In 2012, Florida Georgia Line released their debut album Here’s To The Good Times and its first single ‘Cruise’ catapulted the duo into the country stratosphere. Now, having released their sophomore record Anything Goes, we catch up with the duo to talk about touring, guitars, and Nashville.
Six years ago, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley were students at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, where a mutual friend introduced them to each other. Hubbard, originally from Monroe, Georgia, and Kelley, who grew up in Ormond Beach, Florida, quickly discovered that they shared musical tastes and goals: both aspired to songwriting careers on Music Row. As they began working together to craft original material, they also found similarities in their approaches to singing, writing, and playing guitar. Performing as an acoustic duo at Nashville’s Hotel Indigo, they learned how to work an audience as musicians and frontmen. They became Florida Georgia Line in 2010.
While they began making a name for themselves through their performances and an independent EP, the industry was watching. Kevin Zaruk, president and founder of Vancouver-based Chief Music Management, and producer Joey Moi had partnered with Craig Wiseman and Seth England of Nashville-based publishing company Big Loud Shirt. Their goal was to find a new artist and develop them with a grassroots campaign: record and release music, put the talent on the road, take the music to radio, work it via social media — basically a return to the old-school way of breaking a band. They signed Florida Georgia Line and released an EP, It’z Just What We Do. The first single, ‘Cruise’ shot to the top of the iTunes charts in 2012, became the longest-running No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, has sold over eight million downloads, and is the best-selling digital country single of all time. The remix, featuring Nelly, won the Billboard Music Award for Top Country Song and earned Hubbard and Kelley a BMI Pop Award, two of many awards that Florida Georgia Line has collected as they moved from clubs to opening slots on major country tours to becoming headlining sensations now on their first stretch of international dates. The band’s 2012 debut album, Here’s To The Good Times, topped the charts and is certified double platinum, with over 21 million tracks sold worldwide. The list of achievements goes on, including 13 industry awards in 2014.
Their new album, Anything Goes, is gold certified and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Billboard Top Country Albums charts. The first single and their fifth No. 1, ‘Dirt’ is platinum, while second single ‘Sun Daze’ was in the Top 10 and climbing when Hubbard and Kelley spoke to Acoustic. They were in rehearsals with their band — Tyler Chiarelli on lead guitar, Jimmy Deegan on acoustic guitar, Tom Beaupre on bass, and Sean Fuller on drums — preparing for their 2015 headline tour and UK debut at the Country 2 Country festival in March.
‘It’s been crazy,’ says Brian Kelley. ‘It’s been the wildest ride that Tyler and I could have ever dreamed, probably even wilder. Our fans’ support, country radio’s support — those are the first factors that changed our lives. We’re really grateful and working harder than ever. We’re still writing right now, getting ready for the next batch of music, whenever that comes, and trying to stay creative. We’re starting our new tour, new beginnings, a new year — we’re really excited. This is our first time overseas, so it’s going to be an experience. We’ve heard so much about the fans and how loyal they are. We’re beyond pumped. It’s going to be incredible just being there, and to go there and play music — that’s like the most “pinch me” moment, no doubt.’
Accompanying Kelley and Hubbard on this tour are their McPherson guitars, which they discovered years ago while attending church. ‘We heard a guy playing a McPherson during the service and we were blown away by how it sounded,’ says Hubbard. ‘Since that point, I always wanted to own a couple of McPhersons. They have a tone that’s unlike any other, and the playability is awesome. They are well-made guitars. Ours are custom-made to our liking. McPherson has been a great company to us. They are super supportive, bend over backward for us, and they really take pride in their work. I play several different guitars for different songs, but my McPherson is my favourite.’
In addition to his McPherson, which he describes as “sounding like 12 guitars in one,” Kelley, who also plays electric guitar, is traveling with several PRS models, including a red custom model, and one more acoustic, a Takamine GB-7C, the Garth Brooks model, that he’s owned since he was 18 and on which he wrote ‘Cruise’. ‘It sounds incredible and it’s a beautiful guitar,’ he says. ‘I have it at the studio, and every time I go home, I play it and see if there’s any magic left in it, and there definitely is. I’ll have it on the road, on the bus, because I think it keeps me creative for some reason. I like having it around.’
Although they didn’t meet until they were college students, their backgrounds and approaches to the acoustic guitar are surprisingly similar. They began playing as teenagers — Hubbard at 15, Kelley at 16 — and they both cite acoustic Christian duo Shane & Shane as influences on their picking style. ‘I thought they were super-talented and had a cool way of doing things,’ says Hubbard. ‘I listened to a lot of worship music, but also a lot of country and any type of rhythmic music.’
‘Their playing was really cool,’ says Kelley. ‘Shane Barnard does a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs, things like that. James Taylor and John Mayer are also great acoustic players that I listen to.’
‘Especially when we were starting out, we were both very rhythmic,’ says Hubbard. ‘We had the same strumming pattern. It was almost like we had played together for years. We had the same influences and we played the same way. BK tool a leap of faith and decided, “I’m going to start learning to play electric more.” He became really good at it, and I have a lot of respect for him for doing that. Now our playing meshes together even better than before. Having him on electric adds more depth and dynamic, and that’s important in our music, because there’s a lot of melodies and hooks going on all the time.’
The lines defining country music have become increasingly blurred during the past decade, so much so that some would say the genre is often unrecognisable, thanks to pop hooks, a glaring lack of pedal steel, and the crossover into hip-hop, with country singers rapping on their own singles. While Florida Georgia Line has certainly experimented in those areas, their foundation will always be acoustic music. ‘Whether people believe it or not, there’s an acoustic guitar layered in there somewhere on every one of our songs,’ says Kelley. ‘I never wanted to be a lead guitarist. I wanted to be a songwriter. I put my focus toward that, and playing acoustic guitar really helped because you can do so much and get so many different melodies going with simple chord progressions before even playing the chords. With alternate versions, you get different sounds and tones. You can capo up, you can pick, you can do hammer-ons. You can create so much on an acoustic guitar. Our songs usually start on an acoustic, with a drum loop, a beat, or a simple guitar riff. It’s prevalent in our music and it’s very important to us. It’s how Tyler and I got our start, playing writers rounds at Hotel Indigo. It was just me and him, two guitars, two vocals. That’s how Florida Georgia Line was born, and we love getting back to our roots any chance we can get.’
They held on to those roots while writing and recording the songs that became Anything Goes, which was again produced by Joey Moi. Working with co-writers that included Rodney Clawson, Ross Copperman, Dallas Davidson, Chris Tompkins, and Chris DeStefano, Hubbard and Kelley went into the project promising themselves no pressure to follow up their multi-platinum debut.
‘We sort of told each other, “Let’s do things the way we did it the first time around, have fun with it, cut the best songs that we possibly can, give it all we’ve got, and make an album that we won’t want to skip any song when we listen to it,”’ says Hubbard. ‘We stuck with our gut and did what we felt was right, and it seems to be working out. If you put too much pressure on yourself, the fun starts to leave. We want to have fun with this and cut songs that we can’t wait to play live.’
Fans who associate Florida Georgia Line with feel-good party anthems like ‘Cruise’ and ‘Sun Daze’ may have been surprised by the poignancy of ‘Dirt’. (The lyrics inspired the duo to launch the Dirt Campaign with fundraising platform Omaze to benefit global nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, which creates affordable housing in partnership with low-income families.)
‘I think some of the songs on this album are deeper and more mature, lyrically and sonically,’ says Kelley. ‘We tried to up our game to do more things vocally and utilise the duo aspect. We pushed harder with Joey Moi on every aspect of the songs. We had a great time making the first record, so we took everything that we learned, and all the good vibes from that, and did the same thing. We got with our creative team and picked songs that represent who we are, where we are, and where we want to go. The title Anything Goes is a statement about these years that we’re headlining. We’re going to have a heck of a party on the road. We’re taking great artists with us, we’re going to connect with our fans, and anything goes in terms of we’re going to have the best time that we can because our fans deserve that.’
‘This is our very first worldwide headline tour and we’re excited about it,’ says Hubbard. ‘It’s something we’ve been working for and planning for a while. I think our fans are ready, and we’re ready to get back on the road. The past two years have been crazy, and we’re super-thankful. It’s fun to reminisce and think about all the things that happened just this past year alone. We’ve got to thank our fans and country radio and all the people that have been so supportive over the past few years.’
The duo also doesn’t take each other for granted. They’ve gone from painting houses, washing cars, building golf carts, and assembling bathroom stalls in order to pay their bills while trying to make a name for themselves on Music Row to becoming a multi-platinum, international success story. ‘It’s kind of like a brotherly marriage,’ says Hubbard of their partnership. ‘You learn day by day, you learn how each other works, you learn how to communicate better, and that’s a part of getting to know each other. We’ve spent just about every day together since 2009, whether that’s living in a house together in Nashville, being on the road, or whatever. We’ve gotten to know each other very well. We feel like this whole thing is God-ordained and put together in a very special way, so for us it’s really important to put forth the effort to make our friendship stay as close as possible and make our working relationship even stronger. We both made it a pact and an important thing in our lives.’
Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes is out now.