Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye, professionally known as Maddie & Tae, are real Nashville based country girls and a duo to be reckoned with, though both are barely into their twenties. The duo’s acclaimed debut album Start Here dropped in 2015 on the famous Dot Records label, an outlet that began life supporting and specialising in music from Tennessee. Despite the success of the leadoff singles “Girl in a Country Song” and “Fly” Maddie & Tae decided to delay releasing the album until they were fully happy with all the tracks. Rather than rush things they concentrated on arrangements with noted producer/guitarist Dann Huff (Michael Jackson, Scritti Politti, Whitesnake, George Benson, Faith Hill, Megadeth, Rascal Flatts et al), making the valid point that “you only make your first album once. What we had was good, but we knew we could make it much better”.
Patience paid off since the album hit 7 on the US Billboard Top 200 and peaked at 2 on the Top Country Albums Chart. The sassy response to “bro-country” attitude that informs“Girl in a Country Song” is backed up by a super catchy country rock hoe down with a hilarious video (all their Vevo clips are mandatory viewing) that has chalked up a staggering 32 million hits. So for all their blonde good looks and drop dead gorgeous harmonies these two ain’t no fools and reference Conway Twitty and George Strait for those gents’ good ole boy methodology. The track, co-written on St. Patrick’s Day in double quick time with collaborator Aaron Scherz is a gauntlet thrown down and notice of a significant arrival. A Digital download sensation, it has also notched close on 700 thousand sales and made #1 in December 2014, the US Christmas #1, no less.
Madison Kay Marlow hails from Sugar Land, Texas, part of the Houston metropolitan area. Taylor Elizabeth Dye is from Ada, Oklahoma, situated in the rolling hills of the southeast of the state. Born within months of each other in 1995 the duo met when they attended vocal classes and then appeared at a talent-spotting showcase in Dallas. Pretty much instant like-minded friends with shared interests and uncanny bloodline harmony skills the two 15-year olds started performing and busking as Sweet Aliana, playing in front of the Hard Rock, Nashville and parking up in the adjacent Hilton. The song “Waitin’ on a Plane that kicks of Start Here was one of their earliest compositions and an increasingly popular choice of song as their street corner crowd spread via word of mouth.
Deciding that Sweet Aliana was a) too cute and b) too childish they settled on Maddie & Tae just before landing their contract, basing the decision on being straightforward, honest and transparent in music as in life and image. “Girl in a Country Song” was actually released as an eponymous EP with three new tracks: “Sierra”, “Fly” and “Your Side of Town”. As TV shows were conquered and positive reviews started to flood in for Maddie & Tae the girls began to get the inevitable comparisons to the likes of the Dixie Chicks; those with longer memories might recall The Judds, or even the Everly Brothers but really the Start Here songs stand alone and on their own four feet. Civil Wars’ photographer Allister Ann provided the striking cover artwork depicting the duo in the back of a four-wheeler. As an author and photographer with strong links to the fashion world Nashville based Ann was perfectly chosen since she sets them not as blonde bombshells per se but as sassy intelligent artists on the rise.
Start Here is a selection of strong narrative songs. The most recent hit“Shut Up and Fish” applies more role reversal wit in the lyric while “Fly” deals with the hardships of cracking open the elusive elixir of success. Brilliant vocals and immaculate musicianship don’t harm their cause either. Star players on the album are Dan Dugmore, Stuart Duncan and Paul Franklin, Nashville A-listers with a wealth of experience and great track records. Other specialists include David Huff, responsible for programming and extra percussion, bass guitarist Jimmy Lee Sloas and, more left-field perhaps, Ilya Toshinsky from the Russian ensemble and purveyors of “redgrass” Bering Strait. Ilya brings banjo, acoustic guitar and mandolin to the party.
In short, Start Here is a joy and is totally recommended for your discovery. Go for the Target Exclusive Deluxe Edition where you get acoustic versions of the final two songs – “After the Storm Blows Through” and “Downside of Growing Up”, co-authored with Trent Wilmon and Frank Rogers respectively.
With their fresh style, confessional songs and script-flipping charisma Maddie & Tae have already charmed even the most cynical. Following the C2C event in London and Dublin they head back Stateside for a major Spring and Summer tour where their immaculate two part harmonies are bound to enthrall all those who get up close and personal with a genuine new talent. Start here…
Maddie & Tae constructed their initial single, "Girl in a Country Song," as a battle cry camouflaged as satire: it took dead aim at the bros, but the duo smiled as they sank in the shiv. Clever as it was, "Girl in a Country Song" ran the risk of pegging Maddie & Tae as a novelty act but their full-length 2015 debut, Start Here, proves the hit was an opening salvo in a long-term mission to take back the contemporary country airwaves from hunks in tight jeans. Start Here is a proudly female album in addition to being a record that fully embraces the joys and occasional sorrows of being young, smart, funny, and ambitious. Given their precocious, pop-friendly attitude and association with Big Machine Records, it's easy to compare Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye to Taylor Swift, but Maddie & Tae emulate neither the skillful adolescent poetry nor the folky fragility of early Swift. They're an unabashed country act, gliding between heartbreak harmonies and punch lines with aplomb, the gilded ease masquerading the careful craft behind these 11 songs, every one of which bears songwriting credits by the duo. Craft is always a key component of the Nashville machine and producer Dann Huff ensures that Start Here follows the contours of commercial country; this isn't outsider music, this is bright, shiny country that cherishes polish as much as twang. The reason Start Here feels fresh lies entirely with Maddie & Tae, how they're tomboys who wish their boyfriend would just "Shut Up and Fish," how they feel as genuine when they're settling into sentiment on "Fly" as they do on "Sierra" when they pray for the downfall of a mean girl. In another's hands, such scheming could seem crass or nasty but placed in the context of Start Here, where it's surrounded by both sweetness and swagger, it simply adds another dimension to an album that embodies all the complex contradictions and unfettered optimism of modern country-pop in 2015.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine