- - Monday, August 11, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Ah, we country music fans love our labels. Bro country. Outlaw country. Traditional country. Alt country.

Many of us aren’t quite sure how to define those monikers, but we love to use them.

Ever since music critic Jody Rosen, writing for New York Magazine, heard Florida Georgia Line’s 2012 breakout single “Cruise” and slapped the “bro country” label on the song and the duo, it’s stuck with them like gum on a shoe. Oh, and just for the record, Mr. Rosen wrote that bro country is “defined as music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.”

I don’t know about you or Mr. Rosen, but “tatted” types are not the only fans I see at “bro country” shows. When I go to concerts by Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton and other performers (many of whom may rightly take exception with the bro-country label), most of the fans wouldn’t fit the profile — especially one gray-haired fellow at a local Tim McGraw concert who was lying on the amphitheater’s concrete floor alternately singing along and babbling about his grandchildren as he tried to sip his beer. Some things you can’t forget.

Candidly, the depiction of Florida Georgia Line — known individually as Brian Kelley, who will turn 29 this month, and Tyler Hubbard, 27 — made me sad because it trivialized them and their accomplishments.

I don’t know them well, but we have spoken a few times, and I was backstage at Maryland’s The Fillmore Silver Spring in the fall of 2012 less than 24 hours after they received the news that “Cruise” went gold.

Now some musicians would have canceled the interview or just mumbled a few short answers and shown me the door. But Mr. Kelley and Mr. Hubbard went out of their way to spend as much time with me as I needed. And they weren’t spouting PR speak. They were as casual and genuine as if they were socializing rather than doing an interview minutes before opening a sold-out show for Jake Owen.

Drive-by country fans might not know that Mr. Kelley and Mr. Hubbard found success by following the same path as many much-lauded traditional country stars. They each learned to sing and perform in the churches they attended as kids. They met as students at Belmont University in Nashville, and teamed up to write and sing.

Their massive success with their first major label release “Here’s to the Good Times,” released in December 2012, started with “Cruise” — which the duo co-wrote with Chase Rice, Joey Moi and Jesse Rice, and included on their 2012 EP “Itz Just What We Do.”

Their version became the top-selling digital song, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Its 24 nonconsecutive week at the top of the charts also broke the record for the longest running No. 1 in the 70-year history of Hot Country Songs, according to Billboard. And that’s just part of the story, and doesn’t even count the success of Nelly’s remix.

Here’s the point: It’s true that there are plenty of rich parents who look to buy their guitar-toting offspring slots on major country music tours. They not only skip the poverty of “Coal Miner’s Daughter”-era performers and hard work of touring bands, but often don’t know much about music. Well-heeled parents or benefactors jump-start these upstarts’ careers so they can become the next country music heroes playing before thousands. Hang out with a few studio musicians and you’ll hear the stories.

That’s not the case with Mr. Hubbard and Mr. Kelley. They loved the music. They studied the artists. They played the joints. They developed their own sound, signed a publishing deal and crafted their music.

Now the duo has released its first single “Dirt” from its next album (listen for an announcement from the band this week, likely about the title and release date). It debuted at No. 40 and rocketed to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. That’s the biggest leap in position since the chart switched from core-country radio audiences to sales-airplay-streaming hybrid two years ago, reported Billboard.

That’s great success, but it also spurred a backlash from fans who were upset about the midtempo song, now the duo’s fourth No. 1 hit. (The other two were “Stay” and “This is How We Roll” featuring Luke Bryan.)

From what I’ve read, some fans expected a 24-hour-party-people song and were taken aback by a ballad that reminds us of the importance of “Dirt” in our lives with lyrics that include “You know you came from it / And someday you’ll return to it.”

Why did Florida Georgia Line take this turn? Fans ask.

“I don’t think it is a departure at all,” said Mr. Kelley by telephone on a rare day off. “It’s more of a return for us, actually. ‘Dirt’ is more of a sweet spot to our traditional country roots, what we were playing before anybody knew who Tyler and Brian were.

“It feels good and it fits us. Everyone who knows us understands that.”