Those with at least a modicum of taste in music love to tell themselves that the crush of meaningless dreck released through commercial entertainment channels in any given decade will assuredly be resigned to the veritable dustbin of history eventually, while the music of substance with ultimately sustain its popularity, and even grow in stature over time, justly setting the right balance based on artistic merit.
In truth though, and thanks to the silly human emotion of nostalgia, this is not always the case. But it very well may be the fate of the country duo of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, collectively known as Florida Georgia Line. The music they were responsible for seemed especially primed to be fleeting, eventually falling out of socially acceptable favor to be ridiculed by future generations as a laughable fad. Their producer was Joey Moi, who was famous for helping the Canadian butt rock band Nickelback prefect its own arc of wild popularity chased by punch line ridicule. Nickelback’s name and music eventually became so odious in popular society, it was arguably unmoored from any reality.
A similar trajectory has been etched by Florida Georgia Line, even if here at the end of their journey, they still enjoy are rather fervent fan base, curiously impervious to the widespread criticism of the band, and their general uncoolness throughout culture. Then again, one of the things that has marked the Florida Georgia Line legacy is the utter absence of self-awareness, so this can’t be entirely surprising.
On Wednesday, August 31st, 2022, Florida Georgia Line played its final show as a duo at the Minnesota State Fair. “This is our last official concert as Florida Georgia Line… let’s see what we got left in the tank,” Tyler Hubbard said at the start of the performance, goading the crowd. It’s been sort of a long, slow, and painful death for the duo, who first showed signs of fraying around the time of the election of President Joe Biden, with the state line between Georgia (Tyler Hubbard) and Florida (Brian Kelly) clearly marking an ideological divide. Kelly’s ridicule of people congregating in the streets to celebrate Biden’s win when it was still frowned upon due to the pandemic had Tyler Hubbard taking action to distance himself from his fellow duo member.
Since then, things haven’t been the same in FGL Land, and both have launched solo careers. The final shows this summer seemed more about fulfilling prior obligations as opposed to seeing if amends could be made, or anything resembling a victory lap. It was one last cash grab before they officially go their separate ways.
But just like a virus multiplying, some found concern in how instead of having one Florida Georgia Line to worry about, we’d now have two, like Beavis and Butthead starring in their own separate shows. But this may be more worry than reality. Expect Tyler Hubbard to have a decent solo career, as the only one that really had a star singing voice. Brian Kelley will release solo records, but will likely keep the mortgage afloat with co-writing credits and side hustles, while holding out hope for a future reunion tour to help put the kiddos in college, and pay off that vacation home in Cabo.
Of course, it’s easy to rag on these two. Like Nickelback before them, that’s what a band like Florida Georgia Line is good for, if nothing else. We writhe and convulse at the mere mention of their name, and it signals to our social circle that we have taste.
Say what you want about Florida Georgia Line though, it’s undeniable that they left their mark. As country music was amidst it’s “checklist” phase of aggressively derivative lyricism (beer, truck, backroad, tailgate —wash, rinse, repeat), and Jason Aldean opened the door for hip-hop influences in commercial country with the wild success of his country rap single “Dirt Road Anthem” (the most successful single in 2011), it created an avenue for an act to move into this space that actually had a history of growing up listening to both country and hip-hop, and turn it into a cultural phenomenon.
Add on top of that a dearth of actual duos in country music at that time, and this pair of aspiring country-hop pseudo songwriters slid right into the mainstream country diet nicely, filling a gap in the market. It’s probably a stretch to call Florida Georgia Line a one hit wonder. But it really is due to the duo’s debut single “Cruise” and the early support it received from John Marks on Sirius XM that caused this otherwise strangely constructed duo to absolutely explode. Like a mad scientist, Joey Moi had tooled “Cruise” for maximum impact, and it might go down as one of the most important and influential songs in country music history, however dubious that influence was, and detrimental to country music those results were.
It took a little time, but eventually “Cruise” was everywhere. And with the copycat nature of the country music campus on Music Row in Nashville, every band and artist singed to a country music major label was attempting to record their own “Cruise.” The song broke the long-held record for a #1 single in country music history, eventually logging 24 weeks at #1 in 2013, thanks in part to a remix with thrice-accused potential rapist Nelly. “Cruise” and Florida Georgia Line became a cultural phenomenon, and while writing for New York Magazine, journalist Jody Rosen officially coined this phenomenon “Bro-Country.”
Without Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” there would have been no Bro-Country era. Perhaps there would have been something similar, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Even though Sam Hunt would break the “Cruise” #1 record in 2017 with “Body Like a Back Road,” it was Florida Georgia Line that allowed artists like like Sam Hunt, and vapid songs like “Body Like a Back Road” to find the success that they enjoyed.
Meanwhile—like we’ve seen with so many other hyper trends in society—the backlash against Florida Georgia Line and Bro-Country was starting to grow, both among fans, and the industry. When Chris Stapleton virtually swept the CMA Awards in 2015 as a relative unknown with no radio play or significant sales, it was the country music industry en masse wanting to repulse Florida Georgia Line and the scourge of Bro-Country from its midst. As commercially successful as Bro-Country was, it was clearly unsustainable from its lack of substance, it had virtually eliminated female voices from the radio format and the industry at large, and it was making country music a cultural laughing stock.
Florida Georgia Line did find success with other songs beyond “Cruise.” “This Is How We Roll” with Luke Bryan was also massive—Luke being one of many performers who jumped on the Bro-Country bandwagon himself. But when the duo released the surprisingly reserved and heady single “Dirt” as the debut from their second record in 2014, it signaled that Joey Moi and the duo knew that stupid lyricism, recycled beats, and bad white boy rapping would only get them so far. There were multiple times in the Florida Georgia Line legacy where it’s almost like they saw the writing on the wall, and tried to work some sincerity into their music.
But at the same time, that’s not what Florida Georgia Line fans wanted. They wanted songs like “Sun Daze,” with the deliriously bad line, “Stick the pink umbrella in your drink.” The FGL constituency demanded shit, and so when they delivered substance, it confounded the audience, while critics and more distinguishing listeners were still not going to give the duo any credit because they had become a favorite punching bag.
Near the end, it was almost like Florida Georgia Line stopped trying to quiet skeptics, and instead just leaned into their worst instincts. Joey Moi had the wisdom from the Nickelback experience to know a music franchise couldn’t sustain on trends and sugary singles forever, but that’s the only card they had to play. Even when Florida Georgia Line continued to be more commercially successful than other duos in country, the awards shunned them for the comparatively obscure Brothers Osborne.
Ultimately, it was all so painfully predictable and obvious how the Florida Georgia Line story unfolded. Sure, the duo won many battles and victories during their very financially lucrative 12-year career. But ultimately, the forces looking for something deeper and a sustainable future for country music, they won the war.
In some respects, we have Florida Georgia Line to thank for many beneficial things that transpired due to Bro-Country. The backlash fueled the independent country insurgency. It helped put Cody Jinks and Sturgill Simpson on the map. Sturgill Simpson inspired Chris Stapleton to record Traveller with producer Dave Cobb. This ultimately gave rise to Tyler Childers and others, and eventually to an artist named Zach Bryan, who has been nipping at the heels of Florida Georgia Line understudy Morgan Wallen (also produced by Joey Moi) at the very top of the Billboard Country Albums charts for the better part of this year.
If it wasn’t for Florida Georgia Line and the anger they inspired, independent country may have never busted through Music Row’s stranglehold on the music to challenge it commercially, and allow a flood of critically-acclaimed artists to construct sustainable careers. Mainstream country may also be stuck in a malaise of sameness, adrift after the exit of Taylor Swift as opposed to experiencing the roots and twang resurgence we’re currently enjoying, inspired by the nostalgic appeal of 90s country.
We don’t know how the future will judge Florida Georgia Line, if people will wax nostalgic for Bro-Country, or if the era and its artists like Florida Georgia Line will be marked with asterisks, like we see during the steroid era in baseball with that era’s biggest participants remaining banished from Hall of Fame consideration. Strangely, the backlash against Florida Georgia Line and other Bro-Country acts became so effusive, it was regular talk amid sports channels, and other sectors of American society, with people who never had any interest in country music asking, “What the hell has happened with the country genre?”
But what we do know is Bro-Country was a thing. It was a very, very big thing due to Florida Georgia Line. The duo roiled and influenced country music in ways that regardless of how its couched, will go down in history books as the biggest deal in country music during the 2010s. And now it’s over, and really, it was over well before 2022. But this will be the year where the legacy of this wildly-popular, but ultimately reviled duo comes to a close, leaving many of us wondering, “What the hell was that?” and hoping that in the future, country music will be more level-headed about who and what it allows to represent it to the population at large, and carry its banner for the better part of a decade.