When Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye first penned “Girl in a Country Song,” it wasn’t long before it began making its way around Nashville’s close-knit songwriting community. Plucking cliches from country radio’s tailgate-riddled top-selling hits, the song was a harmony-heavy eye roll directed toward the male-dominated airwaves, and its wit drew laughs as well as scrutiny.
“They told us that we would never get a record deal with that song,” says Dye. “That no record label would want to be associated with that. We thought, ‘Once we find the record label that does, we’ll know it’s the right one.'”
The right one came along when Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta caught the duo performing original songs for a songwriter’s showcase. BMLG was a natural home for the young musicians, who were already signed to the label’s publishing arm as songwriters, but it was still a long shot to think they’d be considered for a record deal as artists.
“We almost didn’t play the song because we were so nervous,” says Dye of debuting the snarky number. “We were like, ‘Scott Borchetta’s either gonna get real mad, or—'”
“But he was red in the face laughing! Doubled over, cracking up,” says Marlow, breaking in. A week later, the duo got a call saying the label would get a deal together. Since then, “Girl in a Country Song” has gone Gold as Maddie & Tae have snagged spots on the charts as well as top tours — including hitmaker Dierks Bentley’s Sounds of Summer tour — and, most recently, released debut full-length Start Here.
“When we released ‘Girl in a Country Song,’ we had a lot of people saying we were a one-trick pony, one-hit wonder,” says Dye. But being green in the industry didn’t stifle Maddie & Tae’s strong will in the studio. “When we picked songs for the album, we just wanted to prove everyone wrong.”
Their conviction during the recording process extended into all aspects of the release, from songs they chose (the duo has a catalog of over 200 tracks written) to the instrumentation to the aesthetic of the physical release. They panned done-up press shots in favor of a second photo shoot where they styled themselves and wore their own clothes, and they even pushed the release back a few months to ensure they got everything right.
“The way that we were doing it just felt rushed and a little too processed,” said Marlow. “We had an album cover and it was beautiful — perfect. Every hair was in place. I [didn’t] look like myself every day… When people see us, they’re not gonna think of this Barbie Doll girl. No. We’re real girls, we don’t look perfect.”
Seeking a look that reflected themselves and their intentions was an extension of making music that way. Despite hiring an outside producer for Start Here (Dann Huff, whose Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and Reba McIntyre credits left the duo starstruck at first), Maddie & Tae were expressly involved in every artistic decision in the studio.
“You never get to make another first album, so we were extremely extremely particular,” says Marlow. “We went in there and we were like, ‘We need a steel guitar player. We need fiddle. We need banjo. We need mandolin. We want this. Don’t do the slammin’ electric guitars — only on these two songs.'”
Rather than clashing with veteran Huff, Dye and Marlow said their clarity in vision allowed for a dynamic that challenged all parties and allowed them to run with only the best ideas. As a result, Start Here is as classically country as one might expect from two small-town Texas girls, but it’s youthful lyrics reflect Dye and Marlow’s reality. The progression of songs is almost chronological: Start Here opens with “Waitin’ On A Plane,” which touches on leaving their hometowns, then skates over mean girl bullshit with “Sierra” and closes with “Down Side of Growing Up,” a twangy number that skates over everything they’ve learned.
“It’s very rare that you meet someone the same age as you, when you’re that young, that gets it,” says Dye of her writing relationship with Marlow. Having both grown up performing, the two shared a vocal coach and met for the first time at an open mic halfway between their two towns in Texas. Immediately, they connected. “Songwriting wasn’t anything that our peers were into.”
Dye and Marlow were soon balancing standard teen life during the week and regular trips to Nashville on the weekends to write. They made the move to Music City — without their families — before their classmates were even packing for college.
“If we hadn’t have left home that soon and that sudden, I don’t think we would have become the people that we are so quickly,” says Dye. Now, as the duo embarks on their fall headlining tour, it’s more obvious than ever how far that conviction has taken them. “I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned in our careers so far is that you can’t grow in comfort. You’ve got to accept change,” Marlow adds. “The faster that you accept and just go with the change, the faster you’re going to come out on the better side of it and come out stronger.”
Maddie & Tae play the Highline Ballroom on October 7. For ticket information, click here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 5, 2015