In 2012, country duo Florida Georgia Line released their song “Cruise,” bringing the “bro country” music subgenre to the forefront of discussion. Artists like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton all joined in on the craze, focusing on the same themes: girls, drinking, partying, tractors and jeans. Bro country dominated airwaves for the next two years, sparking heated debates among musicians, writers and critics about the worthiness of this new era of country music. Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye became fed up with it. In July 2014, they wrote and released their first single, “Girl in a Country Song.” The first time I heard it on the radio, I was immediately hooked on Maddie & Tae.
“Girl in a Country Song” slammed some of the most obvious clichés from current bro country hits, including ones produced by their label’s parent company, Big Machine Label Group. The video features men in the skimpy clothes you normally see women in. After 23 weeks, Maddie & Tae hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, and the single was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2015.
Maddie & Tae followed “Girl in a Country Song” with “Fly” and “Shut Up and Fish.” “Fly” peaked at No. 9 and was certified gold by the RIAA, but “Shut Up and Fish” didn’t break the top 20. All three songs were featured on their 2015 album, “Start Here,” which hit No. 2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums.
For “Girl in a Country Song” alone, I would be ready to hail Maddie & Tae as the saviors of country music. I grew up in Virginia, where country music is a fairly popular genre, though it by no means dominates. I liked some of the work Florida Georgia Line and Bryan were putting out — yes, including “Cruise” — but more importantly, I was in my mid-teens, being exposed to politics for the first time and becoming a feminist.
I hated songs like Thomas Rhett’s “Get Me Some of That” because they’re incredibly degrading, and I hated it even more when stations would follow it with “Girl in a Country Song,” which directly mocks Rhett. It felt like country radio didn’t care about what it was putting out, as long as it kept people on the station.
Bro country could get away with it a bit because musically, the subgenre brought rhythms and ideas from hip-hop, pop and rock, which made for much more musically interesting and cross-genre-appealing songs. Not the case lyrically, however. Comedian Bo Burnham did a great parody song on what he refers to as Keith Urban-brand stadium country, which lyrically, shares a lot of similarities to bro country.
With Maddie & Tae, though, what they’ve been doing since “Girl in a Country Song” is why I give them the crown. The two were one of the first acts signed to the revived Dot Records, which had last released an album in 1986. They were by far the label’s most successful act. Their rise was meteoric, compared to Taylor Swift’s years earlier. But Big Machine decided to close the label in 2017, just as Maddie & Tae were working on their second album.
While Maddie & Tae found a new home, they went on a three-year recording hiatus, despite practically finishing their second album in 2018. Their first single under the label was released that year, followed by two five-song EPs in 2019. Finally, their sophomore album, “The Way It Feels,” was released this past April. From a fan’s standpoint, it almost seemed like Mercury Nashville was holding its breath to see if people would still respond to Maddie & Tae.
“The Way It Feels” is an album about break-ups and relationships, inspired by actual events in Marlow and Dye’s lives. Maddie & Tae co-wrote all but one of the album’s 15 tracks. While I think they missed an opportunity to put the songs in a narrative order, each song expertly captures all-too-real moments, like the immediate aftermath of a break-up, the heartbreak of watching family members battle addiction and the magic of getting engaged to a long-time partner.
Notice anything? The song to bring Maddie & Tae back to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart isn’t “New Dog Old Tricks,” a twangy number about guys hitting on them in bars (and the one number they didn’t write), but “Die from a Broken Heart,” an earnest track written in the aftermath of a break-up that Dye experienced. It doesn’t stick to clichés and rely on a fancy, genre-defying instrumental track. It just is.
In the years since 2015, I’ve grown apart from country music, but acts like Maddie & Tae are who I’ll come back for over and over again. Not only do they have beautiful voices that harmonize so well together, but they tell stories.
Country music is a genre that relies on musicians and storytellers, not the best voices or the highest notes or a thumping bass. The story of “Cruise” is about a cool girl who, it’s implied, has car sex with a guy. Frankly, it’s not a story I care about, but Florida Georgia Line does everything in their power to make me, and when I’m in the right mood, they can get me.
Maddie & Tae don’t have to try. I’m hooked from the first words, if not the first notes. It’s a trend I’ve noticed among newer female artists, one that I think goes back to country-era Swift, who was and continues to be unabashedly herself in her music, telling stories that are easy to relate to.
Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini, Jana Kramer, Ward Thomas and Gabby Barrett stick out for me in particular. They’re not trying to catch lightning in a bottle like Shelton and Aldean. They’re telling stories in their songs — even if they didn’t experience it themselves — with care and pure life.
I don’t know where Maddie & Tae’s career will go next, but I do know I will be following it. They’re so much more than the girls in country songs, and it’s about time they get what they deserve.