Most artists only dream of achieving the type of success Florida Georgia Line attained in five short years. And what’s more, just a small fraction of those who break through the noise get close to creating an impact the way the controversial duo impacted country.
And it all comes back to their debut single, “Cruise.”
The juggernaut of a song shattered radio and sales records. It’s the best-selling country song in the digital era. It’s also the first diamond-certified country song, which might actually be insane. And, whether it’s fair or not, the song became patient zero in diagnosing the epidemic of bro country.
But where “Cruise” really made its lasting impact is in the writing rooms of Nashville.
In 2010, Florida Georgia Line released an EP called Anything Like Me. For the most part, it’s a Jason Aldean ripoff record. Which makes total sense, since their song “Black Tears” landed on Aldean’s 2012 album Night Train.
But the early signs of everything Florida Georgia Line embraced in “Cruise” were on Anything Like Me. The truck love. The banjo mirroring the massive “PRS guitar wall of sound” distortion. And yeah, the girls.
So when Brian Kelley, Chase Rice and Jesse Rice sat down to write “Cruise” and Kelley started going down his own path, they all kind of knew where it was going. That’s partially why it only took 45 minutes to write.
Of course, Tyler Hubbard and the band’s producer Joey Moi eventually jumped in on the writing credits. The latter encouraged several in-studio re-writes, which is fairly rare in the Nashville writing world, but incredibly common in his native land of rock.
The Bro Formula
What Moi, Hubbard and Kelley did in the studio was nothing less than scientific. Moi encouraged the pair to make the song as simple and tight as possible. He also crafted the instrumental track. It’s a growing trend in Nashville, where co-writes often include a “track guy” who crafts songs without lyrics and then writers create lyrics to them. It’s common practice in pop music but until recently carried a bit of stigma in Nashville, where writers fancy themselves a bit more organic in their process.
With “Cruise,” the trio created a formula by which every trio of writers in Nashville judged their song’s “hit potential” for years. Heck, even they judge their own writing by its.
While on tour with Florida Georgia Line last year, potential heir to the bro throne Kane Brown wrote with the pair. He told Nash Country Daily that they “wanted to write another ‘Cruise.'” Of course the implication is they want another global smash hit. But the sentiment is actually tangible.
“Cruise” employed a I-V-vi-IV chord progression throughout the entire song, which is one of the most common in the world. The first half of each verse alternates between two notes, and the chorus starts with and ends with the same line. And despite the significant number of words used in the chorus, the theme is almost entirely surface level.
In other words, repetition and simplicity is a huge key to the song’s success.
After its massive success, writers doubled down on that theme and radio absolutely ate it up. It became the go-to way to break new artists. Songs like “Chillin’ It” by Cole Swindell, “Ready Set Roll” by Chase Rice and “Leave The Night On” by Sam Hunt masterfully slingshotted off the success of “Cruise” and launched their careers.
Likewise, there was an unstated (or sometimes stated) notion that the box for success in country radio was tighter and more defined than ever for country music. Quite simply, people stopped being interesting and started going for the formula. The fever even got to artists like Joe Nichols who released “Yeah” to cash in on the craze.
The Pendulum Swings Back
While bro country had its roots in songs and themes that predated “Cruise,” it’s hard to argue the song cemented the trend. Even just a few years removed from the heyday, it remains one of the most polarizing and contentious topics in country music.
But on the other hand, the bro movement ultimate met a massive underground movement towards re-establishing substance in music. Heck, even Florida Georgia Line tried to benefit off the backlash to the trend they promulgated when they chose “Dirt” (a song they didn’t write) as their first single off their sophomore album, marketing it as a mature version of the group.
But the quietly growing stable of top-notch songwriting in country music from people like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell finally broke through in a big way with Chris Stapleton’s performance at the 2015 CMA Awards.
While Stapleton earned his success on decades of hard work, the bro country fatigue didn’t hurt. Of course, radio still lagged behind. But now, even many of the bro country artists at least expand in new sonic directions.
Florida Georgia Line collaborated with Tim McGraw and the Backstreet Boys. Thomas Rhett keeps crossing over to other genres more and more. Hey I didn’t say the new sonic directions were towards traditional country. And Cole Swindell really seems “ride or die” on the bro country caravan.
Dormant, Not Dead
One of the coolest things about music is its ability to spring off all these subgenres. For about three years, bro country eclipsed the country music genre as a whole. It’s like anything that wasn’t Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line or one of their proteges was just a footnote.
For now, bro country is dormant. Only the few artists who rode it to superstardom really survived. Many others fizzled out. But it’s certainly not dead. And every time “Cruise” comes on the radio, it’s a reminder of the power one song has to steer an entire industry.
Ironically, “Cruise” may soon be supplanted for most weeks at No. 1 by Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad.” If you haven’t noticed, pseudo-R&B in country is all the rage nowadays. Wonder why…