No matter how you feel about Florida Georgia Line's music, you have to admire their audacity. This is particularly true if you see them live, at an arena like Newark's Prudential Center, where they played when their ongoing Dig Your Roots Tour came to greater New Yorker earlier in the year. The lights went down. "My House" by Flo Rida began to play. Then a curtain dropped and, while an 18-wheeler charged toward the audience on a screen behind the stage, the country duo hung suspended on platforms above the crowd. For a moment, it felt like Kanye's Pablo tour, only double, and even from the floor, the singers looked thrilled—so in love with spectacle and excess that they risked the comparison to those old Adidas knock-offs that used to add a fourth stripe.
By the time they landed, they were backed not just by electric guitars but the kind of pyro that would have been been too risky even a few years ago, when the band was still in their hair-gel phase. Here, they looked almost like adults. Tyler Hubbard, who's from Georgia and used to have long hair, wore a backwards snapback and a guitar strap that read, in earnest, "THUBB." Brian Kelley, who's from Florida and has recently grown long hair, wore a hat with a feather in its brim and played a guitar that appeared, from where I was sitting, to have Japanese characters on the strap.
They opened, appropriately, with "This Is How We Roll," and a little less than two hours later, they ended with "Cruise," a phantasmagoric swirl of country, rock and hip-hop, swimming holes, girls and the radio at high volume, that first released five years ago this past month. It's a song that checks just about every box required for radio hit—there's also a truck, a backroad, some whiskey and a summer sunset—then lets loose scribbling checks where the boxes have yet to be defined. Here, let's watch the video for "Cruise" together:
Country artists had spent much of the 2000s attempting to portray small-town life as either meaningful (Brad Paisley) or valiant (Toby Keith). With "Cruise," Florida Georgia Line made it seem exciting—and not just exciting but cutting edge. Small towns can feel like places where nothing ever happens, but "Cruise" portrayed the small town as a place where everything was happening at once, the rush of summer love doubled by the rush of the music itself, two guys knowingly, enthusiastically, making a song that wouldn't have been possible at any previous point in the history of their genre.
Morrissey once said that he prefers old country songs like Tammy Wynette's "Till I Get It Right" because they "hark back to an era when songs had to be 'about something' or say something, whereas now modern radio is radioactive seepage or idiot laughter." One imagines Kelley and Hubbard reading this and deciding to the raise the stakes on old Moz. Radioactive seepage, yes more of that! In April of 2013, a year after the original release, FGL outdid themselves with a "Cruise" remix that added buzzing synth, extra Auto-Tune and a new verse from Nelly. Here, let's watch the video for the remix of "Cruise" featuring Nelly together:
Both songs were unprecedented hits. In December of 2012, "Cruise" number one had surpassed Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Getting Back Together" to reach Number One on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. It remained there for five of the next six weeks, then returned the week of April 20, 2013, when the remix added to its tally. The songs remained at Number One through almost all of summer vacation, its 24 weeks at the top a new record for country songs.
The tastes of country fans proved radically different from those of the former Smiths frontman. The tastes of music critics, on the other hand, aligned slightly closer. Several publications, both inside and outside of Nashville, described the band's success the death knell of country music. For The New Yorker, the lyrics of "Cruise" were "ass-backwards" though, with condescension typical of country criticism, "perhaps accidentally progressive." Most notoriously, the song was the subject of the article that coined the term "bro-country," a pejorative which referred to rap and rock-influenced party songs made by male artists.
Five years later, Nashville still doesn't know what to do with bro-country—or with Florida Georgia Line. It's still not clear where "Cruise" stands, or where we stand in relation to it. Has country music moved past "Cruise," into an era of greater conscience, greater artistry, as the song's critics would like to believe? Or is "Cruise" still ahead—does the rest of country still lag behind its messy, joyous experimentation? Every time I hear "Cruise" on the radio, I'm more convinced of the latter. Artists like Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett have ironed the creases out of Florida Georgia Line's rough fusion, drawing boxes around their errant checks, yet it's Florida Georgia Line I find myself returning to.
So, a more manageable question, what about Florida Georgia Line themselves? Have they found a way past "Cruise"? Or do they remain in its shadow, watching the darkness grow as the sun sets behind them?
In theory, Florida Georgia Line could have scored four or five more hits on the momentum of "Cruise" alone. This is what Billy Rae Cyrus did as he slowly faded out in the two years after "Achy Breaky Heart." Florida Georgia Line, on the other hand, moved forward with a remarkable string of hits, following "Cruise" with 11 straight Top Tens, all but one of which reached Number One on either the Hot Country or Country Airplay charts. Just as "Cruise" became the biggest country song of 2013, "This How We Roll," a collaboration with Luke Bryan, topped the year-end chart 12 months later.
The group's breakthrough wasn't just sonic. Their success created a new identity: the country fuccboi, clad in jewelry, tight tees, and aviator shades—the look that happens when people who aren't stylish decide that it's finally time to try. Their jeans said it all: They wore them ripped, of course, but they didn't even put up pretense that said jeans were ripped naturally in the course of manual labor or agricultural work. Goodbye diesel-powered thresher, hello Diesel factory story.
Their drink of choice, meanwhile, was not Schlitz, "Colorado Kool-Aid," or Blue Ribbon beer, but Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. "Round Here," the second single after "Cruise," depicts the optimism of early Saturday evening—the thrill of the pre-game followed by the rare party that's as fun as anticipating it. But the song's chorus, filled with internal rhyme and alliteration, is best remembered for the part where they announce their drink, singing in nasal harmony, "That Fireball Whisky whispers/temptation in my ear." Two years later, "Sippin' on Fire," the duo's eighth chart-topper, invoked both the taste of the drink and the danger young lovers feel as they dance toward a relationship: One was clearly a metaphor for the other, but I've never been able to tell which is which.
These songs, like many other so-called bro country songs, circle through a single moment, lingering details like setting, clothing and the movement of women's hair rather than moving forward in narrative. Compare "Round Here" to tracks like Toby Keith's "Stays in Mexico," a party song in which the verses move forward until the bridge loops back to the beginning, or Tracy Lawrence's "Time Marches On," from 1996, which is flat and methodical and it plods through an entire life. And yet when the song ends, so does the fantasy. In real life, not all nights ends with sing-alongs in truck beds. Sometimes there are break-ups. Last August, it felt as though the band had lost a third member, their Zayn, when they announced that they were giving up Fireball to promote their own line of peach-pecan whiskey. Peach for Georgia, pecan for Florida. Despite my usually thorough research practices, I have avoided sampling this substance and thus cannot offer any further comment on it.
The new whiskey is important, however, because it began the process of rebranding that culminated with their third LP, Dig Your Roots, which was released last August. Like their first two records, Here's to the Good Times and Anything Goes, Dig Your Roots is a mess, but a mess that might improve if thrown further into disarray. There's a reggae song that features Ziggy Marley, a ballad with the Backstreet Boys, and handful of country slow jams with the kind of spacious snare programming found by typing "Drake Type Beat" into the YouTube search bar. (The producer, Joey Moi, broke into the music business as a producer for Nickelback. Yet two years ago, when I requested to interview Moi for a story about Nickelback's lasting influence on country music, he—like everyone else I reached out to—declined to comment.)
Florida Georgia Line had first signaled their desire to be taken seriously, to explore their roots, with a song literally called "Dirt." The song, the lead single off Anything Goes, does indeed explore all the different ways that dirt figures into our lives—even our way of life. Houses, football fields, "the mud on her jeans that she peeled off and hung up." With "H.O.L.Y.," Dig Your Roots' lead single, the duo follow a similar path. This time, they offer a piano ballad in which the title is revealed to be an acronym of "high on loving you." It's hard to think of a lamer way to prove you've listened to Wu-Tang, yet the song works regardless. In Newark, they played "H.O.L.Y" while seated on opposite sides of a campfire. When they played Dig Your Roots' title track, they turned the stage into a Tim Burton set with giant inflatable trees. Even when they try to go simple, they still go big.
Yet as much as they celebrate small towns, Kelley and Hubbard seem intuitively aware of the bored desperation that these places can foster. This desperation usually appears in the negative—the dreadful status quo that the excitement, the sonic innovation and even the bad style are all meant to overcome. But sometimes it does enter the frame, as Luke Bryan described his weekly routine in the "This Is How We Roll" bridge: "We cuss on them Mondays/Pray on them Sundays/Pass it around and we dream about one day."
On Dig Your Roots, one day has arrived without warning, and the question now is how to settle without settling. They try to answer this—or at least reckon with it—on single two, "May We All." Structurally, the song follows the same formula as "Cruise," "This Is How We Roll" and just about every FGL song before it, eschewing narrative for a romantic sort of list poetry. It even repeats the best of all bro-country tropes, describing a playlist that includes one country singer and one rapper. From the chorus: "The sound of a quarter rollin' down a jukebox/Play the Travis Tritt right above the 2Pac."
But it also reveals a shift in perspective. The narrators, no longer dreaming of escape, are instead trying to figure out how to make a life in "the kind of place you can't wait to leave and nobody does." The line fits the melancholy mood of the entire track. Many country songs figure small towns as relics from a more wholesome past, or reserves against the excesses of contemporary—urban—life. These songs always seem very sure of themselves.
That confidence is lost in "May We All." Because each verse and chorus begins with the title phrase, the song's small-town fantasies become totally hypothetical, conditional. Yet neither Kelley or Hubbard—nor Tim McGraw, who comes by for the bridge—are able to name the condition that will make the fantasy become real. Nor can they admit that there is no condition—that the fantasy is, and always has been, exactly that. Thus the song wavers, unsure if it's marking a past that never fully arrived or a future that seems less possible each day. A celebration quietly slips into requiem.
It remains to be asked why this roots turn was necessary in the first place. This requires a return to "Cruise"—to the fuccboi days, in other words, and to the debate around bro-country. The standard narrative pegged bro-country as an industry problem: Radio and the major Nashville labels, working in concert, pushed artists like FGL and Luke Bryan onto the airwaves while blocking anyone who tried to challenge their backwards-cap hegemony. There may have been some truth to this, at least initially. Over time, though, the emphasis on Nashville scheming blinded these critics to changes that were happening within Nashville itself, where many people were quickly tiring of the new trend.
This was true even at the top. In an interview from the summer of 2015, the songwriter Michael Dulaney told me that his publishing company had recently sent an email forbidding its employees from submitting songs about trucks, whiskey, or rivers. "The radio is saying, 'We can't play any more of this,' and the labels are saying, 'Don't pitch any more,'" he said, referring specifically to tracks that could be categorized as bro-country. "But I keep hearing [those songs] on the radio and I keep seeing the labels cut them, so I don't know when the line they draw is going to stand."
The line never stood. In its place, a slow shift: The Country Airplay chart is typically more diverse than it was two years ago, featuring new female voices like Kelsea Ballerini, twangy throwbacks like Jon Pardi's "Head Over Boots," and pure pop along the lines of Thomas Rhett's new "Craving You."
For some, this shift would have been cleaner if it left Florida Georgia Line back in 2014. Yet back then, the group's shamelessness made them an obvious target, even an embarrassment. This has been particularly true among country journalists, who have too often internalized rockist criticisms of country music and redirected them at artists like Florida Georgia Line. These writers and industry boosters are on the constant look-out for a respectable form of country music, something they can point to when outsiders claim that contemporary country is radioactive seepage—one reason why Nashville Scene's annual "Country Music Critics Poll" tends to dominated by indie artists and old-timers.
At the 2016 CMA awards, the FGL resentment became palpable when Brothers Osborne, an excellent young duo who cut their teeth in East Nashville's hipper venues, upset Florida Georgia Line to win Vocal Duo of the Year. Backstage, the announcement was followed by some of the biggest cheers of the night, and when Brothers Osborne reached the pressroom they were showered with giddy questions as to whether their victory indicated a change in country music.
Hence Dig Your Roots. Middlebrow Nashville was demanding reflexive-ness, or at least the performance of reflexive-ness, and Florida Georgia Line had little choice but to oblige, lest they become fixed to bro-country the way Billy Ray Cyrus remains fixed to line dancing. Nashville never fully appreciated them as fuccbois, so they were forced to become fuccmen.
Almost all country albums are all disjointed, but sometimes, the disjointedness tells a story of its own: Songs about falling in love sit next to songs that make you never want to swipe right again. Songs about how great life is sit unreconciled next to songs about life's tragedy. Dig Your Roots eliminates most of the tragedy songs. Kelley and Hubbard have come to the conclusion that growing old can be just as exciting as passing around Fireball on a Saturday night. I find it hard not to be a little moved by this. I can attribute this weakness to my own place on the fuccboi-to-fuccman continuum, or perhaps the long-term cognitive impact of my own occasional mostly-unironic fireball consumption, but maybe it's simpler to just admit that Florida Georgia Line have recorded a really good third album—an album that few people expected them to pull off, myself included.
This became even clearer at the show in Newark. At one point, a friend, not even a big Florida Georgia Line fan, turned to me and asked if this is must have been what seeing the Everly Brothers was like. Perhaps, but it's hard to imagine the Everly Brothers pulling of a medley that cut between Nelly's "Ride," Toby Keith's "Should've Been a Cowboy," Papa Roach's "Last Resort," "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," and "This is How We Do It."
For about two hours, they tried to figure out how to the old stuff fit in with the new. Songs like "God, Your Mama and Me" found common ground between country music and the Backstreet Boys the way "Cruise" had one found common ground between country music and Nelly. Meanwhile, a series of videos incorporated Kelley and Hubbard's wives to an almost uncomfortable degree. But this was bro-country in a redemptive sense: two singers telling a story about how friendship endures even as it changes, as it's complicated by families and work and things that happen when you grow old. They had turned their own relationship into a country song—one with the sort of nuance and sophistication that critics claim the duo is incapable of.
There's a part in "May We All" where both singers agree that "Nothin ain't cool 'til you wear the new off." Not the most original idea, but when they sang it onstage the line became more than an appreciation of, like, dirty old boots. It was a way of saying that they're sticking around. They may not know what settling into life is going to entail, but they have enthusiasm simply for the process.
Nick Murray just was given a won't-start-hand-me-down Ford he's trying to fix up. Follow him on Twitter.