By Allison Stewart
Last year, Nashville duo Maddie & Tae released its first single, “Girl in a Country Song.” It took exception to the prevailing notion, advanced in countless bro-country anthems, that women are empty-headed, bikini-wearing man vessels who exist only to dance on tailgates and serve beer.
In an interview with the Tribune last year, Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line, bro-country’s greatest lights, claimed to be unfamiliar with the song, which he almost certainly had heard. “All I’m gonna say about that is, I don’t know one girl who doesn’t want to be a girl in a country song,” said Kelley. “That’s all I’m gonna say to you. That’s it.”
This frosty exchange did not escape Maddie & Tae’s notice. “I did see that comment and it didn’t really make sense to me,” says Taylor Dye sweetly. “He’s not a girl, so how would he know?”
“Girl in a Country Song” succeeded because it accurately read the national mood, everyone seemed to grow tired of bro-country at the same time, and because it was a catchy and funny song performed by two sunny, young blondes. They were permitted to tweak the Nashville establishment, which doesn’t take kindly to tweaking, because they clearly meant no harm.
Read between the lines in interviews with Maddie & Tae’s record label overlords, and it seems they expected “Girl in a Country Song,” which went to No. 1 on the country charts, would be a novelty hit at best.
Maddie & Tae weren’t sure it would even get that far. “We didn’t think the song was going to get released,” says Maddie Marlow. “That’s why we were so honest.”
Marlow and Dye recently landed an often-elusive follow-up hit with “Fly,” a lovely, harmony-heavy ode to female empowerment that sounds like a gentler version of something the Dixie Chicks would have done in the mid-1990s. (Maddie & Tae love the Dixie Chicks: “We’re kind of sassy ourselves, but they brought it to a totally different level,” says Marlow.) “Fly” is the highlight of their new, full-length debut, “Start Here.”
The album itself is a dream the women, both 20, have been working toward for almost a quarter of their lives. Marlow was raised in Sugar Land, Texas, and Dye in Ada, Okla. In 2010 they met at a Dallas showcase arranged by a vocal coach and became friends. They shared a laserlike single-mindedness common to famous people: School was a means to an end. “It was different for us growing up, because our mindset was never the high school mindset,” Dye says. “We were always thinking about what we wanted, and how we were going to get there. We were never (really) in high school, if you know what I mean. We moved out at 17, and were living a 25-year-old’s life.”
Marlow and Dye moved to Nashville and began writing songs with a team of industry pros. They were broke and far from home. It was a difficult period. “I’m not really the type of person who wears my heart on my sleeve,” says Dye. “I keep everything inside. To walk into a songwriting session and tell everyone what you’re feeling when you’ve just met them for the first time was a really scary feeling, but Maddie and I have gained a lot of confidence through songwriting.”
It was out of these sessions that “Girl in a Country Song” would emerge. “For three months, we kept going into these writing sessions going, ‘Man, I just heard this song on the radio, and it told me to slide my sugar shaker over,'” Marlow says. “If any guy spoke to us the way those country songs spoke to women, it would not be good for that guy. I would probably punch him in the face. We were so fed up with how we had to be the stereotypical girl who looks perfect in the music video, she’s coming out of the water in a bikini with her long tan legs. Not all of us are that girl.”
Maddie & Tae took the song to Scott Borchetta, founder of the label Big Machine, who had signed Taylor Swift. “We walked in there guns a-blazing, like, ‘This is who we are. I hope you like it. If you don’t, we get it,'” Marlow says. “We played ‘Girl in a Country Song’ in front of Scott Borchetta and he loved it. I think that’s what he was attracted to with Taylor, also. She was saying what she wanted to say, and she wasn’t going to hide that, and that’s the same thing with us.”
Maddie & Tae have been touring almost nonstop since the release of their debut, have just released a new single, “Shut Up and Fish” and are in the process of buying houses in Nashville. “Girl” and “Fly” were both Top 10 country hits, the only time in eight years a new female act has achieved this. “We gave up every comfortable thing we had for this dream,” Dye says. “And it was so worth it.”