By Mike Ragsdale
“I was baptized in the ocean,” said Brian Kelley, the ‘Florida half’ of the country music super-duo known as Florida Georgia Line. “It’s forever part of me.”
The pandemic impacted everyone. Millions of people lost their lives, and millions more lost their livelihoods. Yet, despite unfathomable losses and hardships, many people are emerging from the global lockdown with a new sense of purpose.
“The pandemic opened up a ton of time, a ton of creativity,” said Kelley. “At first, I was just looking forward to hanging out at the beach, writing in my journal, working out a little, and trying to get my arm back in shape. I was actually planning to take time away from music. I just started writing for me.”
He had no idea he was writing his first solo album.
Of course, Kelley is no stranger to the creative process. He and his FGL partner, Tyler Hubbard, are among the best-selling Country duos in history, racking up eighteen #1 hits so far. But this time around, Kelley found himself locked down in a one-horse beach town.
With surreal times subsiding, Kelley launched his solo project, Sunshine State Of Mind, featuring 17 sandy tracks with titles such as, “Boat Names,” “Party On The Beach,” “Made By The Water,” “Fish All Day,” “Florida Boy Forever” and “Beach Cowboy.”
Beach vibes come naturally to Kelley, having been born and raised on the Atlantic Coast in Ormond Beach, Florida. “The beach seemed so huge to me as a kid,” said Kelley, who recalls boogie boarding, skimboarding, and fishing, with a bit of surfing thrown in for good measure. “It seemed like we had to walk a mile across that red sand just to get to the water.”
Despite his comfort with all things water, Kelley still has a healthy respect for the seas, especially when it comes to sharks. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as Ormond Beach is located in Volusia County, Florida, where there have been more documented shark attacks than just about every other place in the world.
“I never had an incident or anything,” he laughed. “When I’m stand-up paddleboarding, I never even give sharks a second thought, but when I’m surfing, sometimes I get in my head.
Honestly, I think I’ve been ruined by watching too many Shark Weeks.”
Even though he grew up in a proper beach town, every summer, Kelley looked forward to coming to Florida’s panhandle, where white sand reigns over red.
“We all loaded up and drove over to Panama City Beach every single summer,” he recalled. “My dad had a Hawaiian Tropic account, and the panhandle was part of his territory. He would make sales calls while we played on the beach.”
After high school, Kelley attended Florida State University on a baseball scholarship. He was good, but ultimately not good enough to go pro.
“Baseball was always a dream of mine, but the universe didn’t open that door for me,” said Kelley, who firmly believes that everything happens for a divine reason. “God put Tyler (Hubbard) and me together. I honestly don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t walked through that open door. I just followed my heart.”
“Following my gut is what keeps me on my compass.”
Last year, with COVID-19 forcing long lockdowns, and longer introspections, doors closed. Others opened. With concerts and crowds grinding to a sudden halt, Brian and his wife Brittney needed a place to hunker down. They officially decided to make their home along Scenic Highway 30A in Walton County, Florida.
“To be honest, a lot of it feels the same as growing up in Daytona,” he said. “Taking a bike ride, listening to music under a shade tree. Fishing under a beach umbrella. The Florida mindset is all about doing something outside.”
Kelley said a significant factor in their decision was the thousands of acres that Walton County has preserved in its state parks and forests. “I love biking and driving through all the trails,” he said. “There’s just a calm here. Every single time you cross that bridge coming home, you feel a weight taken off instantly.”
“I love to travel, but I love having my anchor in Florida.”
But despite that relaxed vibe, Kelley also seems to feed off the Gulf’s dynamic range.
“This is actually a moody place,” he said. “The threat of hurricanes. Clear, sunny days turn to sudden afternoon thunderstorms. There’s an incredible energy here. You really feel inspired to work and write.”
Kelley recently invited a few buddies down to the beach for a writing camp. “One morning, we got some coffee and drove out on the beach,” said Kelley. ‘Sunday Service In The Sand’ was the result. “It’s really more of a prayer, a song of gratitude.”
Kelley said faith and family are the two most essential things in his life, fueled by his father’s faith and devotion. Kelley led worship services in high school, and he even met Tyler Hubbard (of FGL) at a campus worship group in college.
“You can have church anywhere,” said Kelley. “I like walking out to the beach, sitting down, and just taking time to thank the Lord for another day, another breath. My dad always wanted me to write more spiritual songs, and I promised him that day would eventually come. ‘Sunday Service’ is my soul song.”
Kelley’s life seems to embrace both old and new simultaneously. East Coast or Gulf Coast? Horse or YOLO Electric Bike? Country or Rap? Who says you can’t have both? Florida Georgia Line’s unique style of music famously blends old country twangs with progressive hip-hop beats. What else would you expect from someone whose playlists growing up included talents ranging from Garth Brooks and Lil Wayne to Alabama and Eminem? Now, Kelley’s shuffling some flamenco guitars and flamingo dreams into his mix.
“It’s hard for me to coin what my sound is,” said Kelley, who insists such lifestyle mash-ups are not intentional. “I’m not in competition with anyone else. I’m in my own lane, and I’m chasing my own sound. I dunno, maybe you’d call it beach-country?”
Kelley sounds like another famous tropical troubadour. Listen to Kelley’s catchy “Party On The Beach” track, and it might soon become one of those songs you know by heart. So, has BK’s sandy path been influenced by Jimmy Buffett?
“Absolutely. It’s not only Jimmy’s music but how he’s run his branding,” said Kelley, who recalls his parents taking him to Buffett concerts. “It’s just a massive party, with everyone getting lit in the parking lot. He’s a genius. It all comes from authenticity and creativity. People are drawn to authenticity.”
While many of today’s pop and hip hop hits glorify mega yachts, sporty cars, and luxury brands, country music often embraces a complete lack of such material possessions. Kelley wrote his new track “Don’t Take Much” after living in relatively cramped quarters during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s awesome touring. You get VIP treatment, and sometimes you even get to take private jets or whatever,” said Kelley. “But when everything gets stripped away, as it was from so many people last year, you begin to appreciate what really matters. I have Brittney. We have a roof over our heads. We have food on the table. We have our dogs. We’re happy. Last year was such a curveball, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten away from how I was raised.”
“I’ve never gotten away from being that kid catching crayfish in Ormond.”
After such stressful times, Kelley thinks people have reevaluated what’s most important to them. He believes post-pandemics will begin seeking fresh sources of happiness and inspiration. For him and many others, some of that happiness will come from the beach.
“When you’ve been busting your butt all week, there’s just something about a beach day,” he said. “Living by the water, even if you’re having a tough day at work, you can still steal a 30-minute lunch break on the beach. That’s everything. That right there is some cheap therapy.”
So what song puts the yippee-ki-yay in this Beach Cowboy’s giddy-up?
“A couple of years ago, I picked up an album by Freddie McGregor at Central Square Records in Seaside,” said Kelley. “I had never heard of him, but now I listen to his song, ‘Big Ship,’ every morning when I make coffee. It instantly makes me happy and puts me in a beachy frame of mind.”
So does Kelley’s solo ride mean the end of a wildly successful Florida Georgia Line run? Not at all. Remember, Kelley excels at fusing together old and new.
“Every pivotal moment in my life, I’ve felt like a door opened,” said Kelley. “It was just time to pivot. Now is my time to make a solo record and follow my heart. I feel more alive than ever. Our creative pause really adds to what Tyler and I are doing with Florida Georgia Line.”
Of course, one can’t successfully meld everything together. Sometimes, you simply have to pick a side. For example, what’s the proper footwear for a Beach Cowboy—boots or flip-flops?
“I’ve actually written a song about that,” laughed Kelley. “I might need to dust it off.” He grew quiet, pausing long and hard to contemplate his answer as if making the wrong choice now could carry career-long consequences.
“Flip-flops,” said the Beach Cowboy, with a serious certainty. “Definitely flip-flops.”