Digital Cover Story Exclusive: Brian Kelley Goes Solo with Debut Album ‘Tennessee Truth’

Brian Kelley swung open the downstairs door of American Songwriter’s Nashville office and strode in. He was wearing snug jeans and a white cowboy hat. His blond hair hung to the top of his aqua blue shirt collar, and Kelley was all smiles as he talked about his dogs.

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[RELATED: Exclusive: Brian Kelley Mourned FGL House, Is Excited About New Burger Joint with Jason Aldean]

The singer left his three German shepherds at home, but as Kelley heads to the couch, he laughs, talking about the nicknames they’ve picked up over the last decade. Stone sometimes goes by Bucky. Sage has a food allergy and is on special food—although Kelley can’t figure out how it helps because she won’t stop eating things out of the backyard. At nine years old, their white German Shepherd, Sunday, is the group’s baby. Kelley called her the “unicorn.”

Kelley was suddenly professionally single the following year for the first time in his career. He asked himself what he wanted to say, what he hoped to sound like, and if he was making the right decisions. When juggernaut country producer Dann Huff signed on to work on his project, Kelley felt validated.

“That was a big fricking deal to get his blessing to say, ‘Hey, yeah, I’d love to produce this record,'” Kelley shares.

Kelley released his debut solo album, Tennessee Truth, on May 10.

“We love them,” Kelley tells American Songwriter. “They’re literally our family.”

Family means everything to Kelley—the one he was born into and the one he chose. He speaks adoringly of his wife, Brittney, with whom he celebrated 10 years of marriage in December. However, other significant relationships in his life have crumbled in recent years. Kelley rose to fame as half of Florida Georgia Line in 2012 in the wake of the duo’s runaway smash “Cruise.” Kelley considered Tyler Hubbard his brother, and they enjoyed 18 chart-toppers before announcing their split in 2022—a choice Kelley maintains wasn’t his. He dropped his Sunshine State Of Mind passion project in 2021—after Hubbard released his Tim McGraw duet “Undivided.”

“His voice is a really beautiful sweet tenor,” Huff says, explaining that he understands how complicated it is to keep a band together, but that Kelley never said an ill word about Hubbard. “We struck up a relationship. His enthusiasm and passion for what he was doing was evident. He worked so hard, and I loved how much he cared about his vocals. I love the way he sings.”

While Sunshine State of Mind preceded Tennessee Truth, Kelley still considers the latter his debut album as a solo artist. He wanted Tennessee Truth to reflect the simplicity of his life with Brittney. The singer assumes people see his success with FGL and think he leads an extravagant life. But when you strip it down, he said, the couple enjoy being outside in the country, on the lake, or by the beach. He likes piddling on the farm when he’s off work or just being at home cooking food and spending time with the dogs. 

“It’s not crazy fancy,” he says. “It’s not swinging from chandeliers. It’s finding myself wanting to work hard to really not do much.”

Sonically, on Tennessee Truth, Kelley wanted to lean into country elements and maximize the opportunity to work with Huff. He wrote song lyrics to highlight the simplicity of his life. His favorite songs include the opening track, “Acres,” which he calls “a banger.” Kelley was inspired to write it after spending time with his wife on her family’s farm in Georgia. 

“I’ve closed my eyes, and I can put us there riding around,” he says. “That’s that scene. And I just think it’s a fun journey.”

He explains the song is an up-tempo, complete with fiddle, big drums, impressive vocals, and roaring guitars. “It’s a fun ride to start the record, and I think it kind of sets the tone for what’s to come,” he says. “I think it’s a good strong listen down from the top. But I think if you threw a dart at it and just picked a song to start, you’d be okay to enjoy it.”

“King Ranch” is a head-bobbing sing-along Kelley admits won’t win Song of the Year. He and his co-writers knocked it out in his studio over at the Kelley’s surf shop in Grayton Beach, Florida. He had the title and said the song practically wrote itself. 

“I didn’t want to overthink it,” he says. “It’s real to me, and I just thought it’d be fun. People need fun songs that just sound good and provide a little bit of escapism for not taking life too serious.”

Brian Kelley (Photo by Ben Christensen)

The lyrics of “Barefeet or Boots” were ripped from his life with Brittney. He sings: You’re my best friend, yeah, my little river runner | My hop-in sexy Chevy shot-gunner | Don’t matter where we slippin’ off to | Ain’t nothing like you, baby, bare feet or boots.

“It’s a great representation of how we live,” he adds. “We love being in a pair of boots in Nashville working, or out on the farm in a pair of snake boots, walking around, fishing or clearing stuff or bare feet riding around our little beach town in Florida on an e-bike.”

Kelley laughs that “Dirt Cheap” might have been his favorite song on the album, but when Cody Johnson released a song of the same name, he had to rethink it. 

“Kiss My Boots,” the album’s final track, is another defining moment—for the album and of Kelley’s life. The contentious lyrics reflect a betrayal Kelley suffered, and he makes it clear he isn’t talking about his wife.

[RELATED: Exclusive: Brian Kelley Talks “Brave” Choice to Release “Kiss My Boots” and Getting Dann Huff’s Blessing]

He wrote the defiant anthem with Dylan Guthro. Kelley sings: I’m crankin’ Hank, drinkin’ Jack, airin’ out the past | Want the world to know that you did me wrong | I don’t how you act sweet, after how you did me | Here’s a middle finger to you through a song | Comes out in the whiskey, comes out when I’m tipsy | I can’t help but tell that Tennessee truth.

Writing the song felt healing and empowering. Releasing it was brave, Kelley states. “People could make it about anything they want, and that can be good or bad,” Kelley says. “Being vulnerable and letting people know, ‘Hey, I’ve been through a tough time at a point in my life. I’ve struggled in a relationship and dealing with that.’ Putting that down on paper and to music, to a song and recording it, putting it out to the world, I think that’s a big deal.”

He says Tennessee Truth has a song for every mood, and it is not a Florida Georgia Line album. There are heavier songs than fans are used to hearing from him, tracks expressing a different point of view and more attitude, yet an inherent ease in the collection, as well as unexpected production elements. 

“People know what I have come from, what I helped build, and what we helped pioneer and trailblaze,” he says, referring to Florida Georgia Line. “So pulling from just everything, but really at the end of the day, just wanting to be in the country world and be able to represent myself and represent my family and our values and how we live and what we love and just the simplicity of country music.”

Courtesy Big Machine Records

By the end of the album, Kelley hopes listeners understand that regardless of Florida Georgia Line’s astronomical success, at his core, he’s just a Florida native, married to the love of his life, who does his best to keep track of his dogs’ flea and tick treatment. 

“All of us artists are real people,” he says. “We all go through things. I’m just like the people who will listen to these songs. I work hard. I have my struggles with trying to chase a dream and trying to better myself as a human and mental health, physical health, career, family man, husband, trying to juggle things, and dog father. It’s just that perception of what people could or may have of me coming from where I came from. But I want to say, ‘Hey, I’m a real person just like y’all. I put my heart on the line, and then I put it out for the world.'”

Photos by Ben Christensen

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