"Teenage Duo Takes On ‘Bro Country’ Cliches, Writes Country Song Where Women Do More Than Bring Boys Beer"
CREDIT: Big Machine/Dot Records
Now get ready to listen to it again and again and again. “Girl in a Country Song,” with its tongue-in-cheek takedown of the way bro country treats women—“We used to get a little respect / now we’re lucky if we even get / to climb up in your truck keep our mouths shut and ride along / and be the girl in the country song.”—has all the makings of a hit: clever, on-the-zeitgeist lyrics, a sense of humor, and two very talented, telegenic teenagers:
Maddy and Tae are being billed as the first act signed to Big Machine Label Group’s Dot Records imprint, which is only sort of true. Dot is actually about 50 years older than Maddy and Tae and was active through the late 1970s, featuring artists like Pat Boone, The Hilltoppers, and Don Williams. Newly revived, Dot is under the purview of Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta, who you may know as the guy who discovered Taylor Swift. So really Maddy and Tae are the first of the next generation of Dot artists, which is part of what makes their debut single so fitting: for the second life of Dot, Maddy and Tae are doing a double-take of all the tropes in modern country music.
In 2013, the almighty country radio airwaves were dominated by “bro country,” that beer in the headlights partying playlist. On these tracks, every guy is in or around a truck, whistling at a girl in cutoff jean shorts—the girl can swap those cut-offs for jeans so long as they’re “painted on”; the truck is non-negotiable—and everyone is drinking, or, in the girl’s case, fetching a drink for someone else.
Some prime offenders: Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night” (“Pretty girl by my side / You got that sun tan skirt and boots / Waiting on you to look my way and scoot / Your little hot self over here / Girl hand me another beer”); Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” (“Yeah, when I first saw that bikini top on her / She’s poppin’ right out of the South Georgia water / Thought, “Oh, good lord, she had them long tanned legs!… This brand new Chevy with a lift kit / Would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it”); Jason Aldean’s “My Kinda Party” (“A little tan-legged Georgia dream / She’s a rockin’ them holey jeans”); Thomas Rhett’s “Get Me Some Of That” (“You’re shakin that money-maker…Love the way you’re wearin’ those jeans so tight”).
As Entertainment Weekly’s Grady Smith put it in his piece on the “country brodown,” “There’s also a weirdly pervasive trend of calling female subjects ‘girl’ over and over… Current country has big dudes yelling out ‘girl!’ as a term of address (to women who presumably have names) the way Tarzan might if he knuckled his way into a honky tonk.”
It wasn’t all bad, bro-y news in country last year; in fact, 2013 brought some of the most refreshing, insightful female voices that country music’s heard in ages. There’s Kacey Musgraves: her “Follow Your Arrow” encourages listeners to kiss boys or girls “if that’s something you’re into” and to “roll up a joint” (she would!). Ashley Monroe released Like A Rose last March; the lead single is her anthem of survival in a world where everyone she depended on is a drunk, a degenerate or dead. Brandy Clark, whose debut album 12 Stories came out at the end of 2013, is an openly gay singer-songwriter. In her playful single, “Stripes,” she tells a cheating lover that “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion / The only thing savin’ your life / Is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.”
None of these women had singles that sold as much as any of the men’s hits listed above, or even as much as the most horrifying country song of 2013: Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy,” which The Washington Post’s Emily Yahr accurately labeled “a glorified stalker anthem.” Farr sings about a girl who cheated on him (can’t imagine why! He sounds like a real keeper) and his plan of violent recourse: “I’m gonna lean my headlights into your bedroom windows / Throw empty beer cans at both of your shadows / I didn’t come here to start a fight, but I’m up for anything tonight.”
“Girl In A Country Song” calls out all these hits, by subtle wink or direct address—“I got a name, and to you it ain’t pretty little thing, honey or baby / it’s driving me red-red-red-red-red-red-neck crazy”—as Maddy and Tae lament the state of the modern country darling. “Well, I wish I had some shoes on my two bare feet / and it’s getting kinda cold in these painted on, cut-off jeans.” And don’t even get them started on the swimwear-as-outerwear look: “I hate the way this bikini top chafes / do I really have to wear it all day?”
Even though the backlash is beginning, bro-centric songs are still topping the country charts. Number one on the Billboard Country charts right now is Jake Owen’s “Beachin’” which is all “just watchin’ her blonde hair, sun burnt, stare at them… and it’s sunshine, blue eyes, tan lines.” Coming in at number four is Luke Bryan’s “Play It Again”: “She was sittin’ all alone over on the tailgate / Tan legs swingin’ by a Georgia plate,” which is followed at number five by Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan with “This Is How We Roll.” In a shocking twist, they roll in a truck with “my baby [in] the shotgun seat.”
I called up country music historian Don Cusic, who said the trucker trend isn’t going anywhere quite yet. “I was in the studio the other day, and the engineer said they cut a demo yesterday. They did six songs. And every song had a truck in it.”
How exactly did country music get to this place? “If you’re outside the industry, it looks like women are being discriminated against,” said Cusic. “If you’re inside those rooms when they’re making decisions about what goes on the radio and what doesn’t, it seems like, well, this is a hit and that ain’t. They boil it down simply. Now, that is dominated by male decision makers… Outsiders say, there really should be more women on the radio. Inside those conference rooms, they’re saying… ‘This will move product and this won’t.’”
Like any hit song, “Girl in a Country Song” feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable, the obvious response to all these bros’s hollering. “If I’m Scott Borchetta, you didn’t think of anybody doing a song like that, but you hear it and say, damn! That’s exactly what needs to be there,” said Cusic. “You learn something that you already knew. He probably heard it and went: that’s exactly what we need to hear. It’s different than what’s on the radio. It’s catchy, it doesn’t have all the old clichés.”
In country, said Cusic, “Songwriters are always looking for a twist. You want to be surprised by the familiar.”
So are Maddy and Tae a sign of a progressive shift in country music? Or is this track just a one-off?
The country industry is generally more “open-minded” than the audience, said Cusic. “To get on country radio, you really go for whatever is a hit. And so the subject matter is less relevant as to whether it’s going to be a hit and be played. Country music is not loyal to a sound; it’s loyal to a market. And it’s reflected the market, generally about ten to fifteen years years after what pop has done. So that idea of embracing the gay community [like Kacey Musgraves] or at least not disparaging the gay community, being open to social issues, is part of a bigger trend in the country that country music reflects.”
And Maddy and Tae aren’t the only acts toying with, or rejecting, the modern country narrative. Sturgill Simpson, a 35-year-old self-described homebody, released his second solo album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, in May. To read his quotes and listen to his lyrics is to get the feeling he’s more Rust Cohle than Matthew McConaughey. Simpson’s stuff is pretty light on the partying.
Meanwhile, Musgraves released “The Trailer Song,” which she’s been playing live since at least early last year, as a single on Spotify in January. It’s a country song that passes the Bechdel Test with ease, as Musgraves sings to a nosy, judgmental girl next door to “keep your two cents on your side of the fence / girl, we ain’t friends, we’re just neighbors.”
But while “Girl in a Country Song” delivers some biting critiques, Maddy and Tae have been making it clear in their press rounds that it’s all in good fun, y’all. They can’t be going around hurting feelings and bruising egos. They’ve got music to sell.
“I hope it’s a huge hit,” said Cusic of “Girl in a Country Song.” “The industry will see if it sells. And if it sells, there’ll be fifty songs just like it in the next six months.”