Like the fantasy finale of a sentimental movie, expect a hometown crowd to go crazy when award-winning country duo Florida Georgia Line headlines on Feb. 21 at the Daytona 500.
Family, neighbors, teachers, coaches, childhood fishing buddies. All will be cheering Ormond Beach native Brian Kelley, local-boy-turned-superstar as half of country music’s hottest hit-making machine.
“It’s kind of like a dream,” said the star’s mother, Mary Margaret Kelley, whose household chores now include dusting one of her son’s Country Music Association awards. She and her husband, Ormond Beach Mayor Ed Kelley, sometimes turn to each other in happy disbelief when they see their son on yet another TV show.
“We look at each other and start laughing,” Ed Kelley said. “’Can you believe this?’”
Since joining forces in 2010, Kelley and musical partner Tyler Hubbard have repeatedly gone platinum as Florida Georgia Line laid siege to the country charts with hit singles such as “Cruise,” “Get Your Shine On,” “This is How We Roll” and “Dirt.”
In 2015, Florida Georgia Line took home vocal duo of the year at the CMA Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards, Billboard Music’s top country artist honor and a CMT Music Award for duo video of the year. At the American Music Awards, the pair claimed favorite duo or group and favorite country album for their 2014 “Anything Goes” release.
For the past two years, Kelley, 30, and his wife, Brittney, have lived in a rustic-looking home built into a mountainside on 32 acres outside of Nashville, Tenn. The house was featured in an edition of Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters,” when the show added a lavish two-story “modern treehouse” to the property, complete with a recording studio, living room, master suite — and wood from a beloved backyard treehouse from Kelley’s childhood home in Ormond Beach.
Even after such success, Kelley acknowledges that it will be special to play two concerts in Volusia County in coming months — the Daytona 500, followed in May by the Country 500, a 3-day music festival on Memorial Day weekend at Daytona International Speedway. It will be as emotional for him to look out on familiar faces as it will be for them to watch him in the spotlight, the singer said.
“It’s a dream come true to play shows of this scale back home,” Kelley said.
Lance Heck doesn’t even need to close his eyes to recall the neighborhood routines that he once shared with childhood friend Brian Kelley in neighborhoods on the western edge of The Trails subdivision in Ormond Beach.
“My family lived in Hidden Hills, the Kelleys were in Tidewater, in the back of the neighborhood,” said Heck, 31, now an executive at Chase Business Banking in Jacksonville. “It was probably 8 or 10 houses between us and if we weren’t at the baseball field, we were at the fishing hole.”
For many kids, video games ruled in the mid-1990s, when Brian Kelley was attending Tomoka Elementary School.
That wasn’t the case in the tight-knit, tree-lined bend that encompassed Hidden Hills and Tidewater drives, where youngsters stretched every moment of afternoon sunlight to play pick-up football games on well-tended lawns, explore nearby woods or drop bait into a creek off the Tomoka River.
“It’s kind of a hidden street, Tidewater Drive,” said Carl Persis, a former principal at Tomoka Elementary and ex-Ormond Beach city commissioner and Volusia County councilman who lived across the street from the Kelleys. “There are only 13 houses on it and half of them back up to the Tomoka River.
“Everybody knew everybody,” Persis said. “There were always a lot of kids on the street. They all went to Tomoka Elementary and I was principal there for 13 years. You get to know the parents and the kids really well when you have them for that period of time.”
The Kelleys strictly limited the time that Brian and his older sister, Katherine, could play video games in the family home at 8 Tidewater Drive.
“We wanted them to be well-rounded,” said Ed Kelley, recalling that the Nintendo ban had an unintended consequence when his son started traveling with competitive youth baseball teams.
“On the trips, the kids would all pull out their video games and he was the worst one,” he said. “We didn’t let him practice.”
On the baseball field, however, Brian was a hard-working athlete with natural gifts. A 6-foot-5-inch, left-handed pitcher at Seabreeze High School, Brian seemed destined to shine bright on the baseball diamond.
“If you had asked people if he was going to be a pro baseball player or musician,” said Heck, his childhood friend, “most everyone would have said baseball player.”
But Brian Kelley came up with a different idea.
‘NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’LL FIND’
The elder Kelley made the first investment in his son’s as-yet-unimagined music career at the Daytona Flea & Farmers Market when Brian was a junior at Seabreeze.
“When I was 16, my dad and I went to the flea market,” Brian said. “It was one of our things because you never know what you’ll find out there. Then, one day I just really wanted to play guitar. So dad bought me one. It wasn’t very expensive, but I learned a couple of songs.”
By the time Brian was in high school, the family had moved from Tidewater Drive into another tree-lined Ormond Beach neighborhood. The $100 instrument wasn’t a major turning point that anyone could recognize. Brian continued to star on the baseball diamond, not in school talent shows.
“It was kind of undercover,” Brian said, “but I was in love with it.”
Armed with a guitar, Brian started quietly learning the Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney songs that his older sister would blast when she chaperoned her kid brother around town.
“I was really into country music when he was younger, so we’d listen to that,” said Katherine Kelley, now a middle-school physical education teacher in Orange County. “When he started writing the songs, we saw a creative side we hadn’t seen as much.”
After his Seabreeze graduation in 2004, Brian attended Florida State University with high hopes to again become a baseball star. When he spent most of his time on the bench, music dominated his thoughts. He performed at a local church and pushed himself to become a better songwriter.
“I’d be in class, writing songs in my head,” Brian said. “I didn’t really want to do school. I just wanted to write music and play music.”
Childhood friend Heck recalls the impact of Brian’s music when he was desperately homesick at college in Indiana.
“He sent me a demo album that was just him, all the vocals and the guitar,” Heck said. “It helped me through a very difficult time in life, the lyrics he had written. That’s the first time I thought, ‘Wow, Brian can produce music.’ He was still there for me as a friend, 800 miles away, through music he created.”
Brian returned to Ormond Beach, pitched successfully for the baseball team at Daytona State College and decided to move to Nashville for a genuine shot at the music business.
“He jumped right in and was willing to do the early morning workouts, the running the pitchers have to do,” said Tim Touma, Daytona State baseball coach. “He wanted to come here and be the best pitcher he could be. He was willing to work that hard because that’s what his parents instilled in him.”
Kelley displayed the same determination when it came to music, said Drew Powell, who performed with him as music minister at Beachside Church in Ormond Beach.
“When it came to vocal ability, it was all raw talent,” Powell said. “He knew a little bit on the guitar, not a lot. But I’d give him these songs and he’d go to work on them and figure them out.”
Those who knew him say the discipline required on the pitcher’s mound also worked in the spotlight.
“Looking back, I think being a great athlete and being successful his whole life in baseball, especially in the role of pitcher, has prepared him for being a star,” said his sister Katherine. “He’s used to having all eyes on him and knowing how to handle that in a really humble way.”
Florida Georgia Line has plenty of fans, but the band’s Ormond Beach loyalists politely claim seniority.
“I don’t know if it’s official, but I’ve been part of his fan club since he was in high school,” said Lynda Bonnick, who taught the future country star honors English at Seabreeze. “I always thought he would be successful at whatever he chose to do — and he has proven that.
“I’ve never been to the 500, but we’re going this year,” Bonnick added, “just so I can see him in that concert. I haven’t seen him since high school.”
When Heck coaches youth baseball teams in Jacksonville, he offers lessons learned from Kelley’s success.
“I share that as an example of how to deal with a challenging situation in life,” Heck said. “Channel your passions into being productive.”
Nor has the man in the spotlight forgotten lessons learned in his hometown.
“I’m a spiritual being, always have been,” Kelley said. “Since I’ve just turned 30, I’ve been reflecting a lot about my childhood. Ormond Beach is where my heart is, where I’d want to hopefully raise kids with my wife. It’s an amazing place, a small town, little beach town. Everybody got along. You could do anything. Long, long days playing outdoors, being kids.”