Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley is talking about how Nelly of all people helped the band become one of the most unlikely crossover groups in history.
“Nelly’s part was so expressive. It’s an A+ part. It could have been a B+. It just connected, man.”
When the country pop duo, composed of Kelley and fellow performer Tyler Hubbard, released “Cruise (Remix),” the maximal country/rap mashup of the first track of their second EP, it didn’t seem like the nation was about to be shook by an all-time record-breaker. But “Cruise (Remix)” – a 2013 country radio missile featuring the St. Louis rapper’s so-wrong-it’s-right contribution – was a runaway hit, the group’s first Billboard Hot Country Songs #1, one that also peaked at #4 on the Hot 100. (Additionally, it was the first country single ever to earn RIAA’s Diamond certification.) It was the beginning of Florida Georgia Line’s ascent toward their unlikely future as two of the music industry’s savviest minds.
In 2013, streaming was rapidly rising as music’s predominant listening format, and the notion of sustaining siloed musical genres felt like an increasingly snobbish concern. And above everything else, Florida Georgia Line is patently anti-snob – naturally, this posturing is one reason why the group’s success in proliferating the hotly debated sub-genre of “bro-country” has been analyzed often by critics.
But at the end of the day, Florida Georgia Line sticks to the story: they’re just two good ol’ boys, trading memories over some cold-as-hell brews. At the band’s best, their music is holding a conversation with any iHeartRadio pop 100 station, but on their terms; it’s made expressly for broad, major key moments, and their biggest songs paint with primary colours.
It’s like they say: It’s just what they do.
While a notable part of Florida Georgia Line’s mission statement has always been to interpret and incorporate millennial culture through the lens of Nashville pop radio (“Mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake,” “All I wanna do today is wear my favorite shades and get stoned), the group used “Cruise (Remix)” like a battering ram, going further and harder into the pop/country cross-section than dopey songs like Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here” had in the recent past. In one song, Florida Georgia Line had become the most successful pop crossover country since Shania Twain or Faith Hill – last year the group pulled in $27M, according to Forbes.
And they haven’t let that title drop. This February, Florida Georgia Line released their fourth album, Can’t Say I Ain’t Country, which – like their last three releases – instantly became a U.S. top five album. Even though sales returns have been generally disappointing compared to past efforts – middling reviews and a dogged loyalty to the sound that made them could be factors – Florida Georgia Line’s brand and narrative is a certified moneymaker in more lucrative business categories. At this point, the music is marketing, a story they’re telling over and over. To embark on a mid-career stylistic change, as many artists do at the four- or five-album mark, could be a perilous business decision.
Six years post-“Cruise (Remix),” the FGL landscape is entirely different. Their footprint is national. Hubbard still lives in Nashville with his family, while Kelley and his wife split their time between there and Florida.
“‘Cruise’ knocked down the door for us,” says Kelley – who FGL fans know best as BK – over the phone from Nashville, where he and Hubbard (T-Hubb) assembled in late January for the new album’s press tour. “It still brings us life, it brings us smiles. It's fun to relive. It could've all happened differently.”
While Nelly had dabbled in country sounds before (like the underrated Tim McGraw collab “All in My Head”), something about his presence alongside FGL communicated an intoxicating ease, a sweatless joy. It felt organic when it was anything but. This is how a lot of Florida Georgia Line songs work – they’re easy to listen to. They feature simple constructions and rarely wander over four minutes; as Dayna Evans wrote for Gawker in 2015, “They install themselves in your head, lower your heart rate, and serve as a pleasant reminder of The Good Times.” Now with dozens of hits on the relevant charts – including a truly cross-format whopper with singer Bebe Rexha called “Meant to Be,” more on that in a minute – it’s increasingly evident that the group doesn’t just make hits coincidentally. They understand hitmaking from a tactical, calculated level.
They’ve also taken those songs and used them to sow a variety of multi-platform business ventures. A staple of Florida Georgia Line’s early music is its reference to the cinnamon flavoured whiskey Fireball. Eventually the group decided that, instead of merely influencing fans and partygoers to buy someone else’s product – and be uncompensated for that brand’s increased visibility – they’d make their own line. So they cooked up the peach-and-pecan-flavoured whiskey Old Camp, bottled in Lawrenceburg, IN. It’s FGL’s version of going full Kylie Jenner – why take a promotional fee for a product when you could make your own product and hold that equity instead?
Old Camp’s name is a reference to the band’s “family on the road, traveling together from city to city, bringing the show and the party with them at every stop,” according to a press release from when it launched in 2016. And though the whiskey appears to be modestly successful, it’s distributed by Proximo Spirits, a group that also owns Jose Cuervo and Bushmills, so its reach is national, as well as in parts of Canada. The commercials, featuring Hubbard and Kelley (and in one case, a wolf), are set to their song “Smooth,” which compares a woman to a good drink: “Good lord almighty / Girl, you go down good.”
The group is also behind FGL House, a popular four-story Nashville bar and event space that opened in 2017 (the rooftop is called Cruise, and the whole place sells Old Camp). “We wanted to protect their brand with a quality place,” says Doug Field, the CMO of the TC Restaurant Group, which owns FGL House. Field asserts that FGL House is one of the most popular spots on bar-hopper-packed South Broadway – his group also owns the busy spots Tequila Cowboy and Sun Diner – and that fellow artist Jason Aldean saw enough success in FGL House that he started his own bar and kitchen, also operated by TC.
Field says BK and T-Hubb are “very engaged” in the business; rumours of a Florida expansion called FGL Boat House even swirled last summer. They’ve become big enough stars to serve as tent-poles for events, also: A one-day festival event called FGL Fest will return in September at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the day before the Big Machine Vodka 400, which is sponsored by their label (Powered by... who else? Florida Georgia Line, featuring Nelly).
But the crown jewel is Tree Vibez, the group’s publishing arm, led by well-respected industry veteran Leslie DiPiero. (It’s named after BK’s custom home studio, which is in a treehouse). In an industry where rights holders still control most of the power, Tree Vibez has churned out hit after hit since its founding in 2015.
“This is a Rocky Balboa crew over here,” says DiPiero, a 24-year industry vet who has worked all around the publishing business. “I don’t think you can say they’re the first artists to start their own publishing company,” she says. “But I’d say they’re the first to have this type of success.”
In the past year, Tree Vibez cast of songwriters were responsible for two country number ones: Jason Aldean’s “You Make it Easy” (co-written by Hubbard and Kelley) and Kane Brown’s “What Ifs,” written by staff songwriter Jordan Schmidt. Tree Vibez has outfitted a bus with a mobile studio, allowing for the company’s songwriters to travel with the artists they’re writing for on the road – a novel idea that allows for a creative immersion. So far, the bus has hosted over 90 songwriters.
“We’re walking around in their dream every day,” DiPiero says. Reflecting on Tree Vibez compared to other places she’s worked, she’s an FGL evangelist: “I did not know that I could be happier.”
“I think our publishing company is a little bit under the table,” Hubbard says. “It’s not a huge, marketed, publicised thing. Outside of Nashville, I don’t think many people know about it. It’s an opportunity for us to support writers and create opportunities for writers. The more opportunities that BK and I get to write in a studio we built or on a bus that we’re paying for and have it all in house is really fun. It was a no-brainer for us to do that.”
Speaking to Hubbard and Kelley in 2019 feels a little like talking to CEOs of a hot startup; as FGL has grown, the arrangement increasingly sounds like a business partnership instead of the personal one on which the band was formed. (Kelley and Hubbard first met as students at Nashville’s Belmont University, a popular educational choice for aspiring songwriters. Brad Paisley, Lee Ann Womack and Brandy Clark are alums).
Gone are the “bridge and tunnel club goer” outfits of the early ’10s (as brilliantly parodied on Kroll Show); they’ve been replaced by haute Western wear or, especially in BK’s case, an “I have a small place in Joshua Tree”-style athleisure aesthetic. Fittingly, Kelley and his wife Brittney run a clothing line called Tribe Kelley that they started in 2014; one outpost is located in the Tree Vibez compound. “I feel like a tribe represents a world family even though everyone in it may be so uniquely different, because that's what makes it special,” Brittney has explained of the brand’s name, an origin story not dissimilar to Old Camp’s.
“We used to live together in the same house, we used to drive everywhere in the same car, we used to sleep in the same bus,” Hubbard says of his relationship with Kelley. “So needless to say we were very close and we still are very close.”
“But now we don't do any of that,” he continues. “We've grown up a lot. We’ve got our own families. We've got our own dreams. We're running in opposite directions a lot of times, but it's cool – it’s healthy. We have a good relationship still and we still love writing songs, love playing shows, love doing the FGL thing.”
But “the FGL thing” now requires an increasing array of balance sheets and deep market research; Kelley and Hubbard evaluate potential opportunities like co-chairmen of a board, stewards of a brand they built and are now required to grow. It’s an image that’s counter to everything they’ve established about their ever-laid back, ever-daydreaming personalities as duo. But that’s what makes Florida Georgia Line, the industry, thrive.
“When it comes to brand – the look and feel – it's gotta fit in to the brand DNA of FGL,” Hubbard says. “It's gotta make sense for us and then it's also gotta make sense for the business.”
This process applies to the most public-facing aspect of it, as well – the music, which is uncomplicated by design. Can’t Say it Ain’t Country isn’t a grand re-invention of the band’s sound or story. Can’t Say it Ain’t Country’s 15 non-skit tracks are hook-heavy, radio-rotation heatseekers, loaded with broad platitudes (even in their titles, which include, yes, “Can’t Say I Ain’t Country,” as well as “Women” and “People Are Different”) that play to all sides of the political spectrum.
The songs are more weathered and less bombastic than the hits on their previous albums Anything Goes and Here’s to the Good Times, channelling more reflective perspectives – instead of living it up at the party, they’re reliving the party from places of security and comfort, with a tumbler of Old Camp in hand. The narrative playing out on the skit tracks – where a thirsty youth pastor named Father Jervel bends over backwards to ingratiate himself to the now-famous boys – might be the record’s most cutting social comment.
The streaming era is extremely well-suited for bands like Florida Georgia Line, as well as other Nashville artists whose fate is tied to a traditional format like country radio. Kelley and Hubbard often talk about their use of streaming data and how that informs the music they’re making, and they’re leaning into that process more and more as the businesses overlap.
“We have real fan base research that we can say, ‘Okay, this song's connecting. Maybe we should take this song to be our next single on radio.’” Hubbard says. “Before we were kind of shooting in the dark a little bit when it came to picking singles. We were just kinda picking the ones that we thought would connect and it worked. But now you got a little bit of insurance.”
“When it comes to brand – the look and feel – it's gotta fit in to the brand DNA of FGL."
“I'd also say, with the record label business, you can follow independent artists that are streaming,” Kelley explains. “You can sign them, release new music and use that research. You could do four, five songs at a time – it doesn't cost much to do four or five songs. It's a little bit different than old school radio research but its proven to be right.”
“It’s like you're building a house, you're building a record, you're building a clothing brand, you're building a denim line,” he continues. “It's your duty to be every step of the way have your hand in it. Otherwise you're not going to be happy with the product at the end of the day.”
He goes on: “It’s the same mentality with FGL. I mean we live with our songs for months and months and months before we release them. We're part of the writing process for a lot of the songs we cut and we're cutting vocals, you know, a lot. So we're part of the process and I just think that's very important.”
It’s difficult to imagine the same group who wrote and performed a silly line like “You can say that we come from monkeys / But you can’t say I ain’t country!” drilling down on data points and using Spotify interfaces to triangulate which broad sentiments connect or don’t. But this approach paid off in the making of “Meant to Be,” a song that peaked at #2 on the Hot 100. (A country song appearing in the top 3 in the modern era of the pop chart is incredibly rare; “Cruise (Remix)” made it to #4).
“As far the crossover stuff goes, I think the pinnacle of that for us so far has been ‘Meant to Be,’” Hubbard says of the track, which broke a Hot Country Songs record by remaining #1 for 50 weeks – with that streak, Florida Georgia Line also broke George Strait’s record for cumulative weeks at number one on that chart.
“We got to see a lot of the global impact that the song had for us and the demographics that we got to reach that we typically hadn't got to reach before. So that was a big check off the bucket list. It was inspirational and eye opening as well, to the importance of servicing the global market as well as our demographic here in the States.”
But the conversation about what is or isn’t country will likely never die, and FGL is building an empire out of that tension. They’re impossible to pin down politically as well – when the group banned armed officers from being backstage in 2016, the story escalated into portraying FGL as anti-law enforcement, an impression they quickly worked to squash. The music is at times plain, and covets corniness; but behind the down-to-earth personalities of Kelley and Hubbard is the hyperconsciousness of a corporation.
Florida Georgia Line can tell a good story – “Cruise (Remix)” built a pathway that modern country songwriters like Kane Brown or Maren Morris have followed to great crossover success with their own music. Acts like Post Malone – who channels the same “woke honky tonk” energy and whose beerbongs & bentleys was one of the most streamed albums of 2018—have made tons of money by making music packed with hooks for different listener demographics. And now they’ve got another record-breaking crossover single’s momentum to build from, a song that’s might as well be tossed into a think tank to dissect its appeal.
To watch Bebe Rexha’s video for “Meant to Be” is to see Florida Georgia Line’s appeal summarised visually. The video – which has been viewed 725M times – is dripping with the band’s flavour. A solo piano line smoothly blends into a beat that you could call “trap lite,” the sonic equivalent of installing an iPhone dock in a vintage Chevy. Bebe Rexha – who kick-started her career by writing on the Rihanna/Eminem hit “The Monster” – walks down the highway shoulder, toting two black trash bags of clothes. She struts in her sequinned boots, hitching rides until she comes across a diner in the middle of nowhere with a “help wanted” sign. And which good ol’ boys just so happen to be tearing up the open mic night (which everyone knows every diner has)?
Rexha hops up on stage with the boys, who appear as warm and welcome as she could ever hope them to be. The karaoke session spills over into the parking lot, and we cut to a live show some time later: Rexha’s own Star is Born moment, but with two badass Jackson Maines, minus all of that annoying narrative baggage.
“We picked the same mindset of, ‘better is better,’ Kelley says. “And you know, it doesn't matter whose idea it was to get us to the best product, to get us to the best outcome, the best situation. It's a group effort. We know where we set the bar on some things, so if we feel like it matches the bar of other businesses and things that we've done then, ‘Hey, let’s walk down that road and try that.’”
Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Kelley lives in Los Angeles.
Follow Corban on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.