It started, as you might expect, with a truck.
“There were two dudes — I’m not joking — sitting on the tailgate of a truck across from my house,” Jesse Rice recalls of the first time he met Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, the singer-songwriters who would become Florida Georgia Line. It turned out they were his neighbors in a townhouse complex near Vanderbilt, and the duo had heard through the grapevine that Rice was a songwriter too. “We have a little duo, and we’re trying to get into country music,” the pair, still then students at Belmont University, told him. “We wanted to see if you’d like to write some time.”
“Well, at that point, I can’t say no, right?” Rice says, laughing. “They lived right across the street.”
Rice agreed to write with them, and they became fast friends. Not long after, Chase Rice (no relation), another aspiring songwriter and Kelley’s childhood friend, started joining the casual writing/football-watching sessions fresh off a stint on Survivor: Nicaragua. Then, the quartet wrote one of the most successful and impactful country songs of all time.
“I knew it was special,” Jesse Rice recalls of the day they wrote “Cruise.” “But I didn’t think it was going to change country music.”
The song-about-a-song is a straightforward-sounding, meticulously-constructed earworm that hinges on the most appealing and specific version of the now-ubiquitous masculine country checklist (lusty descriptions of women, backroads, trucks). It turned out to be something of a “generational gauntlet,” as critic Jody Rosen puts it — particularly in the form of its blockbuster Nelly-featuring remix, released 10 years ago this week. Its massive success colored much of what came after its 24 record-breaking weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart, whether that was songs trying to imitate it or the tidal wave of critical backlash.
“It definitively announced that this marriage of hip hop and country was happening,” Rosen says. “In commercial terms, in cultural terms, it’s got to be one of the 10 most important songs of the decade, of the past 20 years — whatever you got.”
“Cruise” and its pop experimentation paved the way for the vast majority of contemporary country music, in large part because of the way it seamlessly drew from an influence that, in previous iterations, mostly been cringeworthy: hip-hop. That innovation opened up Nashville’s sonic landscape in a way that’s still felt today – though it also tied it into a long history of one-way relationships between Black art and country music, which hasn’t necessarily gotten a lot more balanced in the years since.
The song’s origin story is a familiar one. Jesse Rice, Chase Rice and Kelley — Hubbard was called away for some long-forgotten work obligation — had gotten together to write at Jesse’s house. They were working on a ballad called “When God Runs Out of Rain,” and felt pretty good about it — good enough to take a lunch break. As they sat back down to finish the song after lunch, Kelley started strumming the chords G-D-Em-C – a progression that Jesse had used as the backbone to a rap medley during long cover gigs.
“I used to freestyle over it, so I just sort of started freestyling that first verse,” Jesse Rice recalls. “We were kind of like, ‘Whoa, what’s that? That sounds really freakin’ cool.’” 45 minutes later, the initial version of “Cruise” was committed to tape — and they went back to working on “Rain.”
Initially Jesse Rice was the one performing “Cruise” when the four of them went on an early tour of college towns in the Southeast. But when Kelley came up and harmonized with him during a soundcheck in Starkville, Mississippi, it became apparent that it needed to be a Florida Georgia Line song. Kelley and Hubbard performed it together for the first time in Tuscaloosa. “It sounded amazing,” Jesse says. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s a no-brainer. You guys are gonna do that one for the rest of the tour.’”
Kelley and Hubbard took the song to then-rising producer Joey Moi for one of their very first recording sessions. Moi had “discovered” them at a county fair before signing them to a publishing deal with the company now known simply as Big Loud. “We were very, very green in the studio,” Hubbard remembers. “Everything about it was a learning experience.”
“The very first time we worked in the studio together, it was partially about breaking them of the mentality that going in to record the song doesn’t mean it’s done,” says Moi. “Let’s dig back into these lyrics and make this better.” So they tinkered, “tightening the screws” on the lyrics, as Kelley describes it, for a few hours — distilling the song’s core idea into a pop monolith.
Then Moi got to work in a decidedly un-Nashville way, layering the song piece by piece like he did as a producer for Nickelback and other rock acts, rather than relying on an ace group of Music Row session players to knock it out in a few tries. “We would rely on a computer a lot to do that,” Moi says, in a tone that suggests taboo. “But it wasn’t like, ‘Well, I’m here to make a statement!’ It was just one of those things where you can only do what you know how to do.”
Moi has been in it long enough that radio formats are effectively his first language: “FGL incorporated a lot more rhythmic elements and active rock,” he explains. “We got to this neat, rock-hybrid, very live-venue-friendly, high-energy type of place.”
But according to Moi and the other “Cruise” co-writers, the song just proved to be the perfect exemplar of the simmering shift already taking place around Nashville; Moi’s first big Nashville production, Jake Owen’s Barefoot Blue Jean Night, had been something of an opening salvo, while Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” (2010) put hip-hop influences front and center (and later featured a Ludacris remix). “Cruise” would eventually take the top spot on the Hot Country Songs chart from Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” another take on Millennial-friendly country-pop crossover.
When Kelley and Hubbard stepped out of the studio, though, they weren’t thinking about any of that. “I mean, we couldn’t stop playing it ourselves,” Kelley recalls. “It felt so different and new, but it also felt like us. We felt like we were just onto something.”
They released the song, their very first single, to iTunes in April 2012. “I was like, ‘Damn, first single by a band that nobody knows? Nobody’s gonna hear this,’” says Chase Rice, who had thought the song might have a shot with a bigger act, like Luke Bryan. “Damn, was I wrong.”
“Cruise” started to take off, first in the iTunes store and then on SiriusXM’s The Highway. Then the bigger labels started to come calling, though they still weren’t sure the group was a slam dunk. “There was a little bit of apprehension, like, ‘Is this too far ahead?’” says Jimmy Harnen, who is now the president and CEO of Big Machine Label Group Records [then known as Republic Nashville]. “But like, everybody didn’t get Hootie and the Blowfish, for example, and [Atlantic A&R] Tim Sommer did,” he adds. “I kept asking myself, am I going to be the guy who doesn’t get this? Am I going to be the guy who passed on Hootie and the Blowfish?”
He didn’t become that guy, signing FGL to Republic Nashville (a joint venture between Big Machine and Republic Records) in July 2012. Though there were some conversations inside the label about whether the satellite success of “Cruise” would translate over the terrestrial airwaves, and even whether they should send “Tip It Back” — a slightly more familiar-sounding song off the duo’s second EP — to radio first. Instead, they decided to move ahead with “Cruise,” and it made its way up the country charts.
As it reached its first country chart peak (and a No. 16 peak on the Billboard Hot 100) in December of 2012, Republic Nashville started floating the idea of sending the song to pop radio — a decision that was still somewhat radical in the self-isolating world of commercial country music. “We wanted to solidify ourselves in Nashville and country radio,” Moi told Billboard of considering a pop push in 2013. “We were very hesitant. It was just kind of a scary thought, of trying to cross over.”
Still, Republic sent the record to producer Jason Nevins, who had achieved overseas success with a number of house-driven hip-hop remixes in the late ’90s and early ’00s, with the idea of creating a club-ready option for “Cruise” — something similar to the promotional “mixshow edit” he’d done for FGL’s Republic Nashville labelmates The Band Perry the year prior.
“I didn’t necessarily hear that for ‘Cruise’ at all,” Nevins explains. “I went back to them and said, ‘Guys, I have an idea that I think can make this into a real top 40 pop record.’”
That idea was simple: Nelly. 12 years after Country Grammar and “Ride Wit Me,” the melodic MC could join yet another breezy, summertime, driving-with-the-windows-down song — one penned by a few guys who had realistically been as influenced by the St. Louis rapper’s music as they had by any of their Nashville forebears. (FGL and Nelly would eventually perform the songs back to back at the American Music Awards.) It had been several years since the rapper had a bona fide smash, and his country resume — duetting with Tim McGraw on 2004’s “Over And Over” — was just a bonus.
Nevins still has the email that Republic CEO Monte Lipman wrote back. It was three words, in big red letters: “GREAT FUCKIN’ IDEA!” “Monte never writes emails to me like that,” Nevins says. “So I knew I was onto something.” Nelly was on Republic Records at the time, so there were no administrative hurdles.
The producer stripped “Cruise” down to the studs, omitting all the banjo and dobro that had made it fit in on country radio and rebuilding it around a less genre-specific and very Top 40-friendly sound. “That was the one area where we were skeptical,” says Moi. “We were like, ‘It’s really country — it’s going to take a lot to really land it in that space.’”
Very little of the original — besides the song itself — survived the transformation: twangy Telecaster riffs turned into new, hyper-processed vocal lines courtesy of Hubbard and Kelley, and acoustic guitar was pushed into the background to showcase the wall of harmonies.
The result was singular. A smiling country song with veneers, it combined the rabid, over-the-top party spirit of the EDM era with an enviably carefree, breezy backroads affect. Nelly’s verse, in which he rehashes the chorus with characteristic panache, is the cherry on top — the ultimate nostalgic, full-circle moment for an artist whose professional debut centered on touting his country bona fides.
“Brian wanted to play it for me for the first time in his truck,” Chase Rice recalls, “and it took me right back to frickin’ high school when Brian and I would drive around in the truck listening to Nelly. Now we’re driving around in the truck, listening to Brian and Tyler singing with Nelly on a song that I was part of writing — that’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Needless to say, the remix worked. Released to iTunes on April 2, 2013, it was downloaded 186,000 times its first week, immediately returning the song to the Hot 100 at No. 8 and sending it to its sixth week atop Hot Country Songs. The song was already double platinum; it would go platinum six times over by the end of 2013, and spend 24 total weeks atop Hot Country Songs — the longest run in that chart’s history, until Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” toppled the record in 2017. (FGL would almost immediately reclaim the title in 2018 with their Bebe Rehxa collaboration “Meant To Be,” and have held it since.)
The remix peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100, with the song spending 54 weeks total on the chart; it reached the top 10 on the Adult and Mainstream Top 40 charts as well, cementing its crossover appeal. Overall, the song is platinum 14 times over — diamond and then some — as of last October. All Billboard chart metrics and RIAA certifications combine the numbers for the original version with the remix, so it’s hard to know which record ultimately proved to be the most popular. But there’s no question that it was the remix that sparked “Cruise” to ubiquity — to the impossible-to-ignore success that made the song the line between one era of country music and another.
Of course, it sparked legions of imitators, most immediately a somewhat halfhearted remix of FGL’s own Luke Bryan collaboration “This Is How We Roll” with Jason Derulo (which reached Top 40 and was quite successful, albeit nowhere near the scale of “Cruise”). Rosen wrote a piece for New York Magazine about it that had nearly as much of an impact on country music as the song itself: “On the Rise of Bro-Country,” which coined the term that’s been bandied about ever since, most often as an indictment of the most superficial and laziest tendencies of country music’s commercially driven side.
As he described it then, “Cruise” epitomized a “movement that has been gathering steam for a few years now”: “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.”
The term became incredibly popular, mostly for use as a cudgel against the trend that FGL had crystallized with “Cruise.” “If I’m being honest, that s–t really drives me bananas,” says Jesse Rice. “You want to call ‘Cruise’ bro-country? ‘Cruise’ is a very complex song … not all of [that kind of music] is good, and maybe most of it wasn’t good, but I think it demeans some of it that was really good. Especially when you’re hearing it from people you’re working with in Nashville.”
“Bro-country” became inescapable as an idea, though, partly due to the lack of a better term for the sea change happening in the music. “Even at the time, you could recognize that there was some kind of changing of the guard going,” Rosen says now, echoing sentiments he predicted back in his 2013 piece. “That assessment still feels right in retrospect.”
It was, indeed, a turning point, on a scale even larger than Rosen had foreseen. “Cruise” emerged at the dawn of the streaming age, when genreless consumption — already a dominant mode — was on the cusp of taking over. The unbothered blending of country, rock and hip-hop influences that became Florida Georgia Line’s specialty would reshape country’s commercial sound completely, to the chagrin of both traditionalists and outsiders — and expand its reach exponentially.
“Whether you like what happened after that or you hate it, it took country music to a whole other level,” says Chase Rice. “For better or worse, it’s just never going away.”
It also took almost everyone involved to a whole other level, including Chase, who became a solo hitmaker in his own right; Moi, who became one of the genre’s most sought-after producers; Big Loud as an entreprise, and of course FGL as an act, with its 16 Country Airplay No. 1s and the genre’s first diamond-certified song. “Culturally and creatively, it just felt like the format was ready for a little bit more of a progressive sound,” adds Moi. “We just happened to land at the exact right time.”
In the meantime, Moi has found a new vehicle for rewriting country chart history with the same seemingly supernatural sensitivity to what listeners want in Morgan Wallen, whose music does bear shared DNA with what Rosen calls FGL’s “unselfconscious” genre-bending. One of Wallen’s biggest early breaks, 2017’s “Up Down” — his first Country Airplay chart-topper — included a guest spot for FGL.
“In the post-‘Cruise’ era, it feels like production is really important in country in a way maybe it hadn’t been,” Rosen says now. “The beats came in, hip-hop entered the picture. That is a marker now of all these acts, whether they’re really, truly conversant in hip-hop, or they just have a certain kind of rhythm in their sound.”
In other words, country evolved for a new generation and a wider audience in the same way it always has — on the back of Black art and artists. The biggest achievement of “Cruise,” in that light, is that it actually made a Black artist inextricable from a country hit that drew from Black music; that there was some degree of payoff to its casual appropriation. That piece of its success was, notably, not imitated. Black artists have faced as many barriers to contributing to Nashville’s music industry as they ever have over the past decade: for every artist like Kane Brown, Breland, Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton who’s inroads at country radio and on the charts, there’s been something to remind those artists of their otherness or make them feel like outsiders.
An oft-retold story among those who helped shape “Cruise” comes down to its most memorable hook, which also happens to be its opening line: “Baby you a song, you make me wanna roll my windows down, and cruuuuuuise.” Kelley, Chase Rice and Jesse Rice had originally written the line as, “Baby you’re like a song…”, and performed it that way for a while before Kelley and Hubbard elected to take it to Moi as a potential addition to their second EP.
They credit Moi with the idea of dropping the verb. “He kept saying, ‘Something just doesn’t feel right — the syllable just needs to hit on this beat,’” Kelley recalls. “At first you’re kind of married to [the original], but eventually it was like, ‘Oh, that is better.’” That decision made the hook both a lot smoother, and a lot closer to African American Vernacular English.
These kinds of happy-for-executives coincidences typically get explained away with ease. “They grew up listening to hip-hop as well as country,” Scott Borchetta, founder of the Big Machine Label Group, explained to the Washington Post in 2013 of the growing number of country artists incorporating hip-hop in their music. “It’s coming out in their music because it’s in their DNA.”
It certainly makes sense that hip-hop influences felt as intuitive for FGL-generation country artists as for any others who have come of age since hip-hop became mainstream pop. Watching Nelly perform alongside the duo, though, is a stark reminder of how in that exchange of ideas, the money tends to only flow one way; that while it might feel like hip-hop is “in [FGL’s] DNA,” it’s not. The intervening years have brought more efforts by both FGL and Nelly (among a number of other well-intentioned and like-minded artists) to correct that inequity. But “Baby you a song” isn’t just like Country Grammar — it is country grammar, a grammar that is as influential in country music today as ever.
The push and pull between progressive-minded inclusion and the genre-agnostic artistry it can create, and appropriation — from barely perceptible to egregious and everything in between — lives within “Cruise” and its legacy. The song’s victory, though, was the integration of a Black hip-hop artist into a huge hit that anyone asked would call country, and the destruction, however temporarily, of the fundamental, racist genre divide that has defined American recorded music from the start.
For the rest of their time making music together, Kelley and Hubbard never gave in to Nashville’s perennial concerns about whether they were making “real country music” or not. “We were pretty open minded about a lot of things,” Kelley says now. “When it came to collaborations, or songs and whether we wrote them or not, or getting in different genres or whatever — we always were just song chasers.”
That brought them their other win: an addictive, electric pop song whose reach and inventiveness has not yet been exactly replicated, despite seemingly all of Nashville’s best efforts. “We’re looking for the next ‘Cruise’,” Jesse Rice remembers hearing in the aftermath, as labels banged down his door. “No s–t’, you’re looking for the next ‘Cruise,’” he says. “You and everybody.”