When Rolling Stone Country first encountered Maddie & Tae, they were a teenaged duo, so new to the spotlight that they hadn’t quite worked out the elegant dance of taking turns responding to interviewers’ questions. They’d only just released their clever, catchy inversion of a certain bro-country template, “Girl in a Country Song,”and were watching it begin to register at radio and ripple through the media — even the outlets that don’t typically give country music the time of day.
Just over a year later, Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye are old pros, dispensing familiar hugs and holding court at an intimate tea-and-cookies gathering of press types in the loft of a rustic-chic event space in Nashville. They have a Number One hit under their belts, a second single making its climb up the charts and an album, Start Here (out today on Dot Records), that veers from topical sass, instead painting a picture of powerfully confessional, youthful, feminine solidarity.
It’s no longer accurate to call them teens now that Marlow is 20 and Dye turns that same age next month. When the singing and songwriting partners sit down with Rolling Stone Country for a two-on-one interview, Marlow impishly suggests a new solution: “They can call us ‘the twenties duo.'”
When Kelsea Ballerini had her recent chart-topper, people talked about her ending the drought of hit debut singles by female artists. But if you broaden the category beyond solo acts, then you two got there first.
Maddie Marlow: Sometimes people don’t really consider us.
Tae Dye: Yeah, they just disregard that. I do understand that they’re thinking solo female. But we’re like, “Hey! We did it too!”
Marlow: We were so happy for Kelsea, because she’s one of our really good friends. Really hardworking, too. So that was cool to see.
We even love all the guys that we poked fun at in “Girl in a Country Song.” But there’s just been such a lack of female perspective and female storytelling. So we’re just happy that the playing field’s a little more even now, and you’re getting the guy’s perspective and the girl’s perspective. It’s not just one-sided like it used to be.
In interviews, you’ve been asked to explain what you were trying to do with “Girl in a Country Song.” And you’ve spent a lot of time either reassuring or clarifying that you do, in fact, like the artists whose songs you’re calling out. Why was it so important to get that across?
Dye: There was a lot of explanation that came with introducing “Girl in a Country Song.” Because a lot of people, their first reaction was, “Oh, you hate these guys and you’re just dissing everybody.” That’s not what we were doing at all. Our intentions were just to write a song that we were feeling, and that’s always gonna be our intention with every song we write. . . We were just very annoyed at how ladies were being treated disrespected, [like] they had no value. But yeah, there was a lot of explaining to do with that, because people just thought we were being mean, and we weren’t.
Marlow: There was the big elephant in the room. The way these songs were talking to women or portraying them was so stereotypical and not realistic whatsoever. We just happened to call it out before anyone else did. I think people appreciated the honesty. We weren’t really trying to poke fun at the guys; we were more poking fun at the trend. Now that the song did do very well, I think it just goes to show that people wanted that message to be said.
Some critics seemed to have a hard time with the idea that you could criticize a trend without dismissing an entire genre of music.
Marlow: Yeah, it was so weird. They were like, “Oh, it’s girls against guys.” No, it’s not like that at all. It’s the story that’s been told over and over again, but from a different character. The character that doesn’t get to say anything finally spoke up.
Why did you decide to follow a song that was so pointed, witty and topical with a song that couldn’t be more different, the inspirational ballad “Fly”?
Marlow: “Fly” really is the polar opposite of “Girl in a Country Song.”
With our music, we don’t want to just do one thing. We want to show all these different sides of us and all the different influences that we have. “Girl in a Country Song,” musically, is probably the most out-there for us, because the rest of our record is very acoustic-driven, very organic. “Fly” is a better representation of us musically and lyrically. It was written when we were songwriters and really wanted our songs to be heard. For four years, nothing was happening for us. There’s a point where you’re going after something so wholeheartedly that you start getting discouraged when there’s no results or when no one’s taking interest.
To be fair, you were still very young.
Marlow: But no matter what age you are, when you’re that driven, when you’re that set on something, you are going after it no matter what. We really, really wanted to have these songs heard, and nothing was coming our way. We wrote “Fly” in such a vulnerable place where we weren’t sure if we had what it took or we would ever make it. Now to have that song on country radio and have our fans singing it back is just wild, because we remember that exact moment, feeling that way.
After you’d made such an impression with “Girl in a Country Song,” what kind of thought did you put into establishing your artistic identity with this album?
Dye: When picking songs for the album, we wanted to obviously cover a broad spectrum of everything that we’ve been going through for the past five years. We’ve lived a lot of life in the last five years. It’s not a lot a lot, but five years of going through school and dealing with bullies and going on awkward fishing dates.
Marlow: And growing up at 17-years-old.
Dye: And we wanted the instruments to reflect what we were saying. Because we grew up on traditional country music, and we wanted steel [guitar], we wanted fiddle, we wanted all those instruments that we loved listening to growing up.
On the very first track there’s a steel guitar solo from Paul Franklin.
Tell me more about how the feel of the album reflects the tastes you formed growing up in Texas and Oklahoma.
Marlow: That music has always evoked emotion. That steel guitar and that fiddle really complement [us] lyrically, whether it’s a fast song or a slow song. That’s really important to both of us to have that element. There’s a song called “Right Here Right Now” that’s probably the closest to a pop-country vibe, and there’s pedal steel all over that thing. [Our producer] Dann Huff, when we would call him — we were on the road when we were trying to finalize the tracks — we would say, “Turn up the steel.” He was like, “It’s gonna bleed into your vocal if it goes any louder.” And we were like, “But we want it to stand out!”
Dye: We did experiment, just because we wanted things to stay fun and stay modern, something that people would want to listen to today. But we never stray from who we are throughout this whole entire album.
“Shut Up and Fish” is another song that flips the script.
Marlow: Role reversal.
I could name you ten songs by male acts about people who are so citified they don’t know what to do with themselves in the country.
Dye: Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her” for one.
So what made you want to take up that theme?
Dye: A real event that actually happened. We were 16. This was the first summer that we actually got to hang out a lot. One day we were just really bored: “We love to fish, so let’s go fishing.” We’d been texting these guys, “Do you want to go fishing with us?” We literally thought it was just fishing, because they had the fishing poles, which they didn’t even know how to use, come to find out. So we get there, and they come dressed up in like white v-necks and coral shorts. Just the typical city boy with their Sperry [boat shoes] and stuff. So we’re like, “You know we’re going fishing, right?”
Marlow: At a pond—not on a boat.
Dye: Oh, it was muddy. . . So we’re trying to fish, and Maddie and I take it very seriously because we wanna catch something. We didn’t just go there to mess around. We didn’t catch anything that day, because all the boys wanted to do was talk and bust a move. . . You’d better do some flirting with the fish so they’ll come and bite my hook.
You co-wrote that song in the middle of high school, and you’ve written the rest of these since. Do you feel that you’ve had to work harder to be taken seriously as singers and songwriters as such young women?
Marlow: Because of the lyrical content, people get completely caught off guard because they don’t expect that from two young girls. But I think when people hear our music, they then take us seriously. They’re like, “OK, they can actually write good music, and they’ve had a hand in everything they’re doing.” We’re very on top of everything in our career, between social media, the album artwork. Every single song, we wrote. [For the] live show, we put together our sets and figure out what songs we wanna cover. People see that we have a hand in every aspect, and then we’re taken seriously.
Dye: There’s a little bit of an advantage to being the underdog too, because you can kind of throw people off guard and come out of it on top.
In what ways would you say you sound your age?
Marlow: It’s funny because whenever you’re younger, if you’re singing songs about marriage and kids and stuff, it’s like, “That’s not believable, because you’re 19 years old. You haven’t gone through that.” So what we do is just write what we know. We write what we experience, and that’s how we sound our age. Sometimes with younger people they don’t expect maturity, but because we moved to Nashville on our own at 17 and tried to figure out how to pay bills, that was where that maturity came from. That helps us reach those broader audiences, because it’s not just love and boys and rainbows and that kind of stuff. It’s deeper and it’s meaningful, and that’s something that we try to thread through every single song that we write.