Hovering over six feet tall, Kelley, 28, sits down, leans back and props his legs up on a small counter across the aisle as his duo partner, Tyler Hubbard, appears. Hubbard, 26, grabs a granola bar out of a makeshift kitchen cabinet and takes a seat. Just a couple of everyday guys, hanging out before taking the stage in Richmond in front of 6,000 screaming fans. Fifteen months ago, these dudes didn’t have a record deal. Now they’re shattering music records while taking Nashville by storm.
On Sunday, the 20,000-plus expected to gather at Merriweather Post Pavilion for the annual Sunday in the Country festival will see Kelley and Hubbard right before they graduate to the next level of stardom: their first national headlining tour, which kicks off Thursday. Fans will pack in to hear feel-good party songs from the duo’s platinum-selling debut album, “Here’s to the Good Times,” and especially the inescapable crossover smash “Cruise,” which recently spent 22 weeks at No. 1, making Billboard country chart history. As Florida Georgia Line keeps ascending, the duo is also being credited — or blamed, depending on whom you ask — for helping to change the sound of modern country music.
The band’s rise may seem rapid, but as everyone around them emphasizes, it’s the result of years of tough, behind-the-scenes work. Plus, it’s triumphant proof that doing things a little differently — even if you start outside of the Nashville star-making machine, which has a methodical process of transforming singers into superstars — can lead to success.
“It was a fast rise if you’re looking at it only from the perspective of when the mass audience started paying attention,” says Seth England, the duo’s manager. “I don’t mean that disrespectfully. That’s just when people first became aware of them.”
England laughs, “We call it the five-year overnight success.”
‘Hit the road’
Five years may not seem like a lot to the countless songwriters gutting it out in Music City waiting for a big break. However, these singers, who spent their early 20s building bathroom stalls and working for a mobile carwash to earn money between singing gigs, feel like they paid their dues.
“We did things a lot different than Nashville, typically,” Hubbard says. For those who can’t tell the towering, tattooed duo apart, he’s the one with long hair, clad in jeans, a tight black T-shirt and a giant silver belt buckle. “We went out looking for fans instead of running up and down Music Row trying to get a record deal. We just started going out and playing, not trying to worry about a big record deal or big money or anything like that.”