How Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard followed their instincts to the top of the charts
It's Independence Day, and Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, the two artists that make up the skyrocketing country rock duo Florida Georgia Line, are celebrating a little independence of their own, stepping briefly off the massive Luke Bryan tour to headline a Fourth of July celebration at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. After supporting artists including Bryan and Taylor Swift-and winning over their own passionate fans in the process-Florida Georgia Line will soon be getting used to seeing its name at the top of the bill: The Republic Nashville duo, which released its first EP in December 2010, begins its first full-blown headlining tour this fall.
Twenty-three minutes. That's how long it took to sell all of the 10,718 available tickets for the initial date announced on Florida Georgia Line's debut headlining run, an Oct. 19 stop at the Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington, Ky. The duo's current single "Cruise" is the country hit of the summer, breaking the record for the most chart-topping weeks for a title by a duo in the 69-year history of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, and also extending the list's longest reign by any act since Buck Owens ruled for 16 weeks with "Love's Gonna Live Here" in 1963-64. This week, it's No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 (it peaked at No. 4), and has sold 5.1 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
With its crystal harmonies and traditional country instrumentation blended with rock guitars and big, loud production (as well as a remix including rapper Nelly), "Cruise" exemplifies the genre-busting style of FGL's No. 1 album, "Here's to the Good Times," and, in the larger context, a red-hot movement in mainstream country music toward edgier sounds melded with rural themes that's blowing up radio and retail while spinning turnstiles coast to coast. Billboard caught up with Kelley (from Ormond Beach, Fla.) and Hubbard (of Monroe, Ga.), who met and began writing together while attending Nashville's Belmont University, as they charge headlong into superstardom. If it sounds like a party, well, as they say, "It'z Just What We Do."
When you independently decided to come to Nashville and Belmont, were you sure you wanted to be artists, or did you just want to be around music in general?
Brian Kelley: We both wanted to get publishing deals, and that's how we met and got started, writing together. We both wanted to write songs, that was about all we knew. We started doing writers' rounds, singing each others' songs, singing songs we'd written, and people were showing up. We figured we're better together than we are apart, so we came up with a name.
Tyler Hubbard: From the first song we wrote together we felt we had something cool. We worked easily together, we had a lot in common, and onstage it was really natural. It was a party. We just always had fun with it.
You sure look like you're having a lot of fun onstage.
Kelley: It's a blast, man. There's nothing better than being up there with your best friend. We've got a great crew and band out here on the road. It's like a bunch of brothers every night, chasing a dream.
Hubbard: We haven't gone through a bunch of players. We've got guys that were with us from day one. We wanted guys that we meshed well with, that were great entertainers, that had their own things going, but also believed in us, believed in our music. It's cool to see this thing grow and build, to see the players believe in us and sacrifice from the beginning.
The Florida Georgia Line sound is percussive and rhythmic, with serious rock guitars-loud, bold. Did it evolve naturally?
Kelley: When we first started writing, we were dreaming of hearing these songs in arenas and stadiums, so you want that big sound, those big anthem choruses. Joey Moi, our producer-we call him "the Wizard," because he puts his touch on it and brings these songs to life. Joey has given us a sound that's like no other.
You had already released two EPs before the Here's to the Good Times came out. Did that help you find your footing in the studio?
Hubbard: Getting in the studio and letting Joey understand who we are and what we're going after was the key. He really captured the sound that we wanted, the sound that describes who we are. Just feel-good music. Songs that make you want to roll your windows down and drive fast. We wanted something that sounded huge, even on the slower songs.
Kelley: Our motto is, "Better is better," whether it's a word or a guitar note or a line. We've spent three or four days on one line, or two words, and it shows on the record.
"It'z Just What We Do" is one of a couple of songs on the album where you meld genres, sort of like Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Lil Wayne backed by country picking and themes. It would have been real easy to screw that up: If you get it wrong, it's a joke, but if you get it right, it's magic.
Hubbard: That's very well-said. That's where our heads are at. We write what we want to write. It's mixing all of it together. We've been really blessed that what we love to write is attractive to people right now. People are grasping onto it. It puts us in a slot to be able to get out of the box and step out of the country music boundaries a little bit, and hopefully innovate a little bit.
How do audiences respond to that song?
Hubbard: We come out to "It'z Just What We Do," start the shows and get 'em going. Then we go right into "Party People," keep the energy up, and the rest of the show, the crowd is truly insane. The energy is through the roof, which keeps our energy through the roof.
Content-wise, you're pretty fearless in touching on various risky behaviors-substances, romantic encounters-that mainstream country wouldn't have touched in the past. Does that concern you?
Hubbard: People are either gonna like it or not, and that's up to them. We decided that if we're real people and write from the heart, write from where we're at, that people are drawn to that. People can listen to this whole album and know who we are as people and where we are right now in our lives. We don't really worry about what people are gonna think. We just do what we love, and it seems to be working out.
Fans are responding, but there are people that criticize some of the imagery common on country radio today, like the trucks, the back roads. Do you care about that at all?
Kelley: Man, that's been around for years-dirt roads, beer, trucks and girls. That is country music, and I don't think that's ever gonna change.
You're headlining in New York in the fall. How do people there and in other urban markets respond to this kind of imagery?
Hubbard: You'd be really surprised. We've been up to Canada and all over the place, and some of the craziest rednecks I've ever met are not in the South or where you would think. Country music fans are all over the country and all over the world. Whether they drove their Mercedes or the pickup truck to the show, everybody seems to have a love for it.
What have you learned from your time spent in supporting slots on the road with artists like Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift?Kelley: There's a reason they're selling the tickets they are, winning the awards they are. We're out there taking notes, taking it all in, seeing how they're doing it. Every night is just a learning experience. They're great performers, and they've been nothing but amazing to us. We're pumped to be out on the road with 'em.
It feels like a real musical movement happening in this generation of country artists and fans. There is a lot of focus on EDM, folk-rock, pop and hip-hop, and to me this feels potentially bigger, and I'm not sure everybody gets it. Does this feel like some sort of movement to you?
Kelley: It felt like about 22,000 people were moving their hands last night to "Get Your Shine On." I think people are looking for something fresh and new. Our fans seems to spread the music like wildfire. That doesn't always happen, and it's special to us, and we're blessed to be a part of it. It's something really cool. It's an exciting time, and a time we both hope continues to grow.
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