Brian Kelley Reveals His ‘Tennessee Truth’ on New Solo Album: ‘I Wasn’t Holding Anything Back’

“We’ve got liquor, records, worms, lures, all the good things here in Florida at our house,” Brian Kelley tells Billboard via Zoom, from his pool house-turned-tackle room (and sometimes songwriting room) at his Florida residence. “When it’s open for songwriting season I call it the Song Saloon; when it’s fishing season, it’s the Tackle Shop or the Tackle Box.”

Kelley’s willingness to mesh various aspects of his life is distilled into his new solo album, Tennessee Truth, out May 10 via Big Machine Records. That rural imagery of creeks, ponds, fishing lures, dirt roads, and plenty of outdoors-oriented brand names from Mossy Oak to John Deere — are threaded throughout songs including “Dirt Road Date Night,” “Acres,” and “How We’re Livin’”.

As the Florida half of duo Florida Georgia Line, Kelley helped usher in country music’s “bro-country” era with a slate of FGL hits including two songs that would go on to be certified Diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America signifying sales in excess of 10 million: “Cruise” and the Bebe Rexha collab “Meant to Be.” The duo earned 16 Billboard Country Airplay No. 1s and more than 13 billion global streams and played to more than 4 million fans in arenas and stadiums.

After Florida Georgia Line went their separate ways following a fallout in 2020, both Kelley and Hubbard launched solo careers — something Kelley says “is not easy, in a sense, being kind of a new guy, a new voice” — noting that Hubbard had handled the bulk of the lead vocals in FGL. “My lead vocal hadn’t been out there, so it’s been a fun challenge. You find out who you are, musically.”

Though Kelley issued his debut solo album, Sunshine State of Mind, in 2021 via Warner Music Nashville and his own Nashville South label, he considers his new album to be his “true debut.” The album’s “See You Next Summer” reached the top 30 on Country Airplay.

Kelley took an intentional, diligent approach to spilling his Tennessee Truth, ultimately co-writing eight of the dozen songs, and working with writers including Thomas Archer, Matt McGinn, Kaitlin Owen, Blake Pendergrass, Jimmy Robbins and Michael Tyler.

“I didn’t care what their songwriting credentials were, I just wanted to write with more people and wanted my circle to grow. I wasn’t holding anything back,” Kelley says of the new project. “I want people to see that I’m no different than the people listening to this record — I love working hard, I love family, God and country. Hunting, fishing and being outdoors is how we navigate our lives.”

For Kelley, the songwriting process is not unlike a day spent on the lake catching fish.

“You don’t know what you’re going to get — you may get half a song, you may get a hit. It’s about showing up, even if you don’t feel 100% or don’t feel inspired. With songwriting and fishing, it’s about how patient can you be until something inspires a line or a title.”

Working with mega-producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Megadeth, Faith Hill), Kelley eschewed many of the hip-hop inflected sonics of his work with FGL, instead leaning on more acoustic-based and rock-oriented (yet still radio-polished) instrumentation.

“Dann has a way of branding each individual artist sonically in its own way,” Kelley explains. “You could talk about Rascal Flatts, you could talk about Keith Urban. He’s produced so many great records and they all sound different. He loved how hard I wanted to push on this album and make some songs a little heavier. On ‘King Ranch,’ he sent five different guitar solos he’d played. I picked one and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re an ’89 metalhead with that solo.’”

Though the bulk of the album leans on light-hearted, outdoorsy fare, the album’s closing song — and its corresponding video — have garnered speculation and controversy. After Kelley released “Kiss My Boots,” which he wrote with Dylan Guthro, some listeners speculated the song’s vengeful lyrics of betrayal were aimed at his former FGL bandmate Hubbard. Those murmurings were heightened with the release of the music video, which featured Kelley hunting down a snake and ending with a scene of Kelley, his “Florida” belt buckle in clear view, while peeling a peach (the official state fruit of Georgia, Hubbard’s homestate).

Kelley didn’t address if the song was about Hubbard, saying, “The song started with the line about ‘comes out with the whiskey,’ and we were just channeling a sense of standing up for yourself and that means a bunch of different things for all of us that wrote it that day,” Kelley says. “Everybody has a couple of people on their ‘Kiss My Boots’ list, especially in this industry. This was a chance to let fans, listeners know that another of my truths is I’ve gone through things in life, I’ve had struggles and navigating how to be a healthy adult or take the high road. I wanted to give people an anthem, an outlet.”

Kelley filmed the video at his wife Brittney’s family farm in Musella, Georgia, the same place another album track, “Acres,” is written about.

“We were there and Dickey’s Peach Farm is right down the road — so we thought it was a cool moment because of the character I play, the snake catcher guy, has just gone through hunting down and killing this snake,” he says. “I think people could take it many ways, but for me I took it as you just got the snake, you’re relaxed and waiting for the next call and I’m done for a second. I thought it was cool, but that’s the freedom of putting art into the world — people can take it however they want.”

He says the theatrical mode of the video was intentional. “I didn’t want to perform or sing — I didn’t want to lip synch anything and make it like every other video we’ve all done. I wanted it to be a piece of art. I went to Belmont [University] in Nashville and got my degree in entertainment industry studies, which was movies, music, television. So it’s cool to live out all those things and put my touch on everything that I’m involved with.”

Kelley offered more details on what led to the duo’s breakup on the Bussin’ With the Boys podcast on Thursday (May 9), saying that the duo had initially agreed to wait on putting out solo music until after their fifth studio album had been released. Kelley said that in December 2020, he got a call from Hubbard informing him that Hubbard would be releasing a collaboration with Tim McGraw; that song, “Undivided,” released in January 2021. Then after the release of Kelley’s solo album in June 2021, Kelley says Hubbard reached out to him and “it was made known to me that we were kinda done.” Kelley added, “It went from no music for the foreseeable future, to now we’re not even going to tour… I’m just here to tell the truth, I’m not here to try to burn down anything, whatever, I’m just here to stand up for myself and my family, and like I said, the fans.” [Billboard has reached out to Hubbard’s camp for comment but has not heard back as of press time.]

Outside of their separate solo careers, another signal of FGL’s diverging paths is the recent, sudden closing of their bar FGL House in Nashville (which opened in 2017), in addition to the previous closures of their music publishing company Tree Vibez and the shuttering of their Old Camp Whiskey. But Kelley has slowly built his own slate of entrepreneurial outlets over the past few years, including the Tribe Kelley Surf Post in Grayton Beach, Florida, and the Papa Surf Burger Bar in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida (Kelley and his wife Brittney teamed with Jason and Brittany Aldean on the Burger Bar venture). The Kelleys bought an old home-turned-café during the COVID pandemic and had already conceptualized the name for the Papa Surf Burger Bar.

“We got a good deal on the place before all the real estate went nuts,” he tells Billboard. “We knew there was a need for a burger joint, and we love real estate and architecture and interior design, so it was great renovating that house and blending the old with the new. This is hopefully, fingers crossed, one of many Papa Surfs that will pop up along coastal areas, but this is kind of the flagship.”

He also notes that his entrepreneurial tendencies run in the family: “My dad is 81 years old and still looking at little real estate things. I’m like him — I just love to work and to create.”

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