“Grayton is going OFF!” Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line, rejoices as he breezes through sunspots under a canopy of cypress trees.
From atop his Walton County Sherriff’s Office E-bike, Brian Kelley slaps a high five to an older man walking the other direction. He throws up a shaka to a couple of moms strolling with their children. He rolls through town with the unbridled joy of a kid who just unwrapped a bike on Christmas morning. Either nobody knows, or nobody cares, that the giant, happy man on the E-bike is one of the biggest names in country music. He’s just a big guy in a great mood on a sunny day.
And why shouldn’t he be? The Florida half of Florida Georgia Line is living his outdoors dream. He is cranking out solo records from his office overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, then hopping on a boat and fishing until the sun goes down. Life is good when you build your dream home on the end of an idyllic inlet. And spend every day immersed in your passions of music, love, and fishing the glimmering turquoise waters of Florida.
A life of lessons learned from fishing
In Grayton Beach, Florida, “going off” doesn’t mean the bars are jampacked, and the town is ready to rage. It means the little beach town carved out of cypress trees on the Gulf of Mexico is at its best. With bright sunshine and blanketing breezes making every moment a vacation.
Today, Grayton most certainly is going off, which renders the day’s subpar fishing almost irrelevant. The weather has inspired Brian Kelley, who’s already packed his 17-foot Scout Sport 177 with a cooler of Oyster City Helles Lagers and a bucket of live bait. “The bite’s not on today”, Kelley says with absolutely no apology as he hooks a squirming shrimp. “But let’s get out here and see.”
The sun is setting, and a full moon is rising over the dunes that separate the fresh water inlet near his home from the Gulf of Mexico. Not far from the water, a bald eagle sits perched in a cypress tree. The day is perfect, though a fish hasn’t even thought about biting. “I get a lot out of fishing,” he muses, as the sun goes down, and his bobber does not. “Whether you take a fish out of water or not, you’re taking something with you. The experience, the patience, the stories, and the frustration. You’re not always gonna catch something, but you still showed up”.
The positivity he’s learned from his time on the water carries over into his music too. “You know, it’s like if I’m in the studio,” he muses, reeling in his empty hook and casting again. “Maybe I didn’t catch anything, or I feel like I didn’t knock out those vocals. But I still showed up, and I got better because I showed up, and I did it. So, yeah, I think you can equate fishing to life.”
Fishing has been a part of 37-year-old Brian Kelley’s life since he was a kid growing up in Ormond Beach, Florida. It’s the odd place where you can drive right up on the sand and set up a beachside tailgate. But Kelley spent his formative years exploring the backwaters and retaining ponds of the area, planting a fishing line wherever he could. “My mom and dad had a little boat, and we’d go to the springs, to the back rivers,” he says. “There was this retention pond, and we’d go back there and catch brim with bread balls.”
Fishing may have been his pastime, but baseball was his life. And the standout pitcher spent much of his teen years traveling for the sport. Even then, he would escape to a golf course or embankment, cast out a line, and clear his mind from the day.
Baseball brought him to Florida State University, where he literally batted 1.000, going 1-for-1 over two seasons with the Seminoles. Rather than pursuing a career in baseball, he headed to Nashville. Eventually linking up with Tyler Hubbard and forming the duo that became Florida Georgia Line.
But he knew he’d always come back to the southern saltwater that’s in his DNA. “The goal was always to make enough money to move back to Florida,” he says. “Me and (my wife) Brittney came down here in 2013, rented a house in Seaside, and ended up paddle boarding back here. We saw this house, and it just looked like Swiss Family Kelley.”
Three years later, they bought that house at the end of the inlet. And Brian Kelley has spent the better part of the last six years making himself a fixture in the community.
He is part-owner of Oyster City Brewing in Apalachicola, about two hours away. The Tribe Kelley Surf Post in downtown Grayton is a family business. And it sits downstairs from the singer’s office and recording studio. But more than investing, he’s visible in Grayton Beach, whether trolling the waters or biking through town.
A new album inspired by time at home and on the water
Before going fishless on the water, Brian Kelley took an E-bike tour through his adopted hometown. He was chortling with excitement every time he stopped. “This is my favorite pin drop in the world,” Kelley announces as he brakes his E-bike along the Grayton Beach boardwalk. He is standing in a sea of sand dunes and fresh water, an odd geologic formation that allows sunbathers to wade out and post up for the day between golden mounds and turquoise sea. “Sometimes, I like to just bring out a lawn chair, maybe a cooler,” he says, “put my chair over there in less than a foot of water and let the gulf breeze blow over me. That’s my Sunday, that’s my heaven.”
The experience, he says, was the inspiration for “Sunday Service,” track 16 on his debut solo album Sunshine State of Mind. Other tracks on the album have names like “Highway On The Water,” “Party On The Beach,” and “Fish All Day”. Each one, an upbeat, chilled-out country jaunt through cold beers, warm breezes, and open waters. They are, quite literally, a soundtrack to Brian Kelley’s life.
He wrote and recorded most of the album during the height of the pandemic, when he and Brittney immersed themselves in the salt life culture of the Florida coast. They split time between a rental house and their property’s carriage house while the main home was renovated. And it afforded the couple the opportunity to slow down and take inventory of what was truly important. The result is track seven, “Don’t Take Much.”
The couple’s home is finished now, a high-ceilinged octagon that looks more like a luxe backcountry fishing lodge than a celebrity mansion. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the inlet, and a 36-foot tower stands atop a spiral staircase, ideal for songwriting inspiration. In the living area, mismatched Yeti cups and beer steins line their shelves, next to numerous awards, bottles of Blue Label, and vintage Dom Perignon.
The Kelleys have no children but are proud parents to a quartet of dogs: Stone, Sage, Sunday, and Smoke. The first three are German Shepherds, the last a gleaming white Husky/Alaskan Timeberwolf/German Shepherd mix. The dogs are alarmingly well-behaved, until Brian decides to show off. “Watch this,” he says, smiling and raising his hands. Like a conductor leading an orchestra, he gestures towards the dogs, and they break into a simultaneous chorus of ear-splitting barks. Then, just as quickly, they stop when he gestures again. He smiles and nods quickly, as if to say, “Pretty cool, right?” And just as the silence begins to set in, he drops his hands, and the dogs erupt in noise again.
The clock strikes 8 p.m., and Brittney mercifully announces it’s almost their bedtime. But Brian insists on a late-night golf cart ride through town. As we bounce over the bumpy, beachy streets of Grayton Beach, he points out house after house, explaining in great detail how much it sold for when it was last on the market. It’s like riding around with a talking Zillow app, set to sound like Florida Georgia Line. “We’d love to do something with that one right there,” he says as Brittney drives by a squat, red cinderblock compound. “Leave the outside but just do a total reno on the inside. The dream, you know, someday is to own a bed and breakfast here.”
As night falls and the sand dunes and turquoise water fade into a gentle, crashing darkness, Grayton has finished going off for the day. Assorted crowds still mingle at Red Bar and Chiringo, aka the local watering hole. But the glorious sunshine is taking a break until it comes back around in the morning. Brian Kelley pulls back in through the gates of his dream home and seems completely satisfied with a day where he didn’t accomplish much, other than getting outside and making the most of where he lives.
“I don’t know if I got any better today,” he says, sipping a nightcap of Old Camp whiskey and Publix ginger ale. He exudes the happiness of self-actualization, as he muses on the day in his wood-lined private bar. “Maybe I didn’t catch anything, but fishing is fun. Whether it’s for fun or to eat, it’s a good way to connect. I’ve made a lot of great friends fishing, and it’s just good for the soul, ya know? It’s good for the soul.”