For a large chunk of the 2010s, country music was defined by the bro. The stadium-rocking, beer-chugging subgenre dominated radio and arenas, thanks to the popularity of artists like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. Characterized by copious “Southern” signifiers (trucks, girls, nights out with the guys) and elements of modern-day hip-hop (drum machines, gruffly pattered vocals), these bro-country songs have the type of sonic power you might expect from a Def Leppard album.
Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard were at the forefront of the movement. As Florida Georgia Line, the duo–who met while studying at the Nashville-star factory Belmont University–struck platinum right away with their debut single “Cruise.” A summery showcase for their classic-country harmonies and blunt-force hooks, it was a country-radio hit that mushroomed into a crossover smash after the St. Louis rapper Nelly was added to the mix, eventually peaking at No. 4 on the Hot 100.
Since then–particularly once Taylor Swift fully decamped to the pop world in 2014–FGL has become the most dominant country crossover act in music, known for its own muscular singles and collaborations with mainstream acts like Backstreet Boys and Hailee Steinfeld; “Meant to Be,” their swaying single with Bebe Rexha, landed at No. 3 on last year’s Hot 100. The pair has diversified beyond selling out stadiums too, lending its name to the Nashville watering hole FGL House, the Southern-accented Old Camp Whiskey and a “creative compound” in Music City that includes a co-working space, the pair’s publishing and artist development company and a store.
Florida Georgia Line’s place in country is mostly solid, even if bro country is viewed as a bit passé in 2019. The genre’s Solo-cup-borne excesses have been gently ribbed by the likes of Brad Paisley and Maddie & Tae; artists like Sam Hunt and Kane Brown now routinely add hip-hop beats to their hooks. Men do still dominate country radio; last year, Billboard’s Country Airplay Top 10 was made up of all male artists. But female artists like Ashley McBryde and the Pistol Annies led country critics’ year-end lists, while Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves toured with pop stars like One Direction alums Niall Horan and Harry Styles as they established crossover success on their own terms.
That might be why Can’t Say I Ain’t Country adds a bit of a defensive posture to FGL’s swagger. The album doesn’t open with a tender ballad or a boot-stomping rocker but with a skit: “Tyler Got Him a Tesla” features a drawling regular-Joe character who pops up throughout the record–sharing gossip about Hubbard’s purchase of the high-priced electric vehicle, proof that he’s become too big for his britches.
Skits aside, most of Can’t Say is pleasant, with finely honed hooks, gleaming vocal harmonies, and lyrics that split the difference between sappy love songs and country-strong anthems. “People Are Different,” which calls for unity “no matter what shape, no matter what color,” means well but comes across as naive in the current moment. “Simple” contrasts the quiet pleasures of being in love with the whirl of Instagram, and its blend of jangly mandolins and whistling-wind effects appropriately recalls the amped-up folk-pop that ruled festivals a few years back; the slow dance “Women” invites R&B crooner Jason Derulo along for the ride, his sky-brushing falsetto adding sweetness to FGL’s processed chorus. And then there are the clearest distillations of the duo’s we’re-still-country message: the shimmying “Small Town,” for those who have “been cow tippin’ in a big green pasture,” and the storming Aldean collaboration “Can’t Hide Red,” on which they claim they “don’t ever wanna, ain’t ever gonna change.” The crossover-heavy nature of FGL’s career suggests that might not entirely be true–although the guest-light, brawn-heavy Can’t Say I Ain’t Country is, at least, an all-in effort to convince listeners otherwise.
This appears in the February 18, 2019 issue of TIME.
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