So far, it's been an incredibly eventful first radio tour for Maddie & Tae. Their bus driver made an overly ambitious attempt to clear a bridge, instead grinding the roof against the structure, which produced a horrible, near-apocalyptic racket and sent everybody ducking for cover.
"You know those flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz?" asks Maddie Marlow. "I thought those things were attacking us."
The most earth-shattering action, however, has happened around the teenage duo's debut single, "Girl in a Country Song." The first overt antidote to the "bro country" trend of writing about cut-off jeans, tailgates and sliding your little sugar shaker a little closer, the tune turns the tables on Marlow and Tae Dye's male country-singing peers who'd had hits with songs about enticing long-legged hotties onto truck bench seats. "Girl in a Country Song" directly references some of country radio's most played hits: Billy Currington's "Hey Girl"; Blake Shelton's "Boys 'Round Here"; Tyler Farr's "Redneck Crazy"; Florida Georgia Line's "Get Your Shine On"; and Jason Aldean's "Dirt Road Anthem," among them.
After Maddie & Tae came up with a wickedly clever retort — co-written with Aaron Scherz — their newly reactivated label, Dot Records (part of Big Machine Label Group), took steps to get it out as a single and to launch Maddie & Tae on a promo tour ASAP. More than a dozen country radio programmers started spinning the song early, putting it on playlists otherwise populated by the sorts of "bro country" singles it skewers.
As a genre, country tends to be a little less susceptible to "hot new thing" buzz than some of its more indie-positioned, critic-courting stylistic counterparts. But it's no mystery why this singing and songwriting pair from the neighboring states of Texas (Marlow) and Oklahoma (Dye) has built such buzz. Excellent timing, for one thing. They've arrived on the heels of listener fatigue, offering a different vantage point. And it certainly doesn't hurt that they have a feel for intertwining their voices, executing their phrasing and crafting their hooks for maximum smartly sweet impact.
Maddie & Tae called Rolling Stone Country as they rolled along on their bus — without incident — to talk about what's shaped their spot-on music instincts.
You've said that placing yourselves in the roles of the female characters in these "bro country" songs inspired "Girl in a Country Song." That's a very different thing than listening to those songs just as abstract fantasies. How did you make that leap from listening to writing?
Tae Dye: Maddie and I were in a songwriting session on St Patrick's Day, and we were talking about all the songs and laughing because the lyrics share a common theme. We wanted to go at it from a girl's perspective, and we wanted to put ourselves in the shoes of this girl. You know, how does she feel wearing these cut-off shorts, sitting on the tailgate?
Maddie Marlow: Totally. You get to hear the story from the guy all the time, but you don't get to hear how this girl feels about having to live up to these expectations. Tae and I were like, "Oh my gosh. This is a tough gig. I don't think we could fill those shoes."
So the song really moved everything along — the announcement of your signing to Dot Records as their first artist, releasing the single to radio, all of it.
Dye: Yeah. The song is so topical and it's what's going on right now. I think that's why it's been moving so fast. It's like, "Gotta get it out there!"
Marlow: The reaction has been incredible. The team we have behind us has just been amazing. They're like, "I don't think we've seen a project move this fast."
You've also said you didn't feel like you had to do any filtering when you wrote the song. It's funny, sharp and specific in references to other song lyrics. What did you feel like the parameters were?
Marlow: Our whole project revolves around keeping it real and being honest. We didn't filter anything, because we felt like when it comes from an honest place, the truth will resonate so much better. The thing about Taylor [Swift], everything [she writes] is real and relevant to what she's going through, and that's why people connect with her so well.
Country response songs are nothing new. One of the best known historical examples was when Hank Thompson did "The Wild Side of Life" and took women to task for behaving badly. Then Kitty Wells followed up with "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." Do you see "Girl in a Country Song" as being in that tradition?
Dye: We always say if you listen to the very, very end of a "bro country" song, this would be, like, the tail end of it.
Marlow: Yeah. So, say the "bro country" song was a movie. This would be like the sequel.
Dye: The plot twist.
Right. So you could look at it as a new contribution to that tradition.
Dye: We love all the artists that we're picking at, and we love their music. We are fans of "bro country." But the thing is, we wanted to bring a fresh and new perspective to country music. Country music is all about telling stories, and we're just telling a little different one.
Have you been reading blog coverage of the song so far?
Dye: We have a little bit. We try not to read the comments, but you have to take the good with the bad. We try not to read everything, because it can get in our brains a little bit.
Marlow: The cool thing is, for the most part we are gaining so many fans and [getting] so much positive reaction to the song. So that kind of cancels out the negative. And on our radio tour, we get to meet fans up close and personal, which is so awesome. Just to see how they connect with the song, it reminds us why we do what we do.
One blog predicted that you'll never get a slot on tour with a male act, and a radio DJ asked if you were "bro country" haters. It was almost like they assumed you couldn't both critique and coexist with male artists. On the other hand, Chase Rice tweeted that he loves the song, in a tongue-in-cheek way.
Marlow: We met Chase Rice at CRS [Country Radio Seminar] and he was such a sweetheart. So we just love that he's digging the song.
Dye: Everyone's gonna take the song how they want to, which is fine with us. At the end of the day, we're just trying to be honest, and hopefully get more females on the radio.
Marlow: Totally. And our song isn't really making fun of the artists. It's more poking fun at the similarities in country lyrics these days. It's so hard to be the girl in a country song, so we're speaking up.
There's a little hip-hop flavor to the production and some of the vocal phrasing. Was that meant to refer back to those songs too?
Dye: It was. We were in the writing room and we were saying, "We could either go at it from a more Maddie & Tae [acoustic angle] musically or we could go 'bro country.'" And we were like, "Let's do it unapologetically. Let's go 'bro country.'"
Marlow: The trick there is, listeners are gonna be familiar with the sound, because it's what's popular right now. Then when you listen to the lyrics, it's completely opposite. So it's kinda like the best of both worlds almost. We put our fiddle, steel and all of our organic instruments that we love [in it], which will be all over our record too.
These guys have some incredible tracks. We're like, "We can't poke fun at them if our song doesn't live up to how awesome theirs are."
I believe people have counted references to eight other songs in "Girl in a Country Song."
Marlow: Yeah. Some of them we don’t even know.
How'd you go about incorporating all those references?
Dye: Well, it's exactly the way it sounds. We were in the songwriting room, and we had a checklist. Literally, we had a checklist. The first one read, I think, "girl." The second one was "tailgate." We went through all the songs that we love and made a checklist and that's how it happened.
Marlow: Towards the end of the songwriting session, we were like, "Oh my gosh! We forgot 'Dirt Road [Anthem].'" So that would explain the whole "dirt road we don’t even wanna be on [line]."
Dye: You'll be seeing that checklist in our music video.
Speaking of the video, I remember you saying that you were considering a role reversal, having male actors do the stuff female actors usually do in music videos. What'd you end up doing with it?
Marlow: We can't tell you too much. It's so much fun. But it's definitely a little role reversal going on.
Dye: We actually got one of the first edits back the other day, and everyone on this bus was dying laughing. We're just excited for it to be done and put out there.
Using humor in a clever way can be a really effective tool.
Marlow: Totally. The video helps us put the point across that it's hard being a girl in a country song, and if the guys had to live up to the expectations that we do, I don't think they could do it either.