Maddie & Tae receive credit for returning country to the roots of the music by writing their own songs, having those songs actually convey stories, and including country instrumentation in their music. But the component that may tie them most strongly to country music’s lineage does not have to do with style or instrumentation. When they released their hit single “Girl in a Country Song,” we wondered if the electronic drums and record scratches starting the song off were sincere or sarcasm. In the end, it turned out to be the latter.
Comedy, whether cornpone, sarcastic, or even dirty at times, was and remains one of the most recognizable ingredients to the authentic country music experience. Early Grand Ole Opry shows all had comedy sketches, including from full-time comedians as cast members. Then fast forward to the songwriting of Roger Miller and Shel Silverstein, and songs like “A Boy Named Sue,” and it becomes apparent that the comedy of country is just as absent today as the steel guitar. It’s what “Little” Jimmy Dickens made his career off of, and what Brad Paisley has leaned on later in his career (with questionable success, admittedly). What would Hee-Haw be without it’s humor that was as stupid as it was warm and familiar, and made audiences feel at home?
Maddie & Tae have become the perfect foil to today’s male country stars. They’re like the Minnie Pearl of country music’s Millennial generation. It doesn’t mean they can’t be serious. The success of their last single “Fly” certainly calls into question my prognostication prowess. I thought it didn’t have prayer, and it would be another one and done female act at radio. But I’ll be damned if the song didn’t make it into the Top 10, proving that it’s a new day for country women after Keith Hill’s “Tomato” comments. But “Fly” has run its course and it’s time for a new single, and Maddie & Tae have selected “Shut Up and Fish.”
Staunch traditionalists are never going to give Maddie & Tae a serious chance, but that doesn’t mean their music (and “Shut Up and Fish”) doesn’t symbolize a wholesale reversal of course for what we’re used to the mainstream serving. The song probably relies a little too much on the standardized over-driven Tele sound early on, indicative of 90’s-00’s country and not necessarily in a good way. But “Shut Up and Fish” finds its groove, has an infectious chorus, and fits right into the space Maddie & Tae have made for themselves in country that nobody else is fulfilling.
The duo certainly doesn’t want to paint themselves into a corner by becoming a one-trick pony this early in their career. That might have been the misstep that has doomed Kacey Musgraves at radio. But they also have to lean on their strengths, and one of them is using wit in their music. It’s not even that “Shut Up and Fish” is especially funny, it’s just a perspective we don’t hear in country music much these days so it feels fresh and young and invigorated. You can see young girls getting into a song like this because it includes this “hard to get” quotient foreign to popular country, and it helps that the inspiration for the song comes from a true story.
Cutting against the grain and keeping listeners on their toes has worked well for Maddie & Tae, and “Shut Up and Fish” once again exudes this feeling like they’re in control, and empowering the heroine against the dundering boy. “Shut Up and Fish” is kind of a stupid song that says a lot, and arguably says it better than “Girl in a Country Song” because it says it in a subtle manner.
And releasing “Shut Up and Fish” shows guts, and moxie, and even a little leadership. This isn’t the safe route to a single progression from a record. But it’s the one that best represents who Maddie & Tae are, and what they have to offer that is unique in an otherwise dull marketplace.