By Kristin M. Hall
Country duo Florida Georgia Line has built its career one hit song at a time thanks to key collaborations, while also taking quiet steps to establish a lasting songwriting legacy in Nashville.
Since blasting into the music scene in 2012 with “Cruise,” featuring Nelly, the duo of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley is once again commanding the charts with Bebe Rexha on their co-written midtempo smash “Meant to Be.” The pop crossover hit is already three-times platinum and surpassed the number of weeks that “Cruise” spent on top the Billboard Hot Country chart.
“Meant To Be” has been at the top for 36 weeks now, marking it the all-time country chart leader. The song recently broke the mark set by “Body Like a Backroad” by Sam Hunt, which held the top spot for 34 weeks.
Florida Georgia Line will return to Youngstown on Saturday for a concert at Stambaugh Stadium.
Aside from the unprecedented chart success, the duo has been investing a lot of its time in building up its publishing company, Tree Vibez, and its roster of more than a half-dozen writers, producers and artists.
In the posh Hillsboro Village neighborhood of Nashville, Hubbard and Kelley talked about the importance of songwriting inside their Tree Vibez headquarters. The front of the building is a clothing store that Kelley and his wife, Brittney, own, but the rest of the building has sunlit rooms filled with guitars, including a studio, an office and small balconies that look out onto leafy magnolia trees and nearby campus of Belmont University, where they met as students.
“We’ve been on a hot streak lately,” said Hubbard as he stood on one of the balconies with Kelley. “I feel like all our writers are inspired. I don’t know if it’s this building. There’s such a cool energy here and I think that comes through and translates through the songs.”
Florida Georgia Line is arguably the biggest duo in country music since Brooks & Dunn, and their genre-less approach to country music has gained them both plenty of fans and haters. They have three of the five longest-leading songs atop Billboard’s Hot Country chart, including “Cruise,” “H.O.L.Y.” and now “Meant To Be.”
“They tend to write the songs that make the whole world sing,” said Craig Wiseman, writer and owner of Big Loud, the publishing, management and record company that initially signed the duo.
They’ve collaborated with artists such as The Chainsmokers, Hailee Steinfeld and the Backstreet Boys and have teased new collaborations with Jason Derulo and Jason Aldean that will be on their upcoming fourth album, which will be released in early 2019.
“Meant to Be” came out of an improbable last-minute co-write in Los Angeles set up by their respective managers. Hubbard said they were at a loss for ideas as they headed over to the studio when his wife, Hayley, offered some advice.
“We were all talking about what’s this going to be like and who is Bebe Rexha anyway?” Hubbard said. “My wife says, ‘You know what, you’ve already written a great song today. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be. Don’t worry about it.”’
Within hours, the three took that line and made it the chorus of the song. Although initially marketed as a pop song, the song quickly crossed over to country markets. Rexha has clapped back at critics who have questioned whether “Meant To Be” belongs on the country chart.
“I just think some people are small minded,” Rexha said at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas in April, where they all performed. “And what’s happening with country music and the country world, it’s expanding. And you know Maren Morris over there, she is doing that also with Zedd and doing her own thing. And I think that’s really special. It’s like blurring the lines a little bit. I like shaking things up.”
At a party this month celebrating FGL’s last four hit singles, Hubbard said the song introduced them to new international audience, while Rexha “gained a bunch of redneck fans.”
“I don’t ever think we’re writing for FGL anymore,” Hubbard said. “I think we’re just writing a hit song and then it goes where it goes. Usually if another artist is in the room, we’re trying to write their next single.”
The pair has survived being initially painted as bro-country partiers following their first album, “Here’s to the Good Times.” Each successive album has allowed them to reshape their image as they write about their faith and their families. Both are married and Hubbard is a new father to a baby girl. Their newest single, “Simple,” is yet another re-invention with a more stripped down, folk-rock sound.
After honored as trailblazers by Billboard magazine recently, Kelley said they’ve been successful by not following a traditional path in country music.
“I think a trailblazer is someone that finds a different piece of real estate that they can own in the country music industry in a sense,” said Kelley, “We found our piece of real estate and owned it.”
Their collaborators and co-writers say that they are hard workers and committed to writing as often as possible. When not in Nashville, the duo has a TreeVibez writing bus that will go out on the road with them, or with other artists, which gives them a place to write and cut demos just about anywhere. Each Friday their writers send them demos of songs, and they’ll respond back with comments and critiques.
Downstairs in the TreeVibez studio, writer/producer Corey Crowder was working on a new track from country singer Frankie Ballard when Kelley and Hubbard walked in. Crowder, whose best known for working as a producer and writer with Chris Young, played the song for Hubbard and Kelley. Kelley leaned over the board and made a suggestion for a breakdown in the bridge of the song, before declaring that Ballard’s voice is “like butter.”
Wiseman said in the midst of all their success, the two have always made time to help out new artists or writers that they believe in. One example is Jordan Schmidt, one of their writers who has co-written three recent No. 1 country singles – Jason Aldean’s “Lights Come On” and “You Make It Easy” and Kane Brown’s two-week chart topper “What Ifs” with Lauren Alaina.
If you asked the pair how they’ve been able to write hit after hit, they attribute it to God’s plan to work through them.
“God’s at work, and he’s kind of showing out,” said Hubbard. “By no stretch of the imagination do I think BK and I are doing all this. I do think it’s really fun to be open and let him be in control.”
If You Go
What: Florida Georgia Line, with Morgan Wallen and Chris Higbee
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Stambaugh Stadium, Youngstown
Tickets: $45 to $225 (applicable fees apply) at ticketmaster.com and by phone at 800-745-3000