The banjo player has magenta highlights in his hair. The drummer is wearing sunglasses and a Motley Crue T-shirt. In the first song, there’s a bass drop: The sound briefly stops, and when it storms back in, a meter at the sound board spikes to 120 decibels.
Welcome to the 2014 version of country music.
“Motherf—in’ bucket list,” Tyler Hubbard, 27, of Florida Georgia Line shouts a few minutes earlier, raising a shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky backstage as the band gets ready to play its second night at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver, one of the world’s most beautiful venues. There’s a cake and candles for his fiancee, Hayley Stommel, on her 27th birthday. Tonight, FGL’s second full-length album, Anything Goes, is still four weeks away from its release on Oct. 14, but the duo — Hubbard and Brian Kelley, 29 — has had lots of victories to toast and Fireball shots to toss back.
The pair’s first full-length, Here’s to the Good Times, was the sixth-best-selling album of 2013 (topping Drake and Katy Perry, among others) and its momentum carried into 2014, when it was the 10th best-seller in the year’s first half, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The duo’s first four singles went to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, and the two that followed were No. 1 on Hot Country Songs. FGL’s signature, career-making hit, “Cruise,” holds two major distinctions: It’s the best-selling country digital song of all time, with sales surpassing 7 million, and it spent 24 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs (the longest reign in the history of the chart, a tally that dates to 1944), assisted by a remix that featured Nelly.
Lots of country artists have released party anthems; Florida Georgia Line built a career from them. For the last few years, Nashville has been ruled by “bro country,” a disdainful nickname for loud, rock- (and even rap-) influenced tracks about drinking, skinny-dipping, hot girls and trucks. These days, most of the daring and creativity in country comes from women: Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, plus Pistol Annies, a group comprising the latter three singer-songwriters. But it’s the bros who control the radio power and the ticket sales.
The most stinging criticism of Florida Georgia Line’s music isn’t that it’s not traditional, but that it’s redundant, and portrays Southern life as a series of drunk, horny Saturday nights. Recently, the thoughtful bloggers at CountryUniverse.com dismissed the title song of FGL’s new album as “a piece of trash so shamelessly awful” that it “barely qualifies as country music.” CountryUniverse is one of the sites leading a bro country backlash, but lots of people believe the style has grown predictable and boring. Even Scott Borchetta — president/CEO of FGL’s label, Big Machine — recently told NPR, “We can’t keep talking about Fireball and Coors Light and having the tailgate down.”
But Borchetta — who calls the band’s music “country/hip-hop” — says he was directing his comment at everyone except Florida Georgia Line. “Because Tyler and [Brian] own that. We don’t use the term ‘bro country,’ but they do it better than anyone.”
What’s striking about Anything Goes is how closely it duplicates FGL’s previous records. One example: It’z Just What We Do, FGL’s 2012 digital EP, had a song that rhymed “party” with “Bacardi,” Here’s to the Good Times had a song that rhymed “party” with “Bacardi,” and now Anything Goes has “Sun Daze,” a song that rhymes “party” with “Bacardi.” The lyrics rely heavily on mentions of beloved musical acts, from Bob Marley to Shania Twain, and a barrage of alcohol brand names. Of the 12 songs on Anything Goes, two mention Friday, and three mention Saturday. Four mention whiskey, three include beer brands, and 10 use the word “night.”
Still, they are innovative in their own way. The remix FGL did with Nelly isn’t the first time country and rap have paired up, as Jason Aldean and Ludacris or Taylor Swift and T-Pain could tell you. But with the help of a heavy-metal producer, FGL has taken current country trends — loud guitars, party lyrics, visual spectacles and a hip-hop influence — and turned the dial up to 11. With no qualms, the act represents a riddle that has hovered over Nashville for decades: How many non-country influences can a country artist incorporate before he or she is not country at all?
When Brian Kelley (“BK” to his friends) met him at Belmont University in Nashville in 2008, fellow student Hubbard was driving in his truck, “windows down, blowing diesel smoke, listening to Lil Wayne,” recalls Kelley. “And I was like, man, that’s how I grew up. Me and my friends rode trucks, listened to Garth Brooks, Alabama, Lil Wayne and Eminem.”
Though their childhoods were separated by 400 miles — Kelley in Ormond Beach, on the eastern shore of Florida, and Hubbard in Monroe, Ga., — they had similar upbringings: Both were Baptists, both loved to fish, and both listened to lots of music that didn’t come from Nashville.
“It’s a generational thing,” explains Hubbard. He’s the more intense of the two, with a biker-ish build and hair, and a tattoo of his dad, Roy (who owned a tree-cutting service and died in a helicopter crash when Tyler was a college sophomore) on his right forearm. He handles about 90 percent of the lead vocals, with an accent as thick as Brunswick stew. “In our generation, you can have a CD with six different genres of music on it. For us, it’s all one thing, and if we have shocked people with our music, it’s probably the older generation. Anybody that makes a mark or sets a new standard has a hard time at first, because people don’t understand it.”
“The definition of traditional changes every 10 years,” adds Kelley. He’s the more laid-back of the two, tall at 6-foot-4 and lean, with a “Music = Healing” tattoo on his right forearm. Last December, he married Brittney Marie Cole, a University of Georgia psychology student. “The Bakersfield Sound raised a lot of hell at first. Is Garth Brooks traditional? He wasn’t [at first].” Kelley scoffs at the idea that FGL isn’t rooted in country: “We don’t listen to Jetsons music.”
His historical argument is sound. “Mr. Brooks isn’t truly a country singer,” a New York Times writer declared in 1991, citing Brooks’ love of (and musical resemblance to) Dan Fogelberg and James Taylor. Drum kits were banned from the Grand Ole Opry well into the 1950s. Fiddles, pedal steel guitar and high harmonies were the essence of country until producers Chet Atkins and, later, Billy Sherrill, replaced them with lush strings and choirs. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings fought the Nashville establishment for years; now, they’re heralded as paragons of traditionalism. Country music, like the South, changes all the time. The Confederacy isn’t coming back, and neither is Hank Williams.
At least one part of the Florida Georgia Line tale is as Southern as you can get: church. It’s where Hubbard and Kelley both discovered their love of music and performing, during worship. Kelley was a baseball star in high school, a left-handed pitcher who was nearly unhittable, with a 7-1 record in his senior year. That earned him a scholarship to baseball powerhouse Florida State University — his teammates included future San Francisco Giants all-star Buster Posey. But Kelley never pitched at FSU, and after a year of community college, he transferred to Belmont. In 2009, his senior year, he had a lackluster 5.66 earned run average, and realized he would never make it to the major leagues. He had already begun writing songs, inspired by Christian rock band Casting Crowns, which started in Daytona, Fla.; played at Hubbard’s church in Ludville, Ga.; and went on to win a Grammy.
As a teenager, Hubbard had been in a feel-good hip-hop group, Ingenious Circuit (sample lyric: “Nice breasts, tight jeans, no dog/Let’s go talk to these girls”), and in college, he was playing guitar and performing his own songs. The two knew one another from campus worship, and one day Kelley “skipped baseball practice and lied, said I had a convocation to complete,” then went to see Hubbard play a showcase. “The first time we ever wrote together, we were finishing each other’s sentences. No record label, no one other than the man upstairs, can put something like that together.”
Around the time they were graduating, the two gathered at McDonald’s (Hubbard: “One of our favorite fast-food restaurants”) and decided to give themselves two years to make it as a duo. Hubbard had a car-detailing business, and Kelley did odd jobs, including putting up bathroom stalls at Opryland. On the weekend, they piled into Kelley’s Tahoe (which he says “smelled like whiskey most of the time”) and played nearby clubs, putting expenses on their personal credit cards, “showering” with baby wipes and sleeping six or seven to a hotel room. “We knew when it was time for a record deal, they would come running to us,” says Hubbard.
The first time producer Joey Moi saw the duo, it was playing a county fair, right after a mule show. “I’d never seen that before,” jokes Moi, who’s from Vancouver and spent many years co-producing Nickelback. Moi (pronounced “moy”) is a partner in Big Loud Shirt Industries with two guys who now co-manage Florida Georgia Line — Seth England and Kevin “Chief” Zaruk, Nickelback‘s longtime road manager — as well as three-time ASCAP songwriter of the year Craig Wiseman, who won a Grammy for Tim McGraw‘s huge hit “Live Like You Were Dying” and co-wrote the Nickelback song “Lullabye.”
Moi took Hubbard and Kelley into a studio and began to work — and work and work, and work some more — on a new song, “Cruise.” For years, the Nashville recording process remained the same: A producer brings an accomplished band into the studio, and it cuts a sharp version of a song that’s already in full demo form. It’s methodical and fast, with a typical pace of a song or two per day. That system didn’t make sense to Moi.
“I came from a world where we spend days in the studio, trying to make a song better,” he says. Which is what he did with “Cruise,” adding new sections and revising the words and structure to make it catchier and more explosive. “In my brain, the template is Def Leppard. Everything with them was a monster hook and a giant chorus.”
FGL released its digital EP It’z Just What We Do on Big Loud’s own label in May 2012, with “Cruise” as the lead song. “It was game on,” crows Hubbard. “As soon as you sell 100,000 copies of anything on iTunes, the labels want in on it.” Within two months, the act had signed a deal with Republic Nashville/Big Machine Label Group, where it works closely with Borchetta, a Nashville kingpin (and unabashed hair-metal fan).
When I suggest that Florida Georgia Line sounds like hard rock with banjos, Moi laughs. “I like that. You definitely hear an active-rock flavor from five or six years ago in their music — more aggressive guitar tones, a more aggressive drum presentation.” He cites three hard-rock bands as references for the FGL sound: Three Days Grace, Shinedown and Nickelback. There’s so much Nickelback in Florida Georgia Line, you may as well call it Nickelbanjo.
The success of Here’s to the Good Times was massive enough for Florida Georgia Line to quickly leave behind the cramped, stinky memories of touring in a Tahoe. Hubbard, Stommel and their dog Harley live in a 5,000-square-foot house with white columns on 12 acres in Cottontown, north of Nashville. Not far away, Kelley, his wife and their dog Smoke live on 32 wooded acres west of Nashville, with a two-story, modern-day treehouse — complete with a round bed, a recording studio, chandeliers and a musket mounted on the wall — built by Pete Nelson of the Animal Planet show Treehouse Masters.
As Stommel watches her fiance from the side of the stage, Hubbard asks the Denver crowd, “We got any weed smokers in the house tonight?” He’s introducing a new song, the ganja anthem “Sun Daze,” to 9,500 fans, some of whom came to see headliner Jason Aldean — FGL will start its own headlining tour in January — and all of whom are too busy partying to feel any objection to the repeated use of a small number of tropes in the raucous 50-minute set, which ends with “Cruise” and a bare-chested Hubbard onstage. This is who the members of Florida Georgia Line are, how they grew up and, unapologetically, what they like.
“I was waiting for a ‘Sun Daze’ question,” said Kelley to me earlier in the day. There was a small metal pipe on a counter in Hubbard’s tour bus, which smelled like weed, so the question was raised: Do you guys smoke?
“Yeah. Oh, yes,” said Hubbard, as Kelley laughed and a publicist tried to stop them. They both were inspired by church activities, loved Christian rock and more or less met in church. Country music has always balanced the sins of Saturday night with the penitence and reflection of Sunday morning, while rock’n’roll is all Saturday night, all the time. Pushing aside Nickelback and Nelly, that’s the most rock’n’roll thing about Florida Georgia Line. Says Hubbard, “We’re professional partiers.”