“Piranha” is their code word. Maddie Marlow and Taylor Dye, the nineteen-year-olds behind the chart-topping country duo Maddie & Tae, text it to each other during uncomfortable—or even predatory—situations as a cue that it’s time to leave. It’s their go-to when a conversation with a fan descends into sexual innuendo or when an interviewer talks down to them. Most recently, they used it to bail during a songwriting session in Los Angeles with a collaborator who dismissed them as bubblegum country. “We also piranha’d once at a janky nail salon in Nashville,” says Sugar Land native Marlow.
January’s CMT Ultimate Kickoff Party, a live television special celebrating college football’s national championship weekend in Dallas, had all the trappings of a piranha moment. The young women were tapped to play the seven-act bill, which was noticeably light on female performers and heavy on “bro country” acts, like Thomas Rhett, Jake Owen, and Brett Eldredge—the kind of guys who sing about dirt roads, tailgates, and binge drinking. The funny thing is, Maddie & Tae were invited to play the show because of the chart success of their first single, “Girl in a Country Song”—a not-so-thinly-veiled protest song that ruthlessly mocks the kind of guys who sing about dirt roads, tailgates, and binge drinking. “I got a name,” they sing, “and to you it ain’t ‘pretty little thing,’ ‘honey,’ or ‘baby.’ ” Clearly the song has struck a chord: it was released last summer, and by year’s end it had risen to number one on Billboard’s country airplay chart and earned them a nomination for Vocal Duo of the Year at April’s Academy of Country Music Awards.
It’s probably safe to assume that many of the college football fans assembled at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center like bro country just fine. But even so, when Maddie & Tae took the stage, the punch line of the first verse—“I hate the way this bikini top chafes / Do I really have to wear it all day?”—got a moderately big laugh. A few moments later, the second half of the chorus—“We used to get a little respect / Now we’re lucky if we even get to climb up in the truck / Keep our mouth shut / Ride along / And be the girl in a country song”—earned rapturous applause. In three and a half minutes of live TV, these Nashville rookies turned a risky move into a victory lap.
Over lunch at Dallas’s CBD Provisions the day before the show, Dye pretty much predicted how well things would go. “There are more people than anybody thought who have been wanting to say what we say in our song,” she explained. To remind herself that there are also plenty of people who still aren’t in her corner, she keeps, on her smartphone, a screen capture of one of the more vituperative responses to their hit: an expletive-laden tweet that concludes with the charming sign-off “I hope someone real soon introduces you to a chloroform soaked rag.”
“The day after we saw it,” Dye said, “we played to a thousand people. So there.”
Given how unapologetically “Girl in a Country Song” skewers the bro-country movement, it’s a little surprising that they played coy when the song first came out, telling interviewers that it was “tongue-in-cheek” and “all in good fun.” But its chart success seems to have given them the freedom to embrace its outlaw spirit. “Right now, the formula—women are accessories and arm candy—is the formula that works,” said Marlow. “We hate the formula. The women in these songs have two jobs: look hot and shut up. So yeah, we’re annoyed.”
“Girl in a Country Song,” which they wrote with Nashville vet Aaron Scherz, directly quotes bro-country lyrics and, in a Trojan-horse move, cops the feel of bro country—big guitars and fiddles against the boom-bap of a hip-hop-inspired drum loop. The team at Nashville’s Dot Records, who signed the group soon after hearing the song’s demo, thought it could be a hit. It didn’t hurt that Dot is part of the Big Machine Label Group, which is run by the most powerful executive in country music, Scott Borchetta. (Among other accomplishments, he discovered Taylor Swift.) Big Machine is also home to bro-country standard-bearers Florida Georgia Line, so Borchetta’s blessing may have been just what radio programmers needed to make them feel as if they weren’t biting the hands that feed them. Some people, though, took one look at these pretty young blondes and suspected they were a pair of marionettes Borchetta had manufactured to hedge his bets in case bro country’s popularity began to fade.
“A radio programmer recently told the head of the label, ‘I’m a fan now that I’ve met them. I guess the rumor that they met each other just before they went into the studio is a lie,’ ” Dye said. “I get that our story seems like a fairy tale, constructed in some sort of Nashville factory. But we were together four years before this song happened. We wrote every day, moved out at seventeen on our own, took a leap of faith, and finally had something happen.”
And indeed, that’s almost exactly the backstory. Marlow and Dye met in 2010 at a Dallas showcase put on by their shared voice teacher, Tom McKinney, who had worked with Beyoncé and Demi Lovato early in their careers. Marlow had been singing in talent shows since the third grade and taught herself how to play guitar in middle school; Dye had grown up singing the National Anthem at her brothers’ baseball games in their hometown of Ada, Oklahoma. They’re both diehard country fans—Dye idolizes the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain, while Marlow got to see a who’s who of country every year at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. They were the sort of kids who told other kids they were going to be country stars when they grew up. “We hadn’t met anyone else as ambitious as us,” said Marlow. “We immediately recognized each other’s drive.” Originally, McKinney had put the two girls together with a third student of his; he had envisioned a trio. But Marlow and Dye eventually decided to go the duo route and struck upon the same format they use now: both play guitar, Marlow handles lead vocals and occasionally mandolin, and Dye sings mostly harmonies. Marlow’s voice is a few shades twangier than Dye’s, but their voices blend seamlessly. And from day one, the plan was to write together and with more-established songwriters, which, with the help of a talent broker McKinney put them in touch with, meant embarking on songwriting trips to Nashville. On a 2012 visit to Music City, they began writing with Scherz.
In spring 2013, Marlow and Dye officially moved to Nashville and devoted themselves to working with Scherz, writing by day and, at night, performing the songs on a stage in his basement to learn how to carry themselves in a live setting. “At the end of the night, I’d go back to my apartment and, more than a few times, cry,” said Marlow. “I had one best friend, Tae, I didn’t know anyone else, and my family was thirteen hours away.”
As so often happens, one song changed everything. Almost a year to the day after the move to Nashville, they wrote “Girl in a Country Song.” The song’s genesis was an offhand remark: after discussing the state of country radio, Marlow told Dye and Scherz, “You know, I’d hate to be the girl in those country songs.” A couple of months later they signed to Dot. “I was definitely a little freaked out that every single dream I’d ever had was coming true,” Marlow said.
For the past year, the duo have been working on their debut album, Start Here, which comes out June 2. Much of it will lean in the direction of their current single, “Fly,” the rootsier follow-up to “Girl in a Country Song.” That “Fly” sounds so different from their hit might be both a blessing and a curse: radio programmers concerned that “Girl in a Country Song” was a one-and-done novelty might appreciate the duo’s depth, but they might also be concerned that they’re going to have to sell Maddie & Tae to their listeners all over again.
While they wait to see how “Fly” does, the two women will spend this summer opening for Dierks Bentley. They expect “Girl in a Country Song” to get the lion’s share of the applause. But they’re also eager to prove to the audience that they’re not one-hit wonders—because they know the people in the crowd are a species of piranha themselves.
“Country fans can sniff out phony from a mile away,” Marlow said. “I love country music because it’s honest—and I’m a terrible liar.”