“That was money.”
Songwriter-producer Corey Crowder (“Hangin’ On,” “Famous”) beamed after Florida Georgia Line‘s Tyler Hubbard wrapped the final take on “If You’re Country and You Know It (Raise a Beer).” It was roughly 2:30 p.m. in the middle of summer — backstage on Aug. 19 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines — and FGL had turned the air conditioning off on its bus for a short recording session. Co-writer Hunter Phelps took the mic next to add a little “Parmesan” — slang for backing vocals — as the crew put key touches on a demo for a song that was written in a couple hours while the Ferris wheel, visible through a bus window, rotated in the background.
It was a productive day. And maybe a money day. FGL played a fair-closing set that night, and the duo also cranked two new songs on the Tree Vibez bus that have already experienced some level of public exposure. Hubbard performed a snippet of “If You’re Country and You Know It” that same night, and “Throwback” — a song that FGL’s Brian Kelley finished writing in the front of the bus with Jordan Schmidt (“Drunk Me,” “You Make It Easy”), Ernest K. and Michael Hardy (“Simple,” “Up Down”) — is already set to appear on Hardy’s first EP in a new deal with Big Loud.
The Tree Vibez bus is a big behind-the-scenes part of FGL’s ever-expanding enterprises. The pair recognized early after establishing its publishing company in 2015 that there was plenty of downtime on tour, and it leased the bus to use the clock productively. “Simple,” currently at No. 3 on both Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs, was penned on the bus, as was Jason Aldean‘s No. 1 single “You Make It Easy.”
“It’s bigger than what B.K. and I envisioned it being,” says Hubbard.
Bus writes have produced an enormous amount of material — the record is 14 songs in a scant four days — and allowed FGL to shift the writing component of its work to the road, leaving the duo more time with family while it’s at home in Nashville. Additionally, it’s a great place for co-writers and potential Tree Vibez staff writers to audition for a deal.
“Anybody that we’ve signed has been on the bus as a trial run,” says Kelley. “If you can make it work on the bus, make it work in the studio, it’s kind of the test. If those have been crossed off, we kind of know they’re keepers.”
At the moment, the Tree Vibez roster boasts six “keepers” — including Crowder, Schmidt and artists RaeLynn and Canaan Smith — under the direction of GM Leslie DiPiero and creative tour manager Adam Romaine, who’s quite familiar with FGL writing on vehicles. In their pre-stardom infancy, Hubbard and Kelley routinely penned songs on a pickup in the driveway, and Romaine’s 11-year history with the duo gives him enough insight to mix and coordinate the songwriting assignments on a given tour.
“I used to be the guy that sat in the truck bed and was drinking beer and smoking Black & Milds, and not really understanding what they were doing,” he says. “But I understood the hang thing. I saw them working well together and having fun, and that’s what I like to re-create out here is just the good time with some boundaries.”
The “hang thing” is crucial. The bus is intimate, unpredictable logistics require patience, and writers are basically together for hours — sometimes days — when they head out on the Tree Vibez bus.
“There’s some people who really like touring, and there’s some writers that don’t like touring,” notes Romaine. “It definitely takes a personality to come in and be able to hang out with everybody and respect each other’s space as well as be living together basically for three days, four days.”
Thus far, some 90 songwriters have been booked on the bus, and in similar fashion to more traditional writing at a publishing house, there’s a developmental process. Hardy wrote 21 or 22 bus songs before he co-wrote “Simple,” and that road setting is valuable. He ended up singing “Up Down” with FGL during the Iowa State Fair concert, and he appreciates the opportunity to witness fans’ response to FGL and its material.
“You can get in a bubble as a songwriter and just forget that that’s what you do it for,” says Hardy. “You get to go out there and see people just singing every word. It’s very fulfilling and very reminding of why you’re here in the first place.”
The benefit is likewise there for FGL. It helps the duo develop new material, builds catalog for Tree Vibez to pitch to other artists and is viewed by some writers as an added attraction to signing with FGL’s publishing house. Plus, it injects creative stimulation into a tour itinerary that’s dominated by the boredom of travel and the repetition of performing a fairly predictable set of songs on a nightly basis.
“Putting on a show, if we do our job perfectly, it will be identical to how it was the night before,” says Hubbard. “When we walk on the Tree Vibez bus and use the other side of our brain, every single day is going to be different, every song is going to sound different, so I think we almost do that to keep it fresh out here on the road and to keep us all excited.”
Plenty of acts now bring songwriters on tour, though FGL might be the only one that leases a separate bus specifically for writing. It also allows it to send Tree Vibez writers on other tours with the likes of Dustin Lynch, Lady Antebellum or Kelsea Ballerini. It’s a sign that FGL thinks outside of the box, much as it has in its other enterprises, including Old Camp Whiskey, FGL House and the Tree Vibez fashion line. Every money day in one venture lets them take further risks in another.
“We’ll always invest in ourselves and what we feel in our gut,” says Kelley, “whether that’s a restaurant or a whiskey or a songwriter.”