At the end of 2016, country music duo Maddie & Tae sat down to talk about goals for the upcoming year. They decided to call 2017 “the year of uncomfortability,” challenging themselves to get out of their safe zone as they worked on their sophomore album.
That phrase would prove prophetic: Two months later, their label, Dot Records, abruptly folded. Just like that, one of Nashville’s most promising young acts — who had made a splash with their 2014 debut single, “Girl in a Country Song” — had an uncertain future.
The duo was soon scooped up by Universal Music Group Nashville. But those nerve-racking months between labels, when they worried that they might never release music again, had a profound effect on the 23-year-old singers. They opened up about all of this in a YouTube video this year, as Tae Dye spoke about their “moments of fear” and Maddie Marlow admitted that she went through “a tough depression.”
“With this platform we’ve been given, we have the ability to look perfect. But just because we’re on a stage with fancy lights and high heels on does not change a thing about who we are inside,” Dye said in a recent interview. “We were going through this really trying time, and it was just an opportunity for us to be even more open about it . . . and connect with our fans on a deeper level.”
As they worked on their second album with Universal last year, Marlow and Dye — who will perform at WMZQ Fall Fest on Saturday — threw themselves into writing as many songs as possible. The result was a “concept record,” on track to be released in early 2019, that tells the story of a relationship from beginning to end — the good, the bad and the ugly.
“It’s also a kind of a little deeper meaning for us, as that’s been our story the past couple years,” Marlow said. “The highest of highs and lowest of lows.”
The first single is “Friends Don’t,” about two people who are scared to admit they have feelings for each other. The song hit a chord with their fans (the music video has nearly 4 million views) and cracked the Top 50 on country radio, though there are hopes it will climb even higher before the album is released.
Although waiting to get a radio hit is a common conundrum for artists in Nashville, Maddie & Tae had an unusually quick rise when they exploded out of the gate in 2014. The brash, funny “Girl in a Country Song” became a No. 1 smash as it took down popular “bro country” cliches and mocked the party songs about dudes drinking beer in trucks while tan girls in cutoff jeans sit in the passenger seat.
“Being the girl in a country song, how in the world did it go so wrong?” they lamented on the track, which poked fun of such hits as Jason Aldean’s “My Kinda Party” and Blake Shelton’s “Boys ’Round Here.” It was a risky move for a new act to take aim at well-established singers, but fans loved it — as did country radio, which has had a dismal track record in recent years playing female artists. Looking back, Marlow and Dye can’t quite believe how it all unfolded.
“It was a crazy whirlwind,” Dye said. “We’re so grateful for how the success happened with ‘Girl,’ that it set us up . . . to feel the top of the mountain and appreciate it.”
Their follow-up single, “Fly,” showed a more serious side and became a hit; two other sassy singles, “Shut Up and Fish” and “Sierra,” didn’t make much of an impact on the charts. As “Friends Don’t” from the new album attempts to break through, Marlow and Dye are well aware of the gender imbalance on country radio. Currently, in the Top 50, there are only five solo female artists.
“There’s no easy way around the whole issue, or easy answer to it,” Marlow said. “I’m still so baffled why there’s not more females on the chart . . . but we kind of use it to make a positive thing, that we’re going to outwork everyone else. We’re good friends with a lot of female [singers] in country, and we’ll just outwork the boys if we have to.”
Meanwhile, they scored a coveted opening slot on Carrie Underwood’s arena tour, which kicks off in May and features an all-female lineup. “Everyone’s like, ‘Support women in country!’ . . . but very few people actually do something. She’s really, really holding the torch for all of us,” Marlow said.
And as they continue penning songs, their rough patch last year taught them to write what they feel — which, even if it is unpleasant, can often lead to the best material.
“Every song that’s on this upcoming project was written from a place of truth,” Marlow said. “We don’t hide behind whatever we’re going through — we just write about it.”