It's been more than two decades since a new country act has captured the public's imagination the way Florida Georgia Line has.
Currently in the Top 5 (and poised for #1), the duo's breakthrough single, "Cruise," hit the Top 10 just 14 weeks after its release, faster than any debut since Brooks & Dunn’s “Brand New Man” in 1991. It's the kind of affirmation few young artists ever experience, and yet was just the cap on a year that saw Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard thrill audiences on tour dates with Alabama, Brantley Gilbert and Jake Owen; cut an EP and their first album HERE’S TO THE GOOD TIMES with producer Joey Moi (Nickelback, Jake Owen) and sign a label deal with Republic Nashville -- after selling nearly 200,000 digital downloads independently. To date, “Cruise,” alone has sold well over one million; reached #1 on the iTunes Country Singles Chart and helped secure them a spot on Luke Bryan’s “DIRT ROAD DIARIES TOUR” in 2013.
"It's safe to say it's been a real whirlwind for us," says Tyler. "It's been awesome."
"It's a dream come true," adds Brian, "although it still kind of feels like just yesterday that we were writing the first couple of songs on the back of Tyler's tailgate."
Those tailgate writing sessions, not long after the two met as students at Nashville's Belmont University, kicked off a partnership that has made them one of country's hottest young acts. The fact that their own hard work and game plan fueled so much of the journey makes it doubly sweet.
"As songwriters," says Tyler, "it's always the dream come true to see a song you poured your heart and soul into being sung back to you on a nightly basis to the point where you can barely hear yourself sing."
"And then because of that song, just to see our name on the chart with Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, and the great new artists like Lee Brice and Thomas Rhett, that's probably the coolest thing," adds Brian.
"Cruise," which Country Weekly called “a hip hop hybrid of crunchy electric guitar riffs, rap lyrics and backwood boondock roots that would make Kid Rock proud and Jason Aldean envious," is the platinum-plated introduction to their debut album. Working with Moi, Florida Georgia Line has captured within its 11 songs all the excitement and energy of the live show that launched their reputation.
"That was one of our goals from the beginning," says Tyler. "It's difficult to capture the emotion and adrenaline we have in front of fans in a live setting, but I think Joey did a great job."
A great record begins with great songs, and HERE’S TO THE GOOD TIMES reflects the songwriting skills the two have honed with years of dues-paying.
"As songwriters," says Brian, "you're always trying to find a new way to say something, and we take a lot of pride in taking a fresh approach to things everybody experiences."
After "Cruise," there's no better place to start than with HERE’S TO THE GOOD TIMES, which captures the essence of this musically adventurous celebration of youth, fun and romance.
"The title track," says Brian, "sums up the album and what we bring to the table. There are some love songs, some ballads, and some songs about life, and then there are the songs that just rock it. It's going to make you feel some kind of emotion whether it makes you want to drink a beer, cry, reminisce, get back with your girl, whatever it is."
The songs include the passionate "Stay;" the deceptively thoughtful and nostalgic "Hell Raisin' Heat of the Summer;" "Dayum, Baby" (featuring Sarah Buxton) and "Tell Me How You Like It," two journeys into appreciation for the fair sex; the workaday "Round Here" and flat-out party anthems like "Tip it Back" and "Party People" (featuring Jaren Johnston of The Cadillac Black). Throughout, there is hard-driving country with honest, expressive lyrics.
The journey that led to their breakthrough project began in two small southern towns--Monroe, Georgia, for Tyler and Ormond Beach, Florida, for Brian. Both loved the music of their churches, and both branched out into a wide variety of popular music, heavy on the country. Aside from a homemade CD and one show with friends in high school, Tyler didn't play country in front of a crowd until he attended Belmont.
"Music was probably the only thing that would hold my attention long enough to get me through college," he says. He began with a concentration on Christian music, but says, "the more I became passionate about writing all kinds of stuff, the more doors opened."
Brian's tastes ran from Christian to rap, from Aerosmith to Garth Brooks.
"Even at a young age," he says, "I understood that music can evoke any kind of emotion, and that's something we take into all our shows--the people coming to see us are there to experience, to enjoy, to party, to live out those songs."
Brian played baseball at Florida State, and then transferred to Belmont, where he met Tyler. The two knew right away that their vocal blend was special, and they became dedicated co-writers from the beginning. They played the city's writers' nights, and reaction was so good they decided they'd like to take a shot as artists as well as songwriters.
"We really built a good foundation of friendship above all," says Tyler, "and that's what made it work. Everything we've done together--writing, music, singing--it's come really easily and naturally. It was us doing it because we wanted to."
Then came a pivotal moment.
"We were driving through a McDonald's, on our way to write with a buddy," says Tyler. "We were about to graduate college and we were talking about what we were going to do. We both didn't really know. And we said, 'Well, why don't we get in the Tahoe and just go play music, whether it's on the sidewalk or in a bar? Let's go play our songs for people and see what happens. We've got nothing to lose.'"
"We figured if we gave it two years and we had no momentum or nothing was happening," adds Brian, "we'd just move on and go do something else."
So they set out in Brian's Tahoe, at first doing acoustic gigs, and later with a band. In the meantime, there were a variety of day jobs to pay the bills and keep the dream alive.
"When you're putting up bathroom stalls, cutting grass, washing cars and you don't feel like writing after work," says Brian, "you really have to love what you do. There were days where it's like, 'Man, I've got fifty dollars left in my bank account,' but you keep pushing."
"Right after college," Tyler adds, "mom asked me, 'What's your plan B?' I said, 'There is no Plan B. That's the plan."
Gradually, though, the clubs got bigger, and the crowds, built one fan and one show at a time, got larger and more enthusiastic. Back in Nashville, labels got interested.
Their first, independently produced EP, 2010's Anything Like Me, included the Tyler-penned song "Black Tears," which was covered by Jason Aldean on his chart-topping 2012 gold album Night Train. They picked up a booking agent, Buddy Lee Attractions, and then Seth England from platinum songwriter/publisher Craig Wiseman's Big Loud Shirt publishing company met with them, setting in motion a process that led to their second EP, this one produced by Moi. One of its songs was "Cruise," and its success helped them turn the corner.
"The one thing that set us apart and made us able to sell over 100,000 copies of 'Cruise' before we had a deal with Republic," says Tyler, "was the fact that we did work hard. Instead of looking for a deal, we were looking for fans. So we went out there for two years and just did show after show. We knew that when the fans were there the labels would be there and that's exactly what happened. That's what set us apart, and that's what led us to the best team in Nashville."
They bring profound life lessons to the table as well.
"You really draw from the things that make you stronger," says Brian. "For me, I spent a year playing baseball at Daytona State College under a coach named Tim Touma, which completely changed my life. I hated it at the time. It was basically like boot camp, but he always said it was bigger than baseball. What you were going to learn under him was stuff you could use the rest of your life. So when Tyler and I were getting up early, staying up late, our voices were tired and we were being pulled in so many different ways, I'd think, 'If I could tread water with a cinder block over my head at five o'clock in the morning, I think I can do this.'"
For Tyler, it was the lessons he learned from his father, who died tragically when Tyler was a college sophomore.
"If it weren't for my dad," he says, "I wouldn't be where I am today. He taught me all about chasing dreams and working hard to get where you want to go. My father was my number one fan and I miss him every day. And I've learned that if you can overcome something like that, you can overcome the seemingly hard times that go with a career. It's just a matter of working hard and trying to make the people close to us proud, whether they're here or gone."
The work, the life lessons, and the youth and energy they bring to the table are all part of what they pour out each night on stage and what they've brought to the table with their first album.
"We couldn't be more proud of all the songs on the record," says Tyler. "It's a really exciting time to be able to share our lives through music with our fans."
"Our friends are really excited," adds Brian, "but to them I think we're still just two guys who started out doing music on the back of a tailgate and have been working hard at it and trying to get better. And with the way my parents and Tyler's family have also been so supportive along the way, it's like everybody's success, not just ours."
And judging from their reaction, fans consider it theirs too.