Florida Georgia Line Storms Gates In Nashville

The guys in Florida Georgia Line thought they were riding a whirlwind when their first single improbably made it to the top of the country charts late last year.

Now that Nelly has entered the picture and “Cruise” is rocketing up the pop charts, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley have discovered – like Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum and a few other country acts over the years – that there’s nothing like the ride of a crossover hit.

Photo: Donn Jones/Invision/AP
Performing with Nelly at the 2013 CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

“I think it’s kind of like pouring gas on a fire,” Hubbard said. “It’s been wild.”

They hold a coveted headliner’s spot during the Country Music Association Festival’s nightly concerts this weekend, a sure sign you’ve made it in the world of rhinestone twang.

A year ago they played a small stage outside LP Field promoting promising acts as fans streamed in to watch the top stars later that night at the four-day festival.

Since then, “Cruise” went No. 1 on the country charts, they won the Academy of Country Music’s best new artist award, scored coveted opening slots on tour with country’s hottest acts Swift and Luke Bryan, and met Nelly.

They had a starring role at the CMT Music Awards, where they won a leading two trophies Wednesday night. They’re one of the most visible acts in Nashville in a week when every star is in town.

“I don’t think it gets any better,” Kelley said while standing in an arena hallway after CMT Music Awards rehearsals Monday night. “It’s been crazy to see this ride take off.”

Few artists have risen so quickly in the fairly stagnant world of country music. Fans are loyal, but they aren’t always quick to adapt. Top stars like Jason Aldean and Eric Church, for instance, were at it for a decade before hitting the top reaches of country music.

Photo: James P. Hendershot
Preakness InfieldFEST, Pimlico Race Track, Baltimore, Md.

Hubbard and Kelley started playing the game in earnest in 2009 after meeting at Belmont University, the private school near Music Row that’s been the starting point for many musicians and music business employees in town. Unlike that legion of aspiring artists, managers and publicists, neither Hubbard nor Kelley came to town with designs on the spotlight.

Kelley – a hunky 27-year-old blond with short-cropped hair from Ormond Beach, Fla. – was a college baseball player with a guitar hobby on the side who’d bounced around a bit before landing at Belmont. Hubbard – a hunky 26-year-old with longer hair and an edgier vibe from Monroe, Ga. – wanted a business degree and liked Nashville. He also played guitar and figured he’d go for a music business degree.

A friend introduced them and they found they had similar backgrounds and interests. More important, they meshed perfectly when they picked up their guitars to write together that first time.

“We wrote our song and thought, ‘This is pretty cool,’“ Kelley said. “‘We’ve got something special here.’“

Nelly heard that something special from his labelmates when the duo’s management pointed out the then-countrified version of “Cruise.” Asked why he got involved, he smiled and said, “I love hits.”

“They’re great kids,” he said later. “They’re great guys. They’re young. They have energy. They’re excited. I told them, ‘Enjoy being the new guys because you only get to be the new guy once.’“

They’re trying to take that message to heart while ensuring they progress past that new guy phase. But every once in a while, the distance they’ve traveled at light speed over the past few years catches up with them. Not so long ago they lived together frat-style with three other people. They awoke in the morning and wrote songs, then would head off to paint houses or wash cars before returning to the house to write more.

Photo: Kell Houston
Chinook Winds Casino Resort, Lincoln City, Ore.

Saturday night they’ll play those songs for 65,000 people at one of country music’s signature events.

“It’s definitely a God thing,” Hubbard said. “We’ve definitely been blessed the last few years.”