Last summer, Maddie & Tae experienced the sort of instantaneous breakthrough that label executives dream of. The new country duo of singer-songwriters Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye arrived with “Girl in a Country Song,” a hick-hop single expressing sweetly smart-assed exasperation at the trend — famously referred to as “bro country” by music critics — of guys like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean scoring hits with good-time jams whose lyrics consistently cast young women in pliant, ornamental roles. Even though Marlow and Dye’s song pushed back at the male fantasies populating country radio playlists — quoting specific songs and deliberately echoing their beat-driven production — normally cautious programmers quickly tossed it into rotation. By Christmas, “Girl” had reached the top of the Country Airplay chart, a feat all the more remarkable given that no female country act had made that strong of a debut showing since the mid-2000s.
One might have expected the pair to capitalize on the momentum with an album’s worth of sass. Instead, its first full-length, Start Here, has a decidedly reflective bent with effervescent acoustic textures. Its second single, the gentle, inspirational ballad “Fly,” has been making its plodding climb up the country charts for the better part of 2015. It’s as though, after pointing out how vexing it is for women to be presented with limited options in hit songs’ storylines, Maddie & Tae’s next priority was to actually place young, female protagonists at the center of their own narratives.
In interviews, Marlow, 20, and Dye, 19 — Texas and Oklahoma natives, respectively — often emphasize that they consider Texas exports the Dixie Chicks to be an important influence. Just as the Chicks burnished a blend of modern bluegrass, singer-songwriter-style narration and adult contemporary pop sophistication a generation ago, Maddie & Tae are hyper-focused on shaping their own chipper, closer-harmonizing, string band-based aesthetic, though vocally, they’re not yet the evocative storytellers they could be. And much as the Chicks have been known to embody a bold brand of femininity, the younger act strikes a posture of winsome self-assurance across these 11 tracks. Not since Taylor Swift aged out has the country format welcomed female voices lending such confessional weight to matters of youthful urgency.
From a songwriting standpoint, “Fly” is actually one of the album’s slighter compositions. With its fetching hook and frisky phrasing, the similarly themed “Waitin’ On a Plane” better captures the giddy anxiousness of chasing dreams when you’re young. In “Downside of Growing Up,” on the other hand, the pair confronts the insecurities that sometimes accompany flown-the-nest independence with been-there, felt-that empathy toward the duo’s young fans. More tender still is “After the Storm Blows Through,” a spare, fiddle-laced tune promising emotional support to a grief-stricken friend. There’s minimum coyness to the songs about romance, with the buoyant “Right Here, Right Now” angling for a goodnight kiss and stock country revenge stomper “Your Side of Town” insisting on permanent separation.
The two songs that come closest to the impishness of “Girl” are “Sierra,” a playfully smug pop-country tune that warns a bully about the perils of bad karma and leaves curse words clearly implied, and 21st-century honky-tonk number “Shut Up and Fish,” which flips another gendered country music script. In the past, male singers usually have been the ones cracking wise about the incompetence of city slickers; this time, it’s Maddie & Tae delivering withering lines like, “He pulled up in his red Corvette, salmon shorts and a white V-neck. I said, ‘Wow, you know how to dress down for a city guy.’ ” Makes you wonder what else they’ll pull off in the years to come.
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of Billboard.