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Florida Georgia Line helped change country music. What do they say to people who wish they didn’t?

Brian Kelley, left, and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line perform on an outdoor stage during the CMT Music Awards on Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Mark Zaleski/Invision/AP)

It’s a pretty excellent time to be Florida Georgia Line — with a string of platinum-selling songs, No. 1 radio singles and award show trophies, the duo is currently one of the top acts in country music.

Then again, it couldn’t be a more contentious time to be Florida Georgia Line. Country music is embroiled in an identity struggle of sorts. This is nothing new for Nashville, but the debate has reached a particularly sharp fever pitch in the age of social media. And Florida Georgia Line — who helped change the sound of modern country music by successfully fusing hip-hop and rap into their songs, which often extol the “bro-country” virtues of partying, drinking and girls in bikinis — is frequently caught in the crossfire.

Ever since “bro-country” started to dominate the genre, the FGL duo (Brian Kelley, 29, of Florida and Tyler Hubbard, 28, of Georgia) often find themselves the subject of criticism and defending their music, which they say a) stays true to who they are and b) is a lot deeper than people give them credit for. After all, the tired argument about what truly constitutes country music goes back decades to the days of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

[‘Cruise’: Behind the making of Florida Georgia Line’s mega-hit]

“There’s a big magnifying glass on country music and there always has been…there’s so many different sub-brands and sub-genres,” said Kelley, speaking by phone several days before the duo headlines a concert at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow on Saturday night. “And to me, that’s what makes it so special. I think we should celebrate that. I don’t know why everybody’s freaking out.”

“And to me, the whole freak-out is over with. I think it’s only people in the media or people that aren’t really in the loop asking about it still, I don’t think anybody cares,” he continues with a laugh. “The fans aren’t showing up saying ‘This is bro country.’ They’re getting drunk and partying and singing.”

While traditional country fans may disagree (there’s also evidence that the country audience is craving a new sound), take one look around a Florida Georgia Line concert and you’ll see Kelley’s right. The duo had a quick rise to arena headliner status, at least by Nashville standards. After meeting as students at Belmont University and eventually gaining a following through gigs around town, Kelley and Hubbard rocketed to fame with their 2012 smash “Cruise,” which, thanks to a Nelly remix, went on to become the best-selling digital country song in history.

Other hits followed, including “Round Here,” “Stay” and “This is How We Roll,” a rocker featuring superstar Luke Bryan. Then their second album debuted with the single “Dirt,” a slow, thoughtful tune about the passage of time that impressed critics. Not so much with the next track, “Sun Daze,” a party anthem boasting lyrics including “Throw a 20 on a cornhole game/If I’m lucky, yeah I might get laid” and “All I wanna do today is wear my favorite shades and get stoned.”

The bluntly sexual nature raised some eyebrows, but the song shot up the iTunes and radio charts — albeit with more radio-friendly lyrics. Kelley says that was more than fine: “We’re businessmen, and we wrote the alternate line, too. We want our songs played on country radio…we’re aware [some in the] audience may not like that so it’s all good, it’s cool. It’s not an issue at all.”

Country radio is another area that landed the brunt of some backlash lately, particularly with the immense difficulty that female solo artists have getting airplay. It culminated with the viral controversy dubbed #Saladgate, when radio consultant Keith Hill told a trade publication that to increase ratings, country stations should play fewer songs by female artists. He compared country radio to a salad: “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

Kelley, whose band is clearly considered the lettuce, acknowledges there’s a problem and says after growing up a fan of hearing singers like Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Terri Clark, he wishes female singers had more radio play. However, he says the real issue is that radio should play higher-quality songs in general, regardless of gender or solo/band status.

[One man’s plan to  help country radio: Play fewer songs by women]

“Obviously I wish there were more women on country radio. I wish there were more men, wish there were more duos, or bands or whoever. But to me? I don’t think it’s just an issue of women and men. I think it’s quality,” he said. “Men and women and groups — I think quality of the music has got to go up. I think that’s more the issue and not just women, because there are some women who are putting out great songs. And there are guys putting out great songs that aren’t getting heard.”

Meanwhile, Kelley and Hubbard are concentrating on keeping their own hit streak alive, and readying the release of a new song from their upcoming third album that Kelley thinks “will change the world.” And all the while, trying to show a different side of themselves while blocking out the haters.

“We don’t even really put any energy toward any of that…we’re all about positive vibes over here,” Kelley said. “Just as a general music fan, if you don’t like a song, change the channel. That’s like me: If I don’t like a song, I change the channel. I don’t have to get on and tweet about it and ruin somebody’s day.”

The duo is continuing to evolve with their sound and songwriting abilities, Kelley says, as he and Hubbard learn more through every day in the industry. Both guys are married now (Hubbard just tied the knot a few weeks ago to his longtime girlfriend) and though they enjoy a good party, they’re at a slightly different stage of life than when “Cruise” changed their lives several years ago.

“I just think this third album is really, really special — man, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I think the world’s finally going to know us after this album,” Kelley said. “And they will continue to get to know us, but I feel like after we release this album, they’ll be like, ‘Ah. Okay. I get it.'”

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