Song Review – Maddie & Tae’s “Friends Don’t”

You want to root for Maddie & Tae, or at least you should. They’re counter programming, even if it’s still very fair to consider them pop country. They’re spunky and smart. They’re bold, and are willing to go where few have the guts to. Even if they’re not your style, they shake things up and make it interesting. And though they were apparently not interesting enough for Scott Borchetta to keep on Big Machine after he bit off more than he could chew and shuttered his Dot imprint, they landed safely on Mercury Nashville, and are now prepping for a sophomore release.

“Friends Don’t” is the first taste we get of Maddie & Tae 2.0 for an upcoming record they’ve already let us know will be conceptualized—something quite bold from two 21-year-old women who at this point are just making sure they can hold on to their careers. But Maddie & Tae didn’t get here by following the formula. “Girl In A Country Song” put them on the map by going in the exact opposite direction of everyone else. So as mainstream country music continues it become increasingly unimaginative, Maddie & Tae will task us to use a little imagination.

Written by the duo with some help from Justin Ebach and Jon Nite, “Friends Don’t” is yet again a song from Maddie & Tae that makes you think. It stokes it’s emotion not just by telling a story of the gray area between friendship and love, but also by activating your gray matter to really get you pondering the meaning. Intelligent in how it works, while still telling a story most can relate to, “Friends Don’t” is the exact type of composition you would hope for from the duo.

The production of the song is where “Friends Don’t” fails. Maddie & Tae may gain new patrons who perhaps believed the duo were too weird for their mainstream sensibilities before, but it will be while losing the casual onlookers from independent and traditional country who thought they were smart and fun, and smiled when their niece really got into “Shut Up and Fish.” Very contemporary in style, the banjo and acoustic guitar buried in the mix of “Friends Don’t” almost makes the song worse because it’s a nod that nothing else about the song is really country.

The hardline country fans were always skeptical of Maddie & Tae, and couched them as a machination of the mainstream meant to siphon off dollars from disgruntled listeners during the run of “Girl in a Country Song” in the midst of Bro-Country, even though an open mind concluded they were still much more country than pop, and more country than most of what the radio had to offer.

However this new song will only cement those negative sentiments, and for fair reasons. Being unique is what made Maddie & Tae interesting, separated them from the herd, and allowed them to bust through the male-dominated mainstream landscape. Going safe and pop is what Music Row producers love to try with young women performers, but it’s what makes them blend into the background, and often fail. Stripping the production down and staying rootsy like we saw with Cam’s “Burning House” and Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing,” or Ashley McBryde’s “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” is what has been working recently in the mainstream.

It’s also worth pointing out that since the upcoming Maddie & Tae album will be a concept record, it is even more relevant to wait on passing judgement on any pre-release song until it’s heard in context. That said, it’s hard to see context rehabilitating the production of this particular song. It’s also hard to see the duo not continuing to write and record smart material, just like it’s fair to call “Friends Don’t.” So it’s a mixed bag at this point for the second coming of Maddie & Tae. We’ll just have to see how all of this materializes.

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One Gun Up for smart, sophisticated, yet touching and emotionally real songwriting.

One Gun Down for unimaginative and safe production, counter to what we’ve come to expect from Maddie & Tae.

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