Maddie and Tae on Bro-Country, Feminism, and Avoiding the ‘Nashville Strategy’

Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images

Madison "Maddie" Marlow and Taylor "Tae" Dye Maddie — along with Kacey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and others — are two of the women making country music more exciting than it’s been in years. The superlative songwriting on the young Texas-Oklahoma duo’s debut album, Start Here, is a classic survey of the joys and pitfalls of coming of age. There's the bully-skewering “Sierra.” Or “Downside of Growing Up,” a tender ballad about growing pains. But it’s “Girl in a Country Song” that has resonated most among fans. The sassy anti-bro country anthem is a brutal satire of stereotypical country babes in cutoff shorts who are lucky to “climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut, and ride along.” The foot-stomping battle cry has helped earn Maddie and Tae three 2015 Country Music Award nods. We caught up with the flaxen-haired ladies on the last leg of their tour with Dierks Bentley to discuss the Nashville strategy, feminism, and country music’s reputation for being too conservative.

Right now, the most exciting artists in country music are women. How does it feel to be a part of that?
Maddie: It's so cool to get to share a woman's perspective when it hasn't been told for so long. There's only been a couple women in country music lately for us to go off of, so I love that Tae and I are able to bring this fresh perspective, and a young perspective, that hasn't really been told since Taylor [Swift]. Still, the best part is being able to connect with people of all ages, because we make music that is appropriate for kids and their parents. That's a really great part of the music that we make.

Do you feel because you’re young, older audiences are less likely to take you seriously?
Tae: Since we write music that’s honest, people of all ages can relate to it. Of course, I'm sure older women might look at us and say, "They haven't lived enough life to know," but we're just writing what we feel and what we think and what we go through. If they relate to it, that's great, and if they don't ... I mean, we do have a lot more life to live, and we're always going to write about it.

How have country-music provocateurs like the Dixie Chicks inspired your songwriting?
Maddie: We've always been huge fans of the Dixie Chicks. They talked about subject matter that people didn't necessarily want to talk about and made people pay attention to issues. They just did such a great job of making music that was fun, but also making music that meant something. There was always meaning in every single song that they had. That’s something that we always wanted to emulate growing up.

Country-music radio has been known, as you know, to be very Christian and very conservative. Even Little Big Town's deeply emotional song “Girl Crush” was criticized for promoting same-sex relationships. How do you guys feel about that?
Tae: To be honest, country music is a place where you can sing about anything from Christianity to cancer. It's really cool that we are in a genre where everything is accepted and honesty is promoted. Maddie and I are huge fans of the “Girl Crush” song because it says something that wasn't being said, and that's exactly what we've been doing. Our first song [“Girl in a Country Song”] came out of the gate saying something that wasn't being said. 

Maddie: To tie in the whole Christianity aspect, as Christians, we're taught our whole lives to love people no matter what, and in country music, that's okay, that's something that's accepted. That's why it’s a great genre for us, because we can speak about all kinds of different things. You don't have to be a certain way or a certain stereotype to fit in, and that's why we love it. A lot of genres are that way, too, but I love how welcoming and accepting country music is of all different races, genders, and everything.

Do you guys think country music is getting more or less conservative?
Maddie: Conservative is a term that resonates differently with people. For us, Tae and I take that as being modest. The easiest way to put it is, if there's a little girl in the audience and she's looking at us, I want her parents to feel comfortable with her admiring us and looking up to us. So we're going to do whatever it takes to make sure that she can do that, because some people cut off their demographic whenever they’re vulgar or dress crazy. That's fine, because it works for some people, and that's how some people express themselves, but for us, we want to reach every single age group that we possibly can. That's been the goal since day one, and being ourselves, we’re very modest people.

What about some of the well-worn country-music themes — small town, pickup trucks, tall grass, etc. Do you ever feel limited by some of that in your songwriting?
Tae: Yeah, there is a bit of a Nashville strategy, but we didn't do any of that, obviously. Our first country song, we called all of that out and said, "Hey, we're tired of hearing this all the time, so we're going to switch it up." There is a Nashville strategy, but everyone likes to try out new things and different ways of writing, different ways of saying things, and everyone's always going to experiment with that. It's always going to keep evolving, so we try not to let anything limit us with that strategy.

Maddie: I will say, as southern women, there is a southern way of life that inspires a lot of music. I can see why that’s a common thread through music, but the best part about country is it's about real life. It's not about this glamorous Lamborghini, walking around with gold necklaces, all that stuff. You don't have to sing about those things that aren't real to us. We can sing about real life and real situations and real emotions, and connect with fans that way.

When you were first starting out, did the “Nashville strategy” shock you?
Tae: No, not really. Nashville is such a town with very, very talented people, and obviously, the environment is so inspirational. They just have their way of doing things. They know what works on radio. They know what works with fans, and so, obviously, they try to write to that strategy. It wasn't a shock to us, but we were so serious about what we wanted to do that it never swayed us. We were never pressured into going that way. We just knew what we wanted to do, and thankfully, we found a team who accepted that. It was never like, "Oh, you have to write this way or your can't be a writer." It was always just, "Be yourself," and that's what we've done. But props to the people with that strategy. 

Maddie: The formula is, "Okay, we have to have the truck and the girl and the this and the that." But we were very blessed because the team that we have, and all the writers that we really connect with, and even writers that we haven't written with that we love and admire, most of them are great about writing truthfully and not just trying to make it some big story. 

Now onto your favorite subject, bro-country. Has Luke Bryan sent you any hate mail?
Maddie: We have not received any hate mail from any artist whatsoever. In “Girl in a Country Song” we weren't calling out bro-country artists, necessarily. We were just calling out the trend of this stereotype of a woman who has to just sit there and look hot and do whatever the guy tells her to do, and look a certain way. We didn't fit this stereotype. We don’t have long, tan legs and all that crap. We're not that, and we're not women [who] can just keep our mouths shut and not say anything or not have a voice. We wanted to speak up for the women who felt that same way. Originally, we thought we were the only ones that felt that way, until we released the song and realized that we weren't the only ones who did not want to be this girl in all the guys' country songs.

How do you feel about the idea that people will attach the word feminism or feminist to your music? Strange?
Maddie: No, no, no! It's doesn't make us feel strange at all. Actually, Tae and I are completely comfortable with being labeled as feminists because feminism actually means someone who believes in equality for men and women. For some reason there's a stigma with feminism, saying, "Oh, we hate men." But it's not that. It's not that at all. It's just saying, "Hey, women deserve the opportunities that men have, and vice versa. Men deserve the opportunities that women have." We're totally comfortable with saying that, and speaking out for women and men. At the end of the day, we're just trying to give people a voice.