In the decade since the release of "Cruise," country music's first single with diamond sales certification for moving over 10 million units, fan and press response to Florida Georgia Line (FGL) has ranged from deep admiration for a duo that continues to push the genre's sonic boundaries to equally passionate anger over the group's role in a so-called "bro-country" trend.
Reactions to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's new Florida Georgia Line exhibit, Mix It Up Strong, follow the same pattern. Some with ties to the country music industry applaud the Hall of Fame for framing FGL's current legacy within the museum's broader narrative, while others question why an act perceived by many as "too pop" takes up valuable real estate inside one of country music's most hallowed spaces.
As scholar and Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South author Dr. Charles L. Hughes puts it, the strong love and hate aimed at FGL members Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard speaks volumes about varied perceptions of country music's past and present debt to other aspects of popular culture.
"The success of Florida Georgia Line symbolizes several significant stories in what has happened with country music in the 21st century," Hughes told Wide Open Country. "Beyond their success, their incorporation (or appropriation) of hip-hop sounds and imagery is a crucial story in understanding the genre's continued relationship to Black popular music and the specific rise of the 'bro-country' moment. This is both a continuation of country tradition, in which other sounds have been adopted as means of reaching new audiences, and a distinct chapter within it. Also, regardless of whether or not you like their music, the band's fans and detractors each represent a crucial voice in the ongoing (and sometimes problematic) conversation about what country is and what it should be."
By telling the stories of Kelley and Hubbard, the Country Music Hall of Fame takes a "big tent" approach: broadly defining 21st century country music as a genre, radio format and fandom that represents different things to different people. Plus, potential visitors with little interest in seeing one of Gram Parson's Nudie suits on display may darken the museum's doors for the first time to browse FGL's personal artifacts, from Kelley's baseball cap from his stint as a pitcher for the Seabreeze Fighting Sandcrabs to his beloved Takamine GB7C Garth Brooks signature guitar.
"As a pinnacle of country music and everything the genre encompasses, it's important that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum highlight important movements and influential artists throughout country music history," shared Zach Farnum, president of 117 Entertainment Group and the publicist of Randy Travis. "Regardless of my own or others' opinions on the authentic definition of 'country music,' Florida Georgia Line had a monumental effect on the genre and the industry in the past decade. As such, it's imperative they receive representation in the most important museum for that genre. To exclude them would be detrimental to the [museum's] overall mission, in my opinion.
"It's important to distinguish the actual 'Hall of Fame' from the 'Museum.' Though they overlap and compliment each other, they each have separate functions, both of which are incredibly important to our industry in separate ways," Farnum continued. "From a commercial point of view, featuring current headliners is important to keep attendance at the museum maximized and diversified. From a historical standpoint, I don't think you can talk about 2010s country music without talking about Florida Georgia Line, for better or for worse -- at the discretion of the listeners. Worth noting, I don't speak on behalf of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in any way and my views are solely my own."
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Others feel that questions about FGL's country credibility should've overshadowed the museum's fiscal or historical rationale.
"While legend Garth Brooks says FGL broke new ground as he did, FGL didn't make country better," said Shawn Isaacs, General Manager of WOLF Radio at the University of West Georgia (coincidentally, the college attended by multiple members of Hubbard's high school band, Ingenious Circuit). "They made it sound like everything else. They'd be better off in a pop museum than country."
John Paycheck, the singer-songwriter son of country music legend Johnny Paycheck, mirrored Isaacs' sentiment about FGL's legacy. However, Paycheck sees value in the new exhibit-- more as a visual warning bell than a celebration of country music's current bill of health.
"At the FGL historical point, country went from having a personality to sounding like everything else on the market except with a slight twang," Paycheck said. "They are noted for introducing hip-hop and rock influences and having country flourishes. They are now why so-called producers and executives continue to utter the phrase 'that's too country' to their talent."
Florida Georgia Line: Mix It Up Strong opened on Feb. 6, 2022 and runs through Jan. 1, 2023.
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