In the pursuit of saving country music, we’re so used to being in a war of attrition (and being on the losing end of it), even when victories are attained, or God forbid fall into our laps, we’re too suspicious and too recalcitrant to even acknowledge them, let alone celebrate them. Oh so Scott Borchetta at Big Machine Records released some anti Bro-Country song by a young female duo nobody had heard of before? That’s because he wants to fleece consumers coming and going, regardless of what side of the country music divide they’re standing on. Right?
Whether you were cheering, jeering, or just watching it all unfold, “Girl In A Country Song” became a remarkable country music story by breaking through the male dominated monopoly on the country charts to make it all the way to #1, launching a new duo in an environment virtually devoid of female talent. Even if the whole system for all intents and purposes is rigged, it was still a fairly remarkable feat by the two young females.
“People forget how great country music is, and we haven’t,” Maddie Marlow was recently quoted as saying. “It’s nice knowing we’re putting the banjo, the fiddle, the steel and the mandolin back out front.”
And that’s what they do in their debut full-length album, Start Here, though you probably won’t catch many Waylon fans bobbing their heads along. It is still very much a pop country album, but the fact that Maddie & Tae have taken one small step forward for country music, and one giant leap for females in mainstream country should be something we can all celebrate. On the very first song “Waitin’ on a Plane,” you hear the steel guitar moaning high in the mix, and you immediately know this isn’t going to be another run-of-the-mill modern day pop record pushed through country channels for marketing purposes. If nothing else, this approach is refreshing, and quite honestly, remarkable coming from Music Row.
As first displayed in “Girl in a Country Song,” humor is a big player in Maddie & Tae’s music, and not just a lighthearted line or two here and there, and not outright joke songs like the ones that have weighted down the career of Brad Paisley. I’m taking cutting wit drawn from critical thinking in the songwriting process that results in an enjoyable component to music mostly forgotten about by both mainstream and independent country artists recently.
A song like “Sierra” rises above its otherwise spiteful nature simply from the way the duo crafts the words to where you’re hanging on each line. Another funny song is “Shut Up and Fish” where the heroine takes a little enjoyment frustrating her potential suitor while showing more interest in landing a bass than a new boyfriend. The perspective Maddie & Tae show through their humor is fresh and intelligent while still being accessible and entertaining. It’s one of the signatures of their approach, and they should resist attempts to mature away from it, and instead should continue to develop it into their writing style and feature it in future singles.
But Start Here isn’t all humor and hijinks and messing with the heads of hot and bothered boys. “Fly” has shown fairly remarkable traction as a single, despite it seeming like a strange pick for today’s radio. That’s what can happen when you introduce yourself to country radio with a #1. “Fly” has creeped into the Top 15 on both the radio and Billboard Hot Country Songs charts. “Right Here Right Now” reveals a side of the duo they needed to showcase to prove they weren’t just a couple of whiners looking to play foil to the guys, but could be vulnerable to the sway of romance and fall victim to wanting affection not always reciprocated as well.
Just about the time I was thinking the singing of Maddie & Tae on this record was really solid, but needed to take some chances and craft some moments that could showcase their talents, here came “After The Storm Blows Through,” which does that very thing. Maddie & Tae shouldn’t just use this opportunity in the mainstream spotlight to reinvigorate an appeal for traditional instrumentation, but singing ability as well, which has gone just as dormant recently.
About the only misstep seemed to be the slightly immature “Downside of Growing Up.” It felt like a holdover from an early incarnation of the duo. Maddie & Tae have made a career so far behaving, writing, and performing above their age. This song pulls them back to reality a little bit, though like all of Start Here‘s tracks, it’s hard to not recognize the quality of the writing, and appreciate music with a message.
In nearly every song of Start Here, it is either a steel guitar, a fiddle, a banjo, or a mandolin that is the featured instrument. There’s also some modern sensibilities built in, including what sound like electronic drum beats and hand claps to start off some songs. This, as well as other reactionary factors, will keep Maddie & Tae at arm’s length from much of traditional country’s ranks, even if these hardliners begrudgingly give acknowledgement that at least this music is better than most of what they hear coming from their radios these days. Meanwhile these modern inflections in Maddie & Tae’s music are what will draw in a much wider audience, and hopefully impart some country music values to the masses in the meantime.
Like the album or not, this is Maddie & Tae’s personal take on country, not some crafted style delegated from on high, and you can tell this in the finished product. The young women are given primary songwriting credits on every single one of these songs, with virtually none of the usual suspects of professional songwriters we’re so used to seeing gobble up co-writes in liner notes making an appearance, nor any songwriting credits doled out to the producer Dan Huff.
“[Country music] is what we love,” Maddie Marlow says. “Dann Huff understood that and helped us put those things front and center. We wouldn’t have had it any other way, but we’re so glad he really got it.” And Scott Borchetta was also quoted early on saying that he wanted to make sure Maddie & Tae were bringing their vision to this music, and not just acquiescing to what they thought the label might want to see and hear.
Start Here is not a solid victory in the fight to save country music, but it’s a start, and a much better option to root for compared to Kelsea Ballerini, and some other upstart female talent out there. Who knows, maybe Music Row is hedging their bets on a more traditional sound coming more into favor with very young artists like Maddie & Tae and Mo Pitney, and we may be looking at what will become the next generation of traditional contemporaries in the future.
Whether you like the album or not, Start Here is a sign of the tide starting to change, for women, for traditional instrumentation, and for quality songwriting. And whether it’s just a sign, or the marker for a true sea change, there’s no harm in acknowledging and celebrating it.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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