By Emily Yahr
The Washington Post
At first glance, it looks like things come pretty easily for Florida Georgia Line, the fastest-rising act in country music. Even if it's just acquiring a chilled beverage on a hot summer afternoon.
"I could use a cold brewski," Brian Kelley (known as B.K.) announces as he walks into the front lounge of a stuffy tour bus on a stifling August day. No problem. He opens a small sliding door, and as if by magic, reveals several beer bottles packed in ice.
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."
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."
It's true that there's a certain way of doing things in the country music industry. First you get publishing and record deals. That's followed by rounds of opening for bigger artists, hitting the summer fair circuit and, if things go well, rising to headliner status.
Kelley and Hubbard knew the drill; both studied music business at Belmont University in Nashville. Kelley was a former baseball player who grew up near the beach in central Florida. Hubbard hails from small-town Georgia. The band name wrote itself. Meeting through a mutual friend their senior year, they discovered that their songwriting styles - based on growing up listening to an eclectic mix of rock, country, hip-hop and Christian music - were an intriguing match.
They started writing songs between classes, and around graduation in 2009, rented a house with a few friends. Dubbed the Fun House, it was, in Hubbard's words, "nonstop craziness." In between post-college debauchery, they hit local writers' nights and gained a small following.
Soon they decided to see what would happen if they took the show elsewhere. "Our biggest thing was hit the road, hit the road, hit the road," Kelley says.
He's the one with short hair, gym-cut muscles showcased by a sleeveless Garth Brooks T-shirt and a large silver cross hanging around his neck. "That's like, old-school rock-and-roll. Just go out and tour."
The strategy was grueling, though it paid off. With Hubbard's Southern twang on lead vocals and Kelley supplying harmonies, they honed their act in any venue that would have them. Fresh out of school, they treated every gig like a big party.
A little while later, the Nashville community started to notice the two young, talented songwriters who sometimes would break into a rap between verses and who had the ability to capture a crowd. On a friend's recommendation, England, who worked at a publishing company, went to a showcase and was impressed by their stage presence. Admittedly in need of some polishing, the pair already mastered the most difficult part of performing: being natural entertainers.
"They had a really intense desire to entertain people and literally throw a party in the room," England says. "Nobody had to tell them, which was not my experience with other artists."
England paired the guys with veteran writer Rodney Clawson for a songwriting session. Clawson was impressed and said the magic words: "These guys are speaking the language that kids are speaking right now."
If Florida Georgia Line is the voice of a new generation, then the generation is vocal about a few things: booze, big trucks and girls in bikinis.
Such topics that have long been staples of country music. In this latest evolution, however, the songs are infused with bits of pop, rock and hip-hop. Male singers favoring this mix - led by the likes of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Jake Owen - have been steadily dominating country music radio and album sales for the past few years.
Often derided as frat-boy, or party-bro, country, some of the genre's traditionalists have been vocal about their unhappiness with this new direction. As Florida Georgia Line's profile increases, the group has become a particularly ripe target for such criticism but doesn't buy into it.
"Sounds like the same country music that's been around since country music started," Kelley says. "That's what country music will always be. It's just a matter of what kind of beat's behind it or what kind of guitar's playing."
The numbers prove that they're doing something right. "Cruise," the thumping, irresistible song about summer love, dominated country radio. A remix featured rapper Nelly, and the song has racked up 5.8 million in sales. Follow-up singles "Get Your Shine On" (about kicking back with a drink) and "Round Here" (about life in a small town) both hit No. 1, making Florida Georgia Line the second act in history to have its first three singles spend multiple weeks at the top of the country chart.
"I don't think it's a secret to anyone that they have certainly branded a new sound of country," England says. "I think at some point, you're not out there trying to make people upset, but you've got to do music the way you do it and that a core group of people are passionate about.
"If there's strong negatives," he adds, "there's probably strong passion somewhere."
Both Kelley and Hubbard speak thoughtfully about their career, but if there's one subject that gets them flustered, it's the impact of newfound fame.
After the duo signed a deal with England's company, they made an effort to operate outside the usual Nashville realm, figuring if they could build a brand themselves, the industry would come calling.
Sure enough, Big Machine Label Group - run by Scott Borchetta, known for making a superstar out of Taylor Swift - was in touch. By that point, they had two EPs; "Cruise" was marketed to secondary radio and SiriusXM; and they had sold about 200,000 downloads of their songs.
Since landing the record deal with Big Machine's Republic Nashville in July 2012, it's been a steady stream of national exposure. It's getting more difficult for Kelley and Hubbard to walk through an airport without being hounded. When meeting strangers, they're gracious. What's difficult is when people they know start acting differently because of their fame.
"I find people are always wanting to tell us: 'Just don't change. Don't change, guys, just stay the same,' and all this," Hubbard said, sounding frustrated. "And it's like, OK, I wish I could tell everybody else to not change. Just treat us like normal dudes and be cool."
Kelley interjected. "I think with the more success, it makes us want to work that much harder, and at the same time, give back more and be more normal," he said. "I mean, it's very humbling everything that's happening. Because it just doesn't happen."
The duo begins each night with cocktails consisting of Jack Daniels, a splash of water, a splash of Sprite and a Vitamin C packet - they may know how to throw a rager, but they also appreciate a healthy immune system. Each performance is preceded by a group prayer.
In Richmond, and at every concert, the show starts with the booming "It'z Just What We Do," a goofy, semi-rap that starts with the hissss of a beer can opening. Heading right into the second song, "Party People," the opening line asks the most important question of the night: "Hey, hey, hey -ey -ey -hey, where my party people?"
The next 90 minutes are a nonstop dance party as Kelley and Hubbard race back and forth across the stage with guitars. It's mostly a college-age crowd, many of them well stocked with beer. They groove and grind, even to the few slower tunes. Those include the seductive "Dayum, Baby" and "Stay," a wailing rock ballad scheduled to be the duo's next single.
Rap and hip-hop are mixed in, mainly for fun ("Let's take it back to the eighth grade," Hubbard yells, leading into a medley of Jay Z, 50 Cent and Nelly). Nothing quite measures up to the epic singalong at the grand finale of "Cruise." The guys know it, so they let the audience members sing their hearts out:
"I put it in park and grabbed my guitar
"Strummed a couple chords and sang from the heart
"Girl, you sure got the beat in my chest bumpin'
"Hell, I can't get you out of my head
"Baby you a song
"You make me wanna roll my windows down, and cruise"
"Thank you," Hubbard says, sweaty and smiling. "Thank you for loving us and helping us change country music."