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The Unkillable Country Bro

Florida Georgia Line are still, somehow, thriving in 2016. Can anyone unseat them?

Ringer illustration/Getty Images
Ringer illustration/Getty Images

It is unfair, and uncouth, and unhelpful, but nonetheless quite therapeutic to fantasize about politely dumping superstar country duo Florida Georgia Line into matching trash cans. No offense. They’d understand. From the moment of their A-list inception via the bombastically vapid, Nelly-assisted 2013 smash single “Cruise,” Florida’s Brian Kelley and Georgia’s Tyler Hubbard have radiated a certain … unseriousness. A disposability. A cheerful sacrilege. Two sentient backward cowboy hats who place Lil Wayne and Eminem on equal footing with Garth Brooks and Alabama, they came to us singing huskily of brew-dogs, ripped-blue-jean cuties, oversize pickup trucks, and literally nothing else. You prayed it wouldn’t last. You knew otherwise.

It was fun until it wasn’t. The duo’s emergent brand of bro-country, as codified on 2012’s “Cruise”-borne and multiplatinum Here’s to the Good Times, rattled Nashville’s bored coterie of aging superstars and enraged purists. Pale (in multiple senses) imitators proliferated. Lyrical themes boiled down so dramatically you could fit ’em all on a bingo card. Every backroad in every small town in America got its own hit song. But the style quickly choked the airwaves, and drowned out female artists almost entirely, and stoked a backlash that in time grew as clichéd as the clichés that backlash decried, an army of old men yelling at weed clouds.

The dudes abided. Their 2014 follow-up Anything Goes was both surprisingly great — the solemn, humble, earthy “Dirt” is easily their best song — and profoundly terrible. (The first 10 whistle-clogged seconds of “Sun Daze” alone might drive you to drink. Bleach.) You came to love these knuckleheads, though, or at least accept them as wily villains and master trolls, lousing up the genre’s countless award shows and swiping Vocal Duo of the Year statues whilst dressed like Bebop and Rocksteady from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And they’re still at it. With a chaste little jam called “H.O.L.Y.,” they currently have the no. 1 country song in America; it appears on Dig Your Roots, their third full-length, which came out last week and will likely soon be crowned the no. 1 record in America, overall. (Beating Britney. And Barbra. And, mercifully, Drake.)

All of which is awfully surprising, given that Chris Stapleton was meant to be their undertaker. The scruffy, bluesy, tradition-minded Nashville singer-songwriter’s 2015 album Traveller shockingly dominated that year’s Country Music Awards and catapulted itself atop Billboard’s album chart, a coup and a coronation and also, god willing, an assassination. Real Country Music was back in; the bros were out. There was little debate as to who should be first up against the wall.

But Florida Georgia Line survived long enough to ride the backlash to that backlash. Stapleton Mania has dragged on for nearly a year now, with no worthy (or, more importantly, industry-backed) successor emerging. Alas, 2016 has been lousy for high-profile country records. The bored, aging superstars (from Blake Shelton to Dierks Bentley to Keith Urban) have done C+ work at best; the promising and more prestige-minded newcomers (from Margo Price to Maren Morris) haven’t set the world aflame as one hoped. You can root for a middle-tier striver to make the leap: I’m partial to winsomely grouchy twang-thrower, provisional Trump supporter, and longtime opening act Justin Moore, whose new album, Kinda Don’t Care, peaks with a song called “More Middle Fingers.” But he’ll likely run out. This is a worrying vacuum. And if we can’t find something better with which to fill it, then look the fuck out.

Here is the good news: “H.O.L.Y.” is a banger. Legitimately excellent. Simple, clean, soaring, seductive. A future sneak-attack karaoke classic. Respect is due. Unfortunately, the rest of Dig Your Roots is the bad news.

It transpires that Stapleton Mania did have some visceral effect: The single word I’d use to describe this record overall is shook. It’s desperately adult, the sound of hedonistic college kids freshly graduated and bewildered and scrambling to update their résumés, dismayed that Nelly is their only character reference. Certain core elements remain: Namely, the slow, corny, bleacher-stomp drums reminiscent of Def Leppard, not in the “awesome arena bombast” sense, but in the “clearly played by a dude with only one arm” sense. Otherwise, this is a dramatic downshift: a sensible, dull family vacation as opposed to a spring break blowout. It is a confident pivot into the grave.

This leads our boys to some dark places. Here are seven words: “Life Is a Honeymoon (featuring Ziggy Marley).” Here are eight more: “God, Your Mama and Me (featuring Backstreet Boys).” That one’s so bizarre it’s almost charming, but we’re sinking in the soft-rock muck here, the vibe sober and sobering. There’s a song called “Music Is Healing” that violently refutes its own thesis. Plus lots of jams about appreciating one’s grandparents before they die, which, not to be raw, but they might, regrettably, in the time it takes one to enjoy all 15 songs on this thing.

Let’s not dwell on it.

There are worse things than a bad album, is the thing. Sturgill Simpson, the Kentucky oddball whose spacey and soul-leaning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is still 2016’s single best country record, has Stapleton-esque classicist appeal but no major industry backing whatsoever, a situation that has only worsened, given all the people he’s pissed off this week. His recent Facebook rant about Merle Haggard, award shows, magazine covers, Music Row blacklisting, and Nashville’s “formulaic cannon-fodder bullshit” is well-intentioned but a wee bit self-aggrandizing in a way he’d always been careful to avoid. Cool don’t advertise, and neither do Outlaws. And whatever way Hank done it, he didn’t do it on Facebook.

Country is weird. You need an outsider who the insiders can agree on, or vice versa. Sam Hunt, a former college quarterback and quasi-rapper whose polyglot 2014 debut Montevallo is still charting singles, is an example — maybe the only example — of someone who can somehow unify the bro-country and “fuck bro-country” camps. He, or someone else, had better do that. Florida Georgia Line are emphatically not those guys. But they’re the guys until someone does.