Karma Suits Ya: Maddie & Tae 
Fight Back Against a Bully In 'Sierra'

"Girl In a Country Song" duo threads bitchin' Karma-dy into latest country single.

Karma’s a bitch.

Everyone’s heard that phrase, which personifies an Eastern spiritual philosophy: whatever you put out there, the universe will return to you. Karma isn’t really a bitch, of course — it’s not a real person. But Sierra, the woman who the latest Maddie & Tae single is named after, is a real person. And at one point in her life, she apparently was a … well …  you know.

“Sierra,” says Maddie Marlow, “was this real girl who was just not nice. She was very belittling to myself and many other people. Everyone was kind of scared to stand up to her. She was that person that was so beautiful, and you know, everyone just kind of bowed down to her.”

Sierra had actually been a friend to Marlow, but somewhere along the line in high school, that changed when she turned into a bully. Marlow wasn’t the only victim at her high school in Texas, but she was certainly among them, and one of the episodes was unbearable.

“She had gotten all these girls to gang up against me, and so I went home crying that Friday,” remembers Marlow.

Marlow had a flight scheduled that next day — she was headed to Nashville, where she and her Oklahoma friend, Tae Dye, were set to write with Aaron Scherz (“Girl in a Country Song,” “Shut Up and Fish”). The best way to process the episode was to write, and that’s exactly what Marlow did when she got home from school. She came up with a handful of lines about how Sierra’s only heart of gold hangs on a necklace and that she acts like a movie star, all set to an acerbic melody and a brisk tempo.

When she arrived in Nashville, they got right into it. The situation had been boiling for a while, and Dye and Scherz were both familiar with some of the girl’s antics.

“Maddie and I had been talking about Sierra for maybe like a year, and he knew of her,” says Dye. “So when it was finally time for us to write the song, he and me were just like, ‘OK, let’s do this. Let’s help Maddie heal.’ ”

Marlow had already written enough for the first verse, so they moved into a pre-chorus first — some elongated notes, and a bit of an apology: “Oooo, it might not be Christian/To be wishin’ what I’m wishin’.” But where to go from there?

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“I was like, ‘Well, what’s the girl’s name?’ ” recalls Scherz. They decided to name it after Sierra, and the rhymes fell out from there, notably one that cautions Sierra that “the world ain’t tiaras.”

“She did great in these pageants, so we were just talking about how it must be like an unrealistic world for her living in the tiara world,” notes Dye.

“And rednecks can get away with calling it ‘tierra,’ ” adds Dye with a laugh.

To back the name Sierra, they gave it a melody with a light syncopation, while Dye and Marlow added harmonies that sounded like a vocal approximation of Mexicali trumpets.

“It’s kind of mariachi, the way the melody falls,” says producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Brantley Gilbert).

They referenced all those “friends that you ditched,” then wrapped it up by almost rhyming that with the “B” word: “Karma’s a…” You know what they’re saying.

Every chorus, they found a different way to rhyme with what Scherz calls “the implied bitch”: “ditched,” “switch” and “kick.” When they tied “Sierra” up with a short bridge, they added an implied “ass.”

“If you listen super hard, it’s almost like the word ‘as,’ — there’s a ‘z’ sound that separates it from the word ‘ass,’ ” says Marlow, laughing again. “We’re trying to avoid cursing in the song.”

Writing “Sierra” was therapeutic for Marlow, and they did a cursory work tape that day, but the song didn’t really start to sound like something workable until Scherz got a demo recorded with ’90s-inspired fiddle and mandolin in the mix. That provided a strong starting point for Huff to organize the tracking session at John and Martina McBride’s Blackbird Sound.

“That story is a great story,” says Huff. “Everybody’s had that person in their life. The fact that it’s all tongue and cheek doesn’t diminish that fact that those are real emotions. There’s some teeth to that song.”

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Drummer Dorian Crozier helped the track practically skip, while Stuart Duncan painted a cheeky fiddle solo into the middle of “Sierra” and guitarist Derek Wells added a series of guitar effects underneath to modernize it just a bit. But Maddie & Tae’s natural harmonies guaranteed that it would all come out country.

“They remind me of when I heard the first Judds records because of the way Naomi [Judd] would harmonize stuff,” says Huff. “It wasn’t always the way that you were taught to do it in school, and I love that quality about the way [Maddie & Tae] do music.”

“Sierra” was never intended as a single. Scherz, in fact, didn’t know it was being released to radio until he saw it posted on social media. Marlow wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea at first.

“I was really scared, honestly, to release it because it’s basically airing your dirty laundry,” she says. “It’s a very vulnerable song for me, and a very personal song, and I was really nervous about it.”

Some of those nerves went away as she discovered the positive way it was influencing fans. “We have people come up to us all the time in meet-and-greets saying, ‘Thank you so much for writing that, because I went through a similar situation, and that song lifted my spirit and gave me the confidence that I needed,’ ” notes Marlow.

Dot released “Sierra” via Play MPE on April 25, and it jumped from 59-51 in its second week on Country Airplay.

Oddly enough, the real-life Sierra has done a bit of a turn-around, so maybe that necklace won’t be the only place she keeps a heart of gold. She and Marlow buried the hatchet recently, and hopefully that means karma won’t be too bitchy to Marlow. After all, when you’re naming names in a national song, it’s possible that it could come back to bite you.

“We’re not doing anything vicious or doing anything hateful. All we’re doing is writing music that’s our truth,” counters Marlow. “I don’t think there’s any karma for that.”

Maybe not, but that’s sometimes hard to predict. After all, karma’s a… well… you know.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.


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