Music News & Reviews

Florida Georgia Line erases borders of country genre

Brian Kelley, left, and Tyler Hubbard are Florida Georgia Line, which blends rock and rap into their brand of country.
Brian Kelley, left, and Tyler Hubbard are Florida Georgia Line, which blends rock and rap into their brand of country.

There is no fiddle or steel to be heard when Florida Georgia Line hits the stage. There is, however, a lot of electric guitar, rapping, a drum solo and some of the biggest hits in country music over the last three years.

Songs like “Sun Daze,” which hit No. 1 on the country airplay chart in February, the recent Top 5 single “Sippin’ on Fire,” “Dirt,” “Round Here” and “Shine,” the duo’s breakthrough smash, have propelled Florida Georgia Line to country’s pinnacle.

The musicians have sold more than 2.5 million copies of their two albums (2012’s “Here’s to the Good Times” and 2014’s “Anything Goes”) and 21 million digital tracks, have been named CMT Artists of the Year two years running and are now packing arenas on their first worldwide headlining tour. The group is booked to play Saturday at the Toyota Amphitheatre.

“Since 2012, we’ve caught a massive wave,” said Brian Kelley, the Florida half of the two-state duo. “People have gravitated to our music.” That music has been tagged “bro country,” a sound that’s been derisively dismissed for its far-from-traditional hybrid sound and narrow lyrical focus about back roads, trucks, tailgates, girls and drinking.

Those detractors may not like it. But thousands of others do – and that’s what’s important to Kelley.

“It’s hard to put a label on it,” Kelley said in a recent phone interview. “We don’t worry about any of that. Call it what you want. We like what we do.”

Florida Georgia Line folds rock and hip-hop into its rocking country, with Kelley and partner Tyler Hubbard swapping vocals on songs they wrote.

“We always just had our own sound; we call it the Florida Georgia Line sound,” Kelley said. “There’s nothing calculated about it. We started writing songs together, and that sound developed. Then we met up with (producer) Joey Moi, who helped us with that sound. We took all our influences, put them in the mix and let the music happen naturally.”

Kelley, 29, didn’t start out dreaming of playing arenas and selling millions of albums. A star high school pitcher, he earned a scholarship to Florida State and had visions of the major leagues, but those dreams ended when he wasn’t drafted.

“I was already thinking I should write songs,” he continued. “I couldn’t sit in class without writing down a song or an idea, same thing when I was out shagging balls in left field.”

So Kelley transferred to Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., where a friend from a music composition class introduced him to Hubbard, who hails from Monroe, Ga.

“It was immediate,” Kelley said of bonding with Hubbard. “We became best friends, moved in together, started writing songs, drinking together, playing together. We figured out together we were better than on our own.”

The duo started playing Nashville’s ubiquitous songwriter shows in the late summer/early fall of 2009 and almost instantly developed a following, playing to hundreds rather than a couple of dozen in just a few months.

In 2010 Nickelback producer Moi encouraged them to rewrite and polish their songs. With Moi in charge, they put together the band’s second EP, an independently released effort that contained a little song called “Cruise.”

When “Cruise,” now the best-selling digital country single ever, caught on, Florida Georgia Line signed with Republic Nashville, part of the Big Machine label group, whose roster includes Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, The Band Perry and Rascal Flatts.

For the last two years, it’s been go, go, go, and Kelley quickly confesses to embracing a cliché to describe it.

“It is a dream come true, 100 percent.”

Florida Georgia Line

What: The “Anything Goes Tour,” Frankie Ballard opens

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Toyota Amphitheatre, 2677 Forty Mile Road, Wheatland

Cost: $44-$82