As much as we’ve lamented the death of good, authentic country music, our eulogies may have been a little premature. 2015 has already proved to be a pretty good year for country music, particularly its female-fronted acts. Releases from Kacey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood and now Maddie & Tae all seem to indicate that we are in the middle of the backlash against country music, and the timing really couldn’t be better.
The greasy popularity of guys like Luke Bryan is still in full force, proven by the current Billboard Hot Country Chart, but the change is coming. On August 28, Maddie & Tae will release their debut album, Start Here, to much anticipation. You likely remember the duo from their snarky smash hit “Girl in a Country Song,” a tounge-in-cheek roast of bro-country stereotypes and their impact on women in the industry. Now, Maddie & Tae have moved beyond parody straight into making seriously good country music.
The blockbuster success of “Girl in a Country Song” came as a shock to almost everyone (namely those who believe strongly in the “tomatoes” philosophy), especially in terms of country airplay. If this record should shoot to No. 1, it’s going to be mighty lonely at the top for Maddie & Tae. Their closest female counterpart on the charts is Carrie Underwood, sitting at No. 24 with the recently released (and tepidly received) Smoke Break.
It's worth noting that Maddie & Tae are, comparatively, very young. The duo’s combined age is just one year older than Luke Bryan, and their closest contemporary in terms of chart success is 30-year-old rap-country singer Sam Hunt. In nearly every sense of the word, Maddie & Tae are outliers in country music, which puts them in a unique position to change the genre — and to do so for the better.
The hopeful and impressive first single from Start Here, “Fly,” is the perfect metaphor for Maddie & Tae’s potential for success. Over the past year, the duo have been refining their harmonies, getting ready for the road and learning the ropes — or to fly, if you will — from tour mate Dierks Bentley and seasoned songstresses such as Lee Ann Womack. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve been able to work with Nashville’s best producers and songwriters in the meantime, honing their skills as other artists jump into the spotlight and quickly fade away. Remember Easton Corbin?
It also doesn’t appear that they’re going to take any of the shit that the men in this genre have subjected their female counterparts to for decades. We’ve come a long way since Porter Waggoner introduced Dolly Parton as the “prettiest, singingest, blondest, little songwritingest thing” at the Grand Ole Opry, but not that damn far. In a sort of continuation of “Girl in a Country Song,” Maddie & Tae fight back against handsy “city boys” who don’t take no for an answer in “Shut Up and Fish.”
They also refuse to play into any of the tropes that have made other female artists successful in this bro-dominated landscape. The twee, harmless sound of an artist like Cam sounds sophomoric against a track like “Sierra,” an introspective, heart-wrenching (not to mention well-written song) about bullying. This isn’t sweet little Taylor Swift and her guitar singing about boys; it’s two grown women making music that reflects their unique experience, with plenty of social commentary to boot.
It also doesn’t hurt that the duo sounds about as country as humanly possible, talking about being pissed as a hornet in an old Coke can and baiting hooks with the same effortlessness as the boys, a fact that shouldn’t surprise anyone but frequently does. With Maddie & Tae, though, it’s impossible to dismiss their country bonafides as “cute” and “charming,” in the way that other artists like Kellie Pickler have been dismissed in the past. If you don’t enjoy a country-fried track like “Shut Up and Fish” as much as you do songs like “Drink a Beer” and “Buy Me a Boat,” well, there’s only one reason for that. And it rhymes with “shmexism.”
This is the future of country music, and it’s a future to be excited about. Maddie & Tae aren’t “talented girl artists,” they’re excellent country musicians. Country radio and its fans can no longer discard female acts as somehow inferior and less worthy of airplay than their male counterparts without ignoring the best music in the genre, and Start Here is further proof of that. There's no excuse if an album of this quality doesn't pop. But if they do depose the bros, artists like Maddie & Tae have a real chance to turn this whole thing around.
MADDIE & TAE open for Dierks Bentley at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 29, at Gexa Energy Pavilion, $33-$57.75
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