Country music’s latest success story, Florida Georgia Line, isn’t content to just play it straight.
Take the duo’s breakthrough single, “Cruise,” off its 2012 debut album “Here’s to the Good Times.” In April, when the summery song became the best-selling digital country single by a duo in history (to date it’s sold more than five million), the duo teamed up with rapper Nelly and released a remixed version to pop radio, featuring rapped verses.
“He’s a label mate, so we asked our people at the label — some radio stations brought it up; they wanted a different version of ‘Cruise,’ ” said Brian Kelley, the Florida native referenced in the duo’s name, during a brief touring break in current homebase Nashville.
“He was a fan of ‘Cruise,’ the original, and we’ve been Nelly fans since we can remember, and it seemed to fit. We heard it a couple of days later, after we got the mix back, and we thought he had taken that song to another level and given it a new life. That song had been around for a year already, so it was really crazy, and our fans are the ones pushing it, man. It’s awesome.”
Given the hip-hop rhythms, chunky rock guitars and country twang found on the rest of “Here’s to the Good Times,” the collaboration wasn’t actually too much of a stretch for the band or its fans. That eclecticism has driven the duo ever since Kelley and Georgia-born Tyler Hubbard first began writing together as students at Belmont University in Nashville.
Luke Bryan, with Florida Georgia Line, Thompson Square
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs
How Much: $68.50-$40.25
More Info: 584-9330, www.livenation.com, www.spac.org
“Even though I grew up in Florida and Tyler grew up in Georgia, we grew up listening to the same stuff — hip-hop, country, R&B, rap, Christian stuff — that’s just a taste of what we loved,” Kelley said. “It was all over the place. Music is ever-evolving, and we’re songwriters at heart. We’re around things we want to be around; we like to sing what we want to hear, even if that doesn’t fit into an exact genre mold. I guess the fans are liking it. Country music is never gonna be the same today as it was 20 or 10 years ago even, and we wanted to push ourselves and continue to try to make fresh music that our fans love.”
This year, the band has continued to strengthen its fan base with what has essentially been non-stop touring. In January, the duo embarked on Luke Bryan’s Dirt Road Diaries Tour, which heads to Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday night. Between dates on the massive 75-date tour, which finds Bryan supporting his fourth album, “Crash My Party,” and also features Thompson Square, Florida Georgia Line has struck out with some headlining shows of its own, in anticipation of a full headlining tour in support of “Here’s to the Good Times” that kicks off in October.
“It’s been awesome, man,” Kelley said. “[Bryan] is one of the best, so every night we’re learning something, we’re out there taking notes. But mainly it’s been a party every night, and the fans have been out of control. It’s been a really fun summer so far, and we’re looking forward to taking it into the fall. It’s been a blessing.”
In many ways it would seem Kelley and Hubbard have been blessed from the beginning of their collaboration. After spending a year playing baseball at Daytona State College in Florida, Kelley transferred to Belmont. Through a mutual friend, he first met Hubbard, who was just starting to play his music for crowds.
“We thought each other was cool, and we hung out, and then a time or two after that we started writing,” Kelley said. “We kept writing and singing together, doing writers’ rounds, and we realized that we were better together than separate, so we stuck it out. We’re best friends, and we had a really cool thing with the music going. I guess that’s probably at the core of why it’s working.”
Kelley and Hubbard’s first co-write was “You’re Country,” a song that ended up on the duo’s independently recorded and released 2010 debut EP, “Anything Like Me.” The duo often wrote together while hanging out on the back of Hubbard’s tailgate.
“That was four years ago,” Kelley said. “We were grooving on some chords and we just wanted to write a country song, and there it was.”
Another song from that early EP, the haunting ballad “Black Tears,” ended up giving the band one of its first tastes of mainstream success, when country superstar Jason Aldean covered it on his 2012 album “Night Train.”
“I mean, that was kind of a start,” Kelley said. “We were very, very blown away that he did that. It was just a cool song for him to cut. And last summer, on the Country Throwdown tour, you could tell the fans were digging us. Every show gets bigger and better. I’d say last summer it kind of started growing.”
A second EP, “It’z Just What We Do,” featuring “Cruise,” the title track and three other songs, was released in May 2012. Soon after, the band signed with Republic Nashville and re-entered the studio with the EP’s producer, Joey Moi (Nickelback, Jake Owen) to cut six more tracks. Combined with the EP, this became “Here’s to the Good Times.”
“We released [the EP], and then a couple months later we signed our record deal, so we had to finish so we could get it out as fast as possible,” Kelley said. “We were flying in and out, finishing vocals — we didn’t have time off at all, because you have the time set when you need to finish it, and the artwork and everything needs to get done. But we’ve got an amazing team. Joey Moi is the best.”
With the album’s third single, “Round Here,” recently achieving gold status with 500,000 sold, the band is looking forward to headlining its own tour.
“I can’t wait. We’ve been dreaming about it for years,” Kelley said. “The fans want it. It’s gonna be epic, man. We’re gonna throw the biggest party of the year."