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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Now to one of the biggest musical hits of 2013. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on the meteoric rise of a song that is emblematic of a big trend in country music.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: If you listen, even fleetingly to commercial country, you've heard the song "Cruise."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUISE")

FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE: (singing) Baby, it was all...

ULABY: It set a record this year for most weeks at number one on the country charts in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'CRUISE')

LINE: (Singing) I got the windows down and the radio on...

ULABY: "Cruise" is also the second-most downloaded country song of all time. It's expected be number one soon. It's by the duo Florida Georgia Line, two young men who've become country superstars in less than a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CRUISE")

LINE: (Singing) Yeah, when I first saw that bikini top of her, she was bopping right out of the south Georgia water...

ULABY: Music critic Jody Rosen writes for New York magazine, but don't let that fool you. He is a huge fan of commercial country. Still, he's slightly baffled by the song's success.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'CRUISE')

LINE: (singing) Yeah, she was sipping on Southern and playing Marshall Tucker. We were falling in love in the sweet heart of summer...

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

JOHN BUTLER: We started playing it very early. We started playing it in May, 2012. and we played it a lot.

ULABY: Back then, Florida Georgia Line wasn't even signed to a label. They 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 built its reputation by signing Taylor Swift when she was unknown, and Tim McGraw. The label's president Scott Borchetta had an idea to make "Cruise" even bigger - do a remix.

SCOTT BORCHETTA: And 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.

ULABY: The guy Borchetta got was the rapper Nelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'CRUISE')

NELLY: (Rapping) I see you got a thing for the fast life. So come on, shawty, let me show you the fast life. Whipping cross the border, Florida into Georgia. 'Cause baby, you a song and you make me want to roll my - roll my - roll my, oh...

BORCHETTA: He's sort of a washed up a rapper but in Nashville it doesn't really matter. He's exotic because he's a rapper.

ULABY: Exotic enough to help "Cruise" stick around on the country charts and climb to the pop top ten over the summer. Critic Jody Rosen says "Cruise," like other contemporary country songs, incorporates hip-hop and the kind of raucous arena rock popular a few decades ago.

ROSEN: It's sort of frat dude music with a twang.

ULABY: Rosen sees "Cruise" as symptomatic of a bunch of things happening in Nashville today. First, just the rise of what he calls bro country.

ROSEN: 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.

ULABY: Second, those songs celebrate a very different male character from country's archetypal strong stoic man.

ROSEN: Who has hidden pain but when he's all alone and he gets a couple drinks in him he cracks, right? But right now these younger guys are just singing a lot about partying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'DRUNK LAST NIGHT')

ELI YOUNG BAND: (singing) I got a little drunk last night.

ULABY: The trend is impossible to ignore says Amy Macy, a former Nashville marketing executive and professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

AMY MACY: Eight out of the top 40 titles have some term or reference to alcohol or partying or drinking right now on the charts. And so, that's, what, 25 percent of the top 40.

ULABY: Examples: "Drunk Last Night" by the Eli Young Band, "Drink to that All Night" by Jerrod Niemen, "Drink A Beer," by Luke Bryan, "Cold Beer with Your Name on It" by Josh Thompson, and Little Big Town's song "Sober," about the opposite of being sober.

BORCHETTA: Yeah. Everybody in Nashville must be drinking 24/7.

(LAUGHTER)

BORCHETTA: We're a bunch of drunks down here.

ULABY: Scott Borchetta of the label Big Machine concedes maybe Nashville has a problem.

BORCHETTA: There's too much, to be honest with you. And we can't keep talking about Fireball and Coors Light and having the tailgate down, etc. So we'll task our writers and artists to dig a little deeper.

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

MACY: Or maybe burn them, is what I'd say.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

GONYEA: You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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