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Florida Georgia Line was unsigned when it recorded the year's biggest country song, "Cruise." (Courtesy of the artist)

How A Hip-Hop Remix Helped Make 'Cruise' The Year's Biggest Country Hit

Dec 26, 2013 (Morning Edition)

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If you listen, even fleetingly, to commercial country music, you've heard the song "Cruise." It set a record this year for most weeks at No. 1 on the country charts — in history. "Cruise" is also the second-most-downloaded country song of all time, and it's expected to top that list soon.

It's by Florida Georgia Line, two young men who've become country superstars in less than a year.

Music critic Jody Rosen, who writes for New York magazine and is a huge fan of commercial country, says he's slightly baffled by the song's success.

"Now, 'Cruise' is one of the biggest hit country songs of all time," Rosen says. "It's a song simply about driving around in your car listening to a song like 'Cruise.' "

John Marks helped break the song. He's in charge of country music programming for Sirius XM.

"We started playing it very early," Marks says. "We started playing it in May 2012. And we played it a lot."

Back then, Florida Georgia Line wasn't yet signed to a label. It hadn't even released a full album. But "Cruise" shot to the top of the charts, and that caught the attention of Nashville's most successful independent label, Big Machine.

Big Machine built its reputation by signing Taylor Swift when she was unknown, as well as Tim McGraw. Label president Scott Borchetta had an idea to make "Cruise" even bigger: Do a remix.

"I said, 'You know, it'd be great if we could find the right hip-hop guy for this — we really could take it over the goal line,' " Borchetta says.

The guy Borchetta got was the rapper Nelly.

"He's sort of a washed-up rapper, but in Nashville it doesn't really matter," Jody Rosen says. "He's exotic simply because he's a rapper."

Exotic enough to help "Cruise" stick around on the country charts — and climb to the pop Top 10 over the summer. Rosen says "Cruise," like other contemporary country songs, incorporates hip-hop and the kind of raucous arena rock that topped the pop charts a few decades ago.

"Its sort of frat-dude music with a twang," he says.

Rosen says he sees "Cruise" as symptomatic of several things happening in Nashville today. First is the rise of what he calls bro country: "There just seems to be so many songs about guys sitting on their tailgate watching their girlfriend dance in Daisy Duke shorts in a field somewhere," he says.

Second, those songs celebrate a very different male character from country's archetypal strong, stoic man, "who has hidden pain, but when he's all alone and when he gets a couple drinks in him, he cracks, right? But right now, these younger guys are just singing a lot about partying."

That trend is impossible to ignore, says Amy Macy, a former Nashville marketing executive, now a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

"Eight out of the Top 40 titles have some term or reference to alcohol or partying or drinking right now on the charts," Macy says. "That's, what, [nearly] 25 percent of the Top 40."

Some examples: "Drunk Last Night" by the Eli Young Band, "Drink to That All Night" by Jerrod Niemann, "Drink a Beer" by Luke Bryan, "Cold Beer With Your Name on It" by Josh Thompson, and Little Big Town's "Sober" — a song about the opposite of being sober.

Borchetta concedes that Nashville may have a problem.

"Everybody in Nashville must be drinking 24-7," Borchetta says with a laugh. "We're a bunch of drunks down here.

"There's too much, to be honest with you," he adds. "We can't keep talking about Fireball [whiskey] and Coors Light and having the tailgate down, etc. So we'll task our writers and artists to dig a little deeper."

Even if "bro country" won't stick around forever, hits do tend to spawn imitators, Amy Macy says. So until the next big country trend, she says, hold on to your Daisy Dukes.

"Or maybe burn them, is what I say," she says.

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