Dazed & amused: Florida Georgia Line fire up Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza
There is no fiddle or steel to be heard when Florida Georgia Line hits the stage. There is, however, lots of electric guitar, rapping, a drum solo and some of the biggest hits in country music from the last three years.
Songs like “Sun Daze,” which hit No. 1 on the country airplay chart in February, the current top 10 single “Sippin’ On Fire,” “Dirt,” “Round Here” and “Shine,” the duo’s breakthrough smash, have propelled Florida Georgia Line to country’s pinnacle. The duo has sold more than 2.5 million copies of its two albums (2012’s “Here’s to the Good Times” and 2014’s “Anything Goes”) and 21 million digital tracks, has been named CMT Artists of the Year two years running and is now packing arenas on its first worldwide headlining tour.
“Since 2012, we’ve caught a massive wave,” said Brian Kelley in a recent phone interview. “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.
“That’s what it’s about, connecting with everybody,” Kelley said. “It’s hard to put a label on it. People like to shout it down. But we’re having a great time, going out and connecting with people. We don’t worry about any of that. Call it what you want. We like what we do.”
What Florida Georgia Line does is fold some rock and hip-hop into its rocking country, with Kelley and partner Tyler Hubbard swapping vocals on songs they, unlike a lot of country stars, 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.”
So, does Kelley think the duo’s music is changing country?
“We never set out to do that,” he said. “But I think it’s definitely happening. It’s a product of influences coming together to create a new sound. You know what, my favorite thing to hear is when somebody tells me, ‘I never liked country music until I heard you guys. Now I can’t get your CD out of my player, or Justin Moore or Miranda Lambert or Thomas Rhett.”
Rhett, not coincidentally, is the main support act for Florida Georgia Line on its “Anything Goes” tour that runs through most of 2015.
“It is a hot ticket; a lot of people are showing up,” Kelley said. “If you’ve ever seen us, know that it’s hotter, it’s brighter, it’s bigger and more intense … You know, it’s like these new songs have given Florida Georgia Line a new life. It’s go-time, party time.”
Kelley is right about the show being, hotter, brighter and bigger. The duo and band use a giant stage with a runway that extends out onto the arena floor. Laser lights and video screens crank up the visuals. And the show is loud — so loud that Hubbard told the audience at a recent show that they’d probably wake up with ringing ears the next morning. The live shows are also a lucrative good time. “Forbes” magazine estimates the duo has earned $24 million last year, much of it from touring.
Kelley and Hubbard realize that the party could end as quickly as it began if they ever lose the key element to their success.
“We know the songs are what’s going to keep us going, and you’ve got to stay open to the creative process,” Kelley said. “You’ve got to have your iPhone out and write down lyrics or get a voice memo and sing a piece of the song when it comes up.
“You’ve got to be ready when the song comes, when a line comes,” he said. “This is the truth: I was sitting on the toilet, and this line came to me: ‘All I wanna do today is wear my favorite shades and get stoned.’ Now it’s all over the place.”
That line’s the first stanza of the chorus of “Sun Daze.” So has there been any blowback from the conservative elements of the country audience to the weed reference?
“We recorded two versions of that song,” Kelley said. “They can listen to the other one if they don’t like that one.”
Kelley, 29, never would have imagined he’d be wrangling with cutting pot references out of a song a decade ago. Then he was a star high school pitcher who’d earned a scholarship to Florida State and had visions of throwing in the major leagues.
“That dream kind of ended for me when I didn’t get drafted,” he said. “But I was already thinking I should write songs. 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 Nashville’s Belmont University, where a friend from a music composition class introduced him to Hubbard.
“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.
“By November, in those same places, people were packed in there,” Kelley said. “It was interesting. We were just playing our songs out, and people were coming and videoing it and putting it on our Facebook page. It was really going, catching on. We thought, ‘We’d better get a name.’ One day in the hallway, Florida Georgia Line came up. It’s where we’re from — meet in the middle.”
In 2010, the duo met Nickelback producer Moi, who encouraged them to rewrite and polish their songs until they were right — a process that doesn’t usually take place in Nashville. 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. Then their wave came in. The biggest challenge on the way to the top, Kelley said, was surviving the early days on the road.
“I always thought, ‘Once we get on the bus, we’re good,’” Kelley said. “When we were in the stinky van, we weren’t getting any sleep, we couldn’t talk, our voices would be shot. Once we were on the bus, it was all go.”
For the last two years, it’s been go, go, go for Florida Georgia Line, and Kelley quickly confesses to embracing a cliche to describe it. “I say it every day — it is a dream come true,” he said. “It’s crazy it happened to us, the things we’ve seen and done. It is a dream come true, 100 percent.”