Florida Georgia Line didn't invent hick-hop and bro-country on their own, but this 6-year-old duo has become synonymous with both.
In the process, Florida native Brian Kelley, 31, and Georgia native Tyler Hubbard, 29, have been embraced by millions of fans and won three consecutive Country Music Duo of the Year awards from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. They've also set sales records, most notably with their 2013 mega-hit "Cruise," which teamed them with rap star Nelly. It topped the national country music charts for an unprecedented 24 consecutive weeks and is the first country single, ever, to sell more than 10 million copies.
Along with all that success, Kelley and Hubbard have also been attacked as contrived aural confectioners. Google the phrase "Florida Georgia Line sucks," and you'll get 590,000 results, including: "Worst Band Ever;" "Nothing Ruins Your Day Quite Like Liking A Florida Georgia Line Song;" and "Music That Makes You Vomit in Your Ears."
But pleasing crowds, not winning over detractors, is Kelley and Hubbard's goal, as they made clear in a recent joint phone interview from a Hollywood TV studio, where they were the musical guests on that night's "Dancing with the Stars."
The duo and their touring band perform here Sunday at Sleep Train Amphitheatre. (Ticket information appears at t he conclusion of this article.)
"We're just trying to be real when it comes to putting out our music and the way we look and sound. We try to be as real as we can - and I think a lot of people identify with that," said Kelley, 31.
"A lot of people grew up like we did, looking like we did and talking like we did. Me and Tyler put our lives, our interests, and everything into our music. It's our lives in a soundtrack. When it comes to creativity and marketability, I don't know, man. We just go with what feels right and what our fans will dig. Our approach is: 'Stay true to yourself. You can't be anybody else'."
On their third and newest album, "Dig Your Roots," Kelley and Hubbard embrace the soundtrack of their lives in a distinctly different way than on their previous two albums.
Where 2012's "Here's to the Good Times" and 2014's "Anything Goes" lived up to their names with such songs as "Cruise," "Party People," "Every Night" and "Good Good," the 15-song "Dig Your Roots" represents a major shift.
Largely downplaying the party-hearty vibe of their earlier albums, they sing about such topics as monogamy (on "Lifer), starting families ("Grow Old"), connecting with an aging father ("While He's Still Around"), simple values ("May We All," which features Tim McGraw ) and embracing faith ("Dig Your Roots").
Does this shift to a more introspective tone indicate the duo has grown older and wiser?
Or are they going against the grain by contradicting such earthy edicts as "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "Don't mess with a winning formula?"
"I think it's a little of both," Kelley, a former member of the Christian rock band Unseen Company, replied. "We want to be transparent. We've grown up a lot. And if you're not growing, you're not doing it right. We're placing our experiences in our songs, like we always have.
"Some of these songs, like 'While He's Still Around' and 'Grow Old' are older songs, (and) we knew the story lines needed to come out from us now. It just felt like this is the right time. I think we've matured. At the same time, it's hard to get all the different sides of us out there. With our first two albums, we came to party, and now we got a little serious. But we're still the same old boys. We're excited about life and touring. And the fans are connecting with us more than ever."
Added Hubbard, 29: "I'm not sure about contradicting 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' I guess we are doing that. But with every new album we do, we don't want to continue to create the same record as the last one. Our lives are evolving at a fast pace, and our music is evolving with us. That's been the foundation of our success - letting our fans into our lives."
Tyler Hubbard met about eight years ago, when both were enrolled at Belmont University in Nashville.
After hitting the road in 2009 to perform, they added a backing band and recorded a six-song EP, "Anything Like Me," in 2010. Their debut album dropped in late 2012 and the original version of "Cruise" quickly topped the country music charts, but only briefly. It was the 2013 remix featuring Nelly that turned "Cruise" into a career-making anthem..
"I remember Brian telling me in the studio that he thought it would sell a million copies," Hubbard recalled.
"And I thought he was out of his mind! Now, it's sold over 10 million and is the most-bought country song ever. That's mind-blowing to us - and it humbles us - every day. It was a crazy thing to watch that song go from being constructed in the studio to becoming such an enormous hit."
In addition to McGraw, reggae mainstay Ziggy Marley (on "Life is a Honeymoon") and Backstreet Boys (on the arm-waving ballad "God, Your Mama, And Me") grace the new album as guests.
Not coincidentally, Kelley's first concert as a kid was by Backstreet Boys. The first album Hubbard bought as a boy? Ditto. So it came as little surprise when the two groups performed together Sept. 24 at the iHeart Radio Festival in Las Vegas.,
"Yeah, we were absolutely coming full circle," Kelley said. "We grew up with Backstreet, and it's a dream come true to play with them. They're amazing dudes, and we're excited to continue to play with them."
As for Florida Georgia Line's outspoken critics, Hubbard recently declared: "Man, if we don't have haters, we're not doing something right."
For the record, that comment was not specifically in response to a review on SavingCountryMusic.com, which disparaged the duo's "Anything Goes" as "the worst album ever released in the history of country music. Ever. Including ... a 4-track recording made by a head trauma victim in a walk-in closet with a Casiotone keyboard and an out-of-tune banjo?'
Do such withering reviews hurt?
Or do they make the duo even more determined to persevere and succeed?
"Yeah, I think it motivates us," said Hubbard, who then demonstrated his self-confidence is not deflated by any naysayers.
"But it's more about looking back in history. Anybody successful in history had a lot of people who, if you want to use the term 'hated,' hated them. From Johnny Cash to Alabama to Taylor Swift, everybody making their mark and changing the world, typically, have a lot of people who don't want change, don't get it, and won't go with you.
"But there's a ton of people that will go with you. And we've always used that (criticism) as motivation. We've answered a lot of questions with this new album. We don't feel there are a lot of haters. That's just one review. And the funny thing about that is, it's all good. You take that (negativity) and turn that into a positive and into creativity."
Florida Georgia Line, with Cole Swindell, The Cadillac Three and Kane Brown
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Sleep Train Amphitheatre, 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista
Tickets: $30.25 to $65 (plus service charges)
Phone: (800) 745-3000
Source: Discover SD