A half became whole this summer.
Country music superstar Brian “BK” Kelley, “the Florida half” of top-selling country duo Florida Georgia Line, released his first solo album, “Sunshine State of Mind,” in which he vows to be a “Florida boy forever.”
Three or four of the songs were recorded in Key West at Jimmy Buffett’s Shrimp Boat Sound studio along Key West Harbor.
Kelley and friends had a big time while “working” in Key West: fishing, writing songs, drinking, recording songs, fishing, drinking, writing songs. And there are plenty of recognizable Keys references in the songs, including Hemingway, Key lime pie and a shout-out to Shrimp Boat Sound.
“I’ve always loved the Keys since I first visited with some family friends when I was a kid,” he said. “We stayed in Marathon, which was amazing. And I’ve been to Key West a bunch of times, for Songwriters Festival, to play around and most recently to record some songs for this album. We had previously played for two weeks at Smokin’ Tuna before we ever had a record deal, running around Key West like we owned the place. The artistic influence down there is unreal, with writers, painters, everything. You’re in this creative hub. It’s like that now, present day, but then learning the history of the place, and how it’s always been that way is pretty special. We love it down there.”
Kelley named his new sportfishing boat for his wife, Brittney Marie, who recently surprised him with a stay in Islamorada. “That was gorgeous,” he said. “So laid back except for the fishing, which is next level down in the Keys.”
But about the new solo album: Kelley wrote most of the songs and co-produced it with his friend Corey Crowder.
“Corey was amazing, and all the musicians who play on the album absolutely rocked it,” Kelley said. “Due to COVID, instead of being all together in the studio for every song, the musicians each recorded their parts individually in their home studios, then we mixed them together. It really let us hear and focus on each instrument. We could tell someone, “Play this part casually, as if you’re a little buzzed on a boat. It all worked out great.”
Kelley met “Georgia half” Tyler Hubbard in college, and the pair immediately started writing and playing music together.
“It had always been a dream of mine to do some solo stuff,” Kelley said. “Tyler and I had just finished recording our fifth album in May 2020, and while everything was shut down for COVID, I really circled back to my love for music and writing. I had a creative rebirth and I loved it.”
Kelley, a former baseball standout whose father was mayor of his hometown of Ormond Beach, Florida, sat down Tuesday with the Keys Weekly to talk about the new album, which we decided to classify as “beach country.”
The 17 songs are destined to become treasured summertime anthems, filled with beaches, boats, sunburn and summer love that, in the case of Kelley and wife Brittney, has lasted long past September.
One can almost smell the sunscreen and taste the saltwater when listening to “Sunburnt, Barefoot and In Love,” and to “Fish All Day,” which is Kelley’s current favorite song to play.
“I have guitars all over the house, and for some reason, I keep picking them up and playing ‘Fish All Day,’” he said, laughing. “It’s only four chords, but I’m loving it.”
Wearing a cowboy hat, a faded Hawaiian shirt and super-friendly smile throughout the conversation, Kelley perfectly fits his description of himself as a “beach cowboy.”
But something was missing from this interview — and from the singer himself. Ego. Kelley seems to have none of it.
He’s a huge deal. Florida Georgia Line has the best-selling digital country single of all time with “Cruise.” They’ve had 18 No. 1 singles, sold more than 40 million tracks and 4.8 million albums and played for more than 4 million fans in stadiums and arenas. But he didn’t mention any of that.
The superstar was most concerned about sounding authentic on the new album and in all his dealings.
“I really want to let people get to know me, and that’s what I tried to do with all the songs on this album,” he said. “This pile of songs are who I am — they’re mine and my life. And as I wrote them, I was feeling constant confirmation that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.”
But never fear, Florida Georgia Line fans, solo doesn’t mean alone.
Kelley will reunite with his Georgia half, Tyler Hubbard for a 29-stop tour this fall.
“We’re about to start rehearsing. We can’t wait to get back on the road and back on stage. COVID canceled last year’s tour with Kenny Chesney, along with everything else. That would’ve been amazing. It sucks when doing what you love gets taken away from you,” he said.
“And the energy we get from the road is so different from the studio,” he said. “We always end up writing some of our best songs while on tour. You never know what’s going to happen. Someone will say something offhand that becomes a lyric or an idea. It’s amazing how much writing we do on tour. Of course, we also have a heck of a lot of fun, and I think this one’s gonna be next-level. After so long without being on stage, Tyler and I are so jacked up to get out there again.”
The tour kicks off in Atlanta, “which is a perfect place to start,” Kelley said.
He may be a “Florida boy forever,” but Kelley’s a casual, comfortable and yes, authentic, combination of country and coast. Backwoods or beaches, bare feet or boots, he’s at home.
And as long as he’s making music with his wife nearby, Brian Kelley’s in a “Sunshine State of Mind.”
“Sunshine State of Mind” is available everywhere music is sold.