Would Florida Georgia Line be thriving today if Colt Ford had struggled before them? That's a big question -- one that isn't meant to discredit anything Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard have accomplished in the two years since 'Cruise' became the most popular song since 'Happy Birthday.'

Go ahead and roll your eyes. Anyone who compares the two on paper can point out a dozen differences. Kelley and Hubbard are polish and muscle. Their music is tightly packaged and unrelenting.

Ford is, well ... fat (his word, not ours), and he's more willing to slow down for a ballad. The success of both artists has been as unlikely as the Cubs winning the World Series, but both have overcome obstacles and critics with hard work and powerful live shows that keep loyal fans coming back again and again and again.

“If you didn’t know a thing about me," Ford says, "I think you could walk out of there and go ‘I’m not exactly sure what happened. There was a fat guy in a cowboy hat and he was dancing and singing — but it was fun!’”

I look way past all the bullsh--," Ford says. "They’re looking at it going, ‘What kind of jeans does he have on? What about his hair?’ I’m looking at these people standing out there (asking), ‘What do they say?' They are the ones that buy the friggin’ record.

Think of FGL as a metaphor for today's hottest country style, and the question becomes even more compelling. Without Colt Ford, what would the radio sound like? His music hasn't broke through yet, much to his disappointment. But a growing number of young stars come from the Colt Ford School of Country Music.

Brantley Gilbert and Tyler Farr are two graduates, but dozens -- yes, dozens! -- of stars that have agreed to partner with him on a track from one of his five albums. His fifth album 'Thanks for Listening' is in stores this week and features collaborations with Keith Urban, Lee Brice, Chase Rice, Justin Moore and more.

Is it coincidence that Eric Church and Luke Bryan's careers skyrocketed after making magic with the 43-year-old former professional golfer (both appeared on 'Every Chance I Get' in 2011)? Ford won't take credit for that -- off the stage he's the humble redneck he appears to be on stage -- but he will confess that his loyal fans are quick to support anyone that supports him. And the Colt Ford Nation is humongous, with nearly 1.5 million on Facebook and 260K on Twitter. His shows sell out and fans show up early at festivals to see him before the headliners. 'Drivin' Around Song' with Jason Aldean just went Gold for 500,000 singles sold. Try finding another song that didn't crack the radio charts to go Gold. Ford says his team is still searching.

"I look way past all the bullsh--," Ford says. "They’re looking at it going, ‘What kind of jeans does he have on? What about his hair?’ I’m looking at these people standing out there (asking), ‘What do they say?' They are the ones that buy the friggin’ record."

“Early on, Brantley and I … I’m like ‘He’s a f---ing superstar!’ I don’t care whether you all get it or not. [Mocks critics] ‘Well, he doesn’t sing that good.’ I don’t care what you say, he’s a star!”

Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Gilbert was signed to Ford's Average Joes Entertainment before leaving for the Valory Music Co. Farr toured with and sang choruses for Ford for months before getting his break. Church appreciates what Ford does so much that on the eve of learning he had the No. 1 album in the country with 'Chief,' he sent the 'Ride Through the Country' singer a text out of the blue that still makes the big man emotional.

“The text just said, ‘Hey Colt, was sitting here thinking about you as I get these numbers,'" Ford says, recalling that moment in July 2011. "'Tomorrow I’m gonna do 150K records first week without a hit song on the radio. I just want to tell you keep doing what you’re doing. You have hit songs. Don’t be discouraged. I know you have hit songs because I’ve seen 10,000 people sing every word to ‘Chicken and Biscuits’ and ‘Ride Through the Country.’ I know it’s tough for you because you feel like you have these songs and you won’t get the chance. Keep doing what you’re doing, music will win in the end.’"

So, how does Ford do it? Why is everyone so eager to play on a Colt Ford record? How in the heck did a man who has never sniffed anything close to commercial success convince Urban -- arguably country's most commercially successful artist -- to sing on 'She's Like' from 'Thanks for Listening'?

Ford says every collaboration happens organically. He becomes friends with different people and writes songs. Then, when he thinks a song is perfect for an artist, he calls him or her up, just as friends. He'll never cold call someone to be on his record. In fact, there have been times stars (he won't say who) have asked to work with him and he's said no, simply because he wasn't confident that they'd be on the same page.

“Anybody that’s interested in doing something cool and original without telling me, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’" Ford says when asked who's still on his bucket list. "If you’re interested in doing that, I don’t really have a list when it comes to that.”

“I bet me and Taylor Swift would write a cool song,” he adds. “She’s always been original. A lot of people may not get it and it might not be what they dig, but at the end of the day, if you listen to her songwriting, it’s really very good."

Ford first met Urban several years ago at the CMT Music Awards. Both were walking around backstage, and the singer and his famous wife veered toward him. "I’m like, ‘Oh sh--, did I sit in his seat or something?’” Ford says, laughing.

Anybody that’s interested in doing something cool and original without telling me, ‘Oh, I can’t do that’... If you’re interested in doing that, I don’t really have a list when it comes to that.

Urban spent a few minutes gushing about how much he loved what some call country's rapper does. He listed off song after song before the two exchanged phone numbers. The moment was as big of a deal for Ford as you think it'd be. He calls the 'Cop Car' singer one of country's few "complete artists."

Flash-forward to March 2014 and Ford and Urban are again together, this time for a concert in Florida, and Ford has just taken the stage.

“Probably a minute into the (first) song, (Urban) walked up to the side of the stage,” Ford says. “Seventy five minutes later he was standing in the same place. He watched the entire show."

“I walked off stage and he was like, ‘Dude, that was incredible. I’ve never seen you. I had no idea what you would be like live. Your band is unbelievable!'" Ford shares. "I’m feeling like I’m about to cry, because here’s a dude that you put on such a high musical pedestal. There’s not that many that you put way up there where it really means something when they tell you that.”

After the concert, Ford played the 'American Idol' judge 'She's Like,' and Urban was singing along, making suggestions before it was finished. He cut his tracks while working on 'Idol' in L.A., even insisting to cover the studio costs. The banjo part -- that was Urban's idea!

“It’s really cool to me when somebody that you really admire or respect as an artist or just a person in general is exactly like you thought they would be … because that doesn’t happen all the time," Ford admits.

Daniel Lee is one of a few artists Ford has on his radar. The country rocker (similar to Brantley Gilbert) helps the big man open 'Thanks for Listening,' singing the chorus of the title track. Walker Hayes is another young artist Ford is quick to brag on. Hayes released a song called 'Pants' while signed to Capitol Records in 2010, but if you blinked, you probably missed him.

"I think they totally dropped the ball on him as an artist," Ford says of his 'Dirty Side' partner. "Good lookin’ dude, great singer, soulful … I don’t think they got it.”

Chris Lane is yet another act Ford trumpets, as do Florida Georgia Line. The question of would the duo exist without Ford was hypothetical ... mostly. FGL also came through the Colt Ford School of Music. Ford watched fans at festivals turn up early and sing every song back to them before they were signed and before 'Cruise' was a hit. He was first to take them on the road, because, as he says, "I knew what they had would work."

And they paid him back ...

“It was cool, them being young guys, when they did that tour last year, they gave me that (opening) spot," he says. "And I guarantee you there’s a lot of people that wanted that spot at that time."

Radio success is important to Ford, but his label's business model is no longer predicated on that. “I don’t think there’s an artist in town, or a label that would say they’d be tickled with a 22," he says. "I’m telling you right now I’d have a big a-- party for a 22!”

Ford says 'Thanks for Listening' is his best album yet, admitting that's what everyone says every time they release an album. Jerrod Niemann, Randy Houser and Willie Robertson from 'Duck Dynasty' are a few of the other collaborators, but the three songs Ford sings solo are the ones most likely to stand out.

If history can predict the future, look for someone to make a huge hit out of a similar style in about five years.

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