The Florida Georgia Line superstar returns to 'Beach Cowboy' roots on new album, 'Sunshine State of Mind.'
When Brian Kelley walked on the stage on April 21 at the Daytona Beach Bandshell, I had one question in mind: Will the world accept him as a solo act, or will he always be half of Florida Georgia Line?
In front of about 2,000 fans, with the Daytona Beach skyline to his right and the Atlantic Ocean to his left, Kelley wore his cowboy hat and a floral button down, an outfit similar to his look on FGL album covers and concert appearances. But at the bandshell, he didn’t have that familiar wearer-of-baseball-caps next to him: no Tyler Hubbard.
The duo have been one of the most successful country music acts in the world, recording five albums from 2010 to 2021. They virtually invented "bro country" by harmonizing melodies as well genres — country and hip-hop.
But FGL is “taking a break,” Hubbard told People magazine in February 2022. Kelley told Billboard in June 2021: “Me and Tyler had been talking about this for years. We made that fifth record our milestone to create some extra freedom for ourselves and have some things in addition to FGL.”
Daytona Beach was a good place for the experiment in freedom to begin. Kelley is a native of nearby Ormond Beach; he was a baseball star at Seabreeze High School. He went to church here, started playing music here. His new album, released in September 2021, pays homage to his beach-cowboy roots, and it was being performed in front of his home crowd.
When he played a Jimmy Buffet cover — “Margaritaville,” of course, with the megadevelopment of the same name just down the road — I thought it was a helpful bridge to ease the crowd onto this new lyrical territory, in which Kelley is wearing “a shark tooth on my bolo” and throwing a party on the beach “every flip-flopping day of the week.”
During the hour-long set, Kelley mostly stuck to his new material, plus a cover of an Eagles song and another by Alan Jackson. No FGL hits.
That may have disappointed one mother-daughter duo, Shelly Wood and Jordan Palmese, from Palm Coast. They are FGL superfans, having been to five concerts together, including one in Las Vegas.
However, it made other fans happy. One husband and wife in the crowd told me they were relieved that Kelley played his new album, which they listen to all the time at home, rather than FGL songs.
As a solo act, Kelley is new, so it’s probably not fair to compare the new album's streaming numbers to the latest FGL album’s numbers. But I couldn’t help but peek and notice that Kelley’s "Sunshine State of Mind" album has one 8 million-stream minihit (“Beach Cowboy”), and most of the songs are still trying to catch a wave to 500,000 streams. Meanwhile, FGL’s "Life Rolls On" album has five songs that have been streamed between 20 million and 54 million times each.
With those numbers in mind, I wondered whether the crowd would know the new songs well enough to sing along and turn this performance into a party. From what I observed, it was mixed, but I think enough were singing along that Kelley should feel encouraged by the reception.
As with FGL’s songs, Kelley’s solo album is full of creative rhymes. He makes this combination work: “Seen all 50” rhymes with “tanks are empty.” Kelley’s delivery makes the most of his lyrics, too: I love how he slurs together his N’s when he riffs on beach imagery in “Sunburnt, barefoot and in Love,” like he’s dunking his cowboy slang in the surf.
Other songs, like “Say the Word,” are delivered simply, with George Strait confidence, stripping away the layers of Top 40, syrupy FGL harmonies.
Kelley’s new album isn’t trying to break new ground sonically, but that is its own type of creative freedom.
The new persona in his solo lyrics is a personal one. He left Ormond Beach to conquer the music world, and he’s done that with FGL. Through his music, he has returned, on his own, and of all the things he could be singing about, he decided to write "Florida Boy Forever," beginning with this line: “I grew up in Ormond Beach.”