The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida Georgia Line could have been a one-hit wonder. Instead, they built an empire.

Tyler Hubbard, left, and Brian Kelley of country duo Florida Georgia Line, which took the industry by surprise in 2012 with a hit debut single, “Cruise.” (Ryan Smith)

Florida Georgia Line has experienced a lot of surreal moments in the six years since the release of “Cruise,” the duo’s debut single that shattered records and helped upend the country music industry. But last summer stood out, as they headlined three sold-out stadium shows with the Backstreet Boys. Who opened for them.

“It was crazy,” said Brian Kelley, 33, sitting backstage with duo partner Tyler Hubbard, 31, before a recent concert in Maryland. He still can’t get over the fan reaction. “Crazy at the stadium shows to hear them singing ‘I Want It That Way.’ And then they’re singing ‘Cruise.’ ”

At the end of each show, the two acts combined for a finale that included fellow opener Nelly singing “Hot in Herre,” followed by an FGL and BSB collaboration of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “Cruise,” complete with fireworks. It’s unclear whether, back in 2012 as a fledgling duo a few years out of college, they envisioned one day touring with a ’90s boy-band supergroup. But a lot of things have turned out differently for Florida Georgia Line than many could have imagined.

It would have been easy for FGL to be a one-hit wonder. Yet, they used the momentum from “Cruise,” one of the most-downloaded country songs in history, and kept going, releasing 14 more songs that went to No. 1. “Simple,” the first single off their upcoming fourth album, is currently in the Top 5 at country radio, and looks primed to hit the top of the chart shortly. “Meant to Be,” their summer collaboration with pop star Bebe Rexha, broke the record for the longest No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, just passing the 42-week mark.

Inside country music’s complex — and increasingly lucrative — love affair with alcohol

They are also laser-focused on the business side. Although some acts claim to ignore the music charts, FGL’s team studies trends (“It’s kind of our obsession,” their manager Seth England said) to learn from the success of their competitors. Hubbard and Kelley have also started to build an empire, leading to their own publishing company, Tree Vibez Music; a popular bar in downtown Nashville, FGL House; an event space called meet+greet; their own whiskey, Old Camp, which they name-drop in songs; and Kelley and his wife’s clothing line, Tribe Kelley. In December, they’ll start a five-date residency in Las Vegas.

At the same time, they always want to prove themselves in a genre that loves tradition and is generally wary of change. Nashville accepted long ago that listeners crave the blend of county, rock and pop that FGL pioneered, which resulted in their explosion out of the gate. But the duo is well aware that some are disappointed in the direction in which they helped take mainstream country music — a couple of years ago, the industry Vocal Duo of the Year awards started going to Brothers Osborne.

FGL has quieted a few critics over time, however, especially with more serious songs about appreciating life, such as “Dirt,” “May We All” and “God, Your Mama and Me,” featuring the Backstreet Boys.

“If they ever had any criticism, it might have been from people who assumed they never had those sides. But they intentionally did it that way,” England said, of the duo launching their career on anthemic party songs that would fuel a live show. “People grow over time. It’s been six, seven years, which is still a short amount of time – but over a career you have time to try out all the things you’re interested in.

“Maybe if they had tried to be well-rounded in that way, it might have been different,” he added. But they wouldn’t change it, you know?”

It’s rare enough for a new country artist to debut with a smash single, but it’s another thing to start a new subgenre – that’s what Florida Georgia Line accomplished with “Cruise,” somewhat inadvertently. With the guidance of Nickelback producer Joey Moi, they tapped into the contemporary sound that was an immediate hit with younger listeners, and were tagged as the forefathers of “bro country.” Music critic Jody Rosen coined the phrase as “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.”

Many songs that listeners hear on contemporary country radio can be traced back to FGL’s influence. The sound, which connected with young listeners, inspired many up-and-coming singer-songwriters who also yearned to combine country with rock-and-roll.

“They definitely influenced me,” said songwriter Michael Hardy, a co-writer on “Simple” who remembers listening to FGL’s early songs in college. “It was so, so different and so original and something very fresh. . . . I think everybody else was like, ‘This is what we need to do, this is the new sound.’ ”

Earlier this year, FGL surprised some listeners when it released “Simple,” which boasts a Mumford & Sons instrumental vibe and lyrics wistful for the days before technology took over. Hubbard and Kelley are careful to say they’re not going in a new direction — it’s just an extension of who they are.

“Sonically, I think we always kind of go left, we always kind of go right, and then there are some directed straight toward country radio,” Kelley said. “We just want to make records that are fun, that feel good, that mean something.”

When England first developed them as an act, they were primarily songwriters who hoped to write for other artists; the band was their side project. So it’s fitting that they started a publishing company, Tree Vibez Music, a few years after the band’s debut with writers including Corey Crowder, Jordan Schmidt and RaeLynn.

Now, they relied on the Tree Vibez bus, a virtual mobile studio that tags along with them on tour dates. Starting at 11 a.m., there are multiple songwriting sessions going on – writers on the bus have churned out some massive hits, such as Jason Aldean’s “You Make It Easy,” written by Hubbard, Kelley, Morgan Wallen and Jordan Schmidt.

“We just look for writers that are kind of like us in a way — they like to be creative and work hard and push themselves. Kind of have the same vision,” Hubbard said. “They can push us and make us better songwriters. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

One of their biggest wins this year was with Bebe Rexha in Los Angeles, when the pop singer showed up for a co-write session and initially confused them with Little Big Town. But that’s where “Meant to Be” was born, and, as the Ringer put it, “broke the country charts.” The duet is on Rexha’s album, but once FGL made it a single, as well, it qualified for Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, which measures sales, streaming and radio play. In August, it easily flew past the previous longest streak at No. 1 (Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” 34 weeks) and appears glued to the top of the chart.

The extreme success took everyone by surprise; so far, the triple-platinum single has been streamed more than 528 million times on Spotify. England calls it “eye opening,” as the song took off globally and inspired FGL to look for other collaborators in territories that aren’t yet familiar with the country duo.

“We’re looking for other opportunities, but more than anything, it starts with a great song,” England said. “You can’t fabricate that.”

These days, it’s unusual for Nashville’s mainstream stars to voice any thoughts about the polarizing political climate. So it was surprising in January, when Hubbard posted a screen shot to Instagram that included President Trump’s tweet storm about how he was a “very stable genius.” It was about two weeks after his wife, Hayley, gave birth to a girl.

“Anybody got any good advice on explaining to your child the state of our country in which she was born into? #scary #sad #needingprayer,” Hubbard wrote in the caption. As divisive comments started to stream in, he deleted the post, but not before it was picked up by country music websites.

“I guess as I was about to have a daughter in my life, I was just thinking, ‘What’s it going to be like, raising a kid in this day and age?’” Hubbard recalled recently. “It’s amazing to live in this generation . . . but it’s also scary. And you gotta teach your kids different things than what my parents taught me.”

Although the duo may have started singing about their college glory days, this grown-up version of FGL is always thinking about the future, personally and professionally. Kelley is also married; he and his wife, Brittney, split their time between Nashville and Florida.

While FGL plots out their musical path (the duo’s fourth album is due in February, with collaborations including Aldean and Jason Derulo), they are cognizant that it’s important to build roots in the city that launched them to superstardom. FGL House, with four floors and a rooftop deck that overlooks downtown, is filled with pictures of the duo, and reminds Nashville that they’re not going anywhere.

“We dreamed of having a bar or restaurant, just a place we could bring all our friends together and throw parties and continue it on a bigger level,” Hubbard said. “And to give back to Nashville, a city that’s given us so much.”

Read more:

Inside country music’s complex — and increasingly lucrative — love affair with alcohol.