felt intensely personal. “Boat Names,” the new album’s opening track, also marks the project’s origin story and includes a short film dropping at midnight tonight.
“I had been holding on to this song idea for eight or nine months,” Kelley says. “It was the anchor and guiding light for this whole journey. I knew something was different and I was just writing from a different place. By the time I had four or five songs, it was like, ‘I think God's opening up a door here and I need to walk through it.’”
Kelley is managed jointly by Nashville-based outfit WHY&HOW and Irving Azoff’s Full Stop Management. Kelley credits Azoff with pushing him to take creative risks.
“He believes that if you've got songs and dreams inside you, let's encourage that. That's good for everybody. Then you come back together and the foundation's even stronger.”
By October 2020, Ormond Beach, Fla., native Kelley had gathered a close-knit crew of collaborators, writing and recording Sunshine State of Mind in Nashville and in Key West, Fla.
The resulting 17-track collection (which follows and includes April’s four-song BK’s Wave Pack EP) blends breezy instrumentation and coastal references, but Kelley is more interested in following where the music takes him.
“I hate coining my own music. Whatever anybody wants to call it...beach country, island country. For me, it was just important to do right by the songs and give them what they need.” While a single will be sent to radio later, for now, the focus is on the album as a whole.
“Florida Boy Forever” pays homage to Kelley’s childhood growing up on the coast, while “Horses on the Beach” salutes the go-your-own-way spirit that resides in cowboys and surfers alike. “Sunday Service in the Sand” brings forward the spiritual element found in FGL hits such as “H.O.L.Y.” or even the duo’s collaborative effort with Christian artist Chris Tomlin from 2020.
“The first music I ever recorded when I was about 19 was a contemporary Christian EP,” Kelley, 35, recalls. “ With ‘Sunday Service,’ I had the first two lines and told the guys, ‘I’m picking you up, we’re driving to the beach, and we’re going to finish the song there. There’s no other place we can create this song.’ I didn’t even feel like we were writing it; it felt like we were having a worship service.”
Putting out a solo album isn’t Kelley’s only major shift. Sunshine State of Mind will be released via a partnership between Kelley’s Nashville South Records and Warner Music Nashville, whom he approached.
“They were my first choice,” he says. “It was an opportunity to try something new. The fact that Warner loved the record and wanted to partner with me is a huge deal. They are great people; [WMN’s EVP, A&R] Cris Lacy and [WMN’s Chairman & CEO John] Esposito are absolutely crushing it. They have a great roster, from legends to those that have a couple of records out, and artists they are currently breaking. To me, that’s the mark of a great label. It felt like the right decision.”
For now, Kelley will be the flagship and only artist on Nashville South, though he adds he could sign other artists at some point, “but I really want to focus on making the most of this opportunity.”
Kelley is already writing for a follow-up project, which he says he also plans to release via Warner Music Nashville.
“I’m just humbled. I feel more alive than ever,” he says. “These songs gave me the confidence to go forward. There can be a little bit of fear, trying something new and stepping out -- what is everybody going to think? Just all these things that an artist and creative goes through. This album brought a lot of joy and challenged me. I just don't want to live a life of complacency; I always want to feel like I'm moving forward.”