The Southern duo Florida Georgia Line are hardly the first vocal duo to hit pay dirt by casting their musical lot beyond Music Row. In the 1990s, Brooks & Dunn’s savvy blend of dance beats and big-tent rock with traditional country ideas helped them mint platinum records; the mid-2000s brought Big & Rich, whose cheeky injection of hip-hop swagger and jock-jam brawn led to crossover success.
The trajectory of “Cruise,” Florida Georgia Line’s 2012 breakthrough single, initially suggested that Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley might apply a slightly lighter touch to the Big & Rich aesthetic. A breezy stroll about the simple pleasure of tooling around town in a pickup truck with a comely member of the opposite sex, it hit big almost instantly, topping country airplay and sales charts, and a remix that added the rugged-voiced St. Louis MC Nelly helped nudge it into the top 10 of the all-genre Hot 100. Its sauntering beat and sticky chorus, with the song’s title stretched into a sing-along-ready “oo-oo,” proved inescapable not only that summer, but those that followed.
As FGL has since proven — and showed proudly on Friday night at Fenway Park — their version of country welcomes all comers. The first stadium-headlining show of their career, which came four years and change after they played the House of Blues just across Lansdowne Street, was a brisk affair packed with twangy hooks, draped in the signifiers “country music” has accrued over the years from whiskey to rebellion and filigreed with forays into expansive jams and hip-hop mixtape drones. Ballads included “Dirt,” a 2014 ode to life’s little moments that includes maybe the most romantic-sounding utterance of “10 percent down” to be heard in pop, and “H.O.L.Y.,” which the ever-animated Hubbard dedicated to the duo’s wives.
Right now Florida Georgia Line lead the country radio charts, with boy-turned-man-band Backstreet Boys assisting them on “God, Your Mama, and Me.” It splits the difference between down-home romance and teenpop balladry, with solo turns by smoothie Nick Carter and chatterbox AJ McLean hinting that the Backstreet Boys could easily turn to Nashville should the mood strike them. Should the Boys decide to do that, though, they’d be advised to guide the genre toward their defining aesthetics — big choruses a la the shimmering “I Want It That Way,” left turns like “Drowning” (which recalls one of Chicago’s sprawling Peter Cetera-era hits), and ultra-dramatic key changes like the one on the cell-phone escapade “The Call.” (Not to mention to the synchronized-move showmanship they displayed on Friday.)
In his raucous opening set, Nelly had teased “Hot In Herre,” the 2002 ode to partying ‘til one sweats; the song’s storming opening keyboards lit up the pre-dusk crowd, but he still deemed the stadium not yet ready. He instead brought it back as the lead-off to the encore, assisted by the clearly thrilled Kelley and Hubbard. Kelley then noted that the Backstreet Boys had headlined his first concert, and that brought out the quintet for a fiery run-through of their 1997 gauntlet-throw “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” The night ended with a peppy, all-hands-on-deck run-through of “Cruise,” accompanied by fireworks and stadium-wide “oo-oo”s that celebrated how Florida Georgia Line’s big country tent continues to grow.
Florida Georgia Line
With Backstreet Boys, Nelly, and Chris Lane
At Fenway Park, FridayMaura K. Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org