At first glance, the sapphire-eyed Maddie Marlow and the deeply tanned Tae Dye do look like girls skimmed off the top of the country charts, where long legs, baby blues and glossy smiles have become—if they haven’t always been—so ubiquitous as to seem required. (Fewer than one in six Americans have blue eyes, but the women loved by country singers seem to be six for six.) As their debut single asserts, however, neither Marlow nor Dye is the denim-wearing, shotgun-riding, utterly one-dimensional prop we’ve come to know as the “Girl in a Country Song.” The duo have leveled their teenage sights at mainstream country’s famous reliance on cliché—especially when it comes to women—and the result, I’m happy to say, is catchy as all hell.
Maddie & Tae (as officially branded) start by skewering the uniform: “Well I wish I had some shoes on my two bare feet, / And it’s gettin’ kinda cold in these painted-on cut-off jeans. / I hate the way this bikini top chafes, / Do I really have to wear it all day?” The accompanying video shows two models tugging uncomfortably at these over-worn accoutrements as they amble up a dirt road (check) toward a tailgate party (check) where three hatted, plaid-shirted dudes (check, check, check) remove said hats in deference to the approaching paragons of beauty. (Less deferentially, they promptly whistle.) From a nearby tailgate, our narrators roll their eyes and continue their litany of complaints: “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-redneck crazy.”
Besides Tyler Farr’s creepy “Redneck Crazy,” the hits of Blake Shelton (they all deserve a whistle), Jason Aldean (you can be my tan-legged Juliet) and Thomas Rhett (gotta get me some of that) are directly referenced and rejected, along with the demands all too commonly made by a dozen other male stars: riding down dirt roads, snuggling in a pickup, shaking that moneymaker. (“Ain’t never made me a dime,” scoff Maddie & Tae.) Meanwhile, Marlow hits the button on a box labeled “Role Reversal,” and the poor unfortunate whistlers are transformed, forced into the crop tops and short shorts they had so recently admired on more svelte, feminine bodies. Over the course of the video, these newfound sex symbols lean sultrily on garden hoes, dance on dropped-down tailgates, eat strawberries—sexily, of course—wash trucks—sexily again—and bring our heroines ice-cold glasses of (I assume) homemade lemonade.
The result is an upbeat takedown, a good-natured girl-power anthem in the tradition of Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.” (Twain, along with the Dixie Chicks and Jo Dee Messina—of “My Give a Damn’s Busted” fame—is cited by Dye as an early inspiration.) With the force of the revived Dot Records behind it, “Girl in a Country Song” has climbed, as of this writing, to #14 on the Billboard “Hot Country Songs” chart, sandwiched between two of the dude-driven hits it’s out to undermine.
I once heard the poet Rebecca Lindenberg speak about the freedom afforded female writers by virtue of the fact that, throughout most of human history, no one has taken them seriously. From Sappho to Dickinson, innovation comes naturally to those who have no reason not to take risks. There’s brilliance to be had in the shadows, Lindenberg theorized, advantages hidden in imposed handicaps.
As critics like Jody Rosen have pointed out, country music isn’t taking women seriously. A year after Rosen’s writing, the Billboard chart offers only the most minor of improvements over the one he analyzed, which featured just one female artist (Carrie Underwood) in the Top 20. As I write, Underwood’s joint venture with Miranda Lambert—the smoky, stomping, bad-girl anthem, “Somethin’ Bad”—sits at #11. Lady Antebellum (fronted by Hillary Scott) and Little Big Town (a foursome which includes Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman) are at #12 and #18, respectively, with the break-up number “Bartender” and the light summer jam “Day Drinking.” (The video for “Bartender” features Kate Upton going toe-to-toe with Arrested Development’s Tony Hale in the title role; it looks like Buster’s had too much juice again.)
With Maddie & Tae, that makes four songs out of twenty featuring women, a ratio that would make a corporate boardroom proud. And things don’t get any better further down the list: RaeLynn’s execrable “God Made Girls” and Jana Kramer’s bland, retrograde “Love” are the only other songs by female artists on my local station’s Top 40. So it’s a small victory to hear any female voice (okay, not RaeLynn’s) on country radio these days, to hear from girls—“or, as they’re sometimes called,” Rosen writes, “women”—and not just about them. To hear those female voices teasing their oh-so-easily-teased male counterparts is a bonus, one that makes me feel pretty darn warm and fuzzy inside. What more could this girl listening to a country song want?
Well, let’s say I’m greedy. Without dampening my enthusiasm—or yours, I hope—for “Girl in a Country Song,” let’s say that charting country songs often have their flaws, and this charming wink of a hit is no exception. The chorus claims, “We used to get a little respect, / Now we’re lucky if we even get / To climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut, ride along / And be the girl in a country song.” Maddie & Tae later sing along with the boot-thumping bridge: “Aw naw, / Conway and George Strait / Never did it this way / Back in the old days.” Fair enough: King George is faultless. But I’m wary of this conflation of chivalry with decency, of old-fashioned morals with open-minded respect.
This kneejerk nostalgia is embedded in country music, of course—even my favorite spitfire Lambert (Slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll / Don’t that sound like a real man) succumbs in her recent single “Automatic,” an (admittedly lovely) elegy for the glory days when “The boys would call the girls, / And the girls would turn them down. / Staying married was the only way to work your problems out.” Bemoaning the loss of the good ol’ days is as worn a trope as those Maddie & Tae are out to dismantle. It might be a less demeaning trend—and more inviting, I’ll confess—than the present vein of bro country coursing through my radio, but as a writer (and yes, even as a lover of country), I’m suspicious of this reliance on worn, watered-down platitudes, which seem to lose a little truthfulness each time they’re repeated. “We ain’t a cliché,” Maddie & Tae sing, but they follow up with one of their own: “That ain’t no way / To treat a lady.”
Country, like poetry, loves to talk about nothing so much as itself. David Allen Coe’s riff in “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (cf. 3:05) is only the most charming ars westerna among many. Blame it on the fact that country-the-music and country-the-lifestyle have long gone hand in hand, that content is as important as talent to a fan base eager to see themselves in the music they love. So prevalent is country’s self-consciousness that for a long time I didn’t register the slurred there’s kicking off every verse of Kip Moore’s “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck,” hearing instead: “Somethin’ ’bout a truck / In a farmer’s field… / Somethin’ ’bout beer / Sittin’ on ice… / Somethin’ ’bout a girl / In a red sundress…” I thought Moore was acknowledging bro country’s resemblance to Mad Libs, leaving the lines open to be filled in. I thought it was great.
But even if I hadn’t given Moore too much credit, even if his song had been a sly, preemptive defense against the coming attack of Maddie & Tae, is that enough? Cliché is nothing new in country music (or anywhere else), but neither is awareness thereof, as Coe’s delightful aside attests. Admitting guilt is not the same as making amends; acknowledging—even criticizing—country’s numbing flood of guy-driven, party-hearty hits is not the same as offering an alternative. And there are plenty of alternatives to be had, plenty of stories that are not being told. Country music claims to speak to and for the rural poor and the working class: the girls I grew up with—tough, outspoken, unpolished—and their mothers, whom I remember only as pale, tired blurs behind shields of cigarette smoke. Where are these women, and their missing men, in the music ostensibly about them? They drove trucks, it’s true, they wore faded jeans and drank cheap beer, but when I hear these words deployed by so many drawling baritones they seem less like details than shortcuts, and the journey less interesting for having taken them.
It’s not the words’ fault. Poetry has taught me that any word, any phrase—even clichés—can be wrung tightly enough to drip fresh meaning on the floor. The boys of country radio, however, are barely getting their hands wet. The lines they sing are flat as affects, lacking emotion; their songs are all surface and no story. For a genre so concerned with authenticity, this kind of country comes off as utterly, almost offensively fake—You expect me to believe this?—neither reflecting a reality I recognize nor exposing an unknown one. This is a shame, as the reality country music could speak to—those weary women, those absent men, a million others like them—is rarely found elsewhere in mainstream entertainment: not in the glamorized drama of pop or hip-hop, not in the glossy veneer of action movies or romantic comedies, not in the upper-middle-class laugh tracks of network television. And not, at the moment, on my local country station.
Buried just a little deeper on the charts, however, incredible music—smart, moving, unexpected—is being made. Last year saw the release of Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories, Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose, and Kacey Musgraves’s Same Trailer, Different Park, which blew open the doors on what today’s country can speak to, and still succeed. Musgraves’s first single, “Merry Go Round,” made her famous by criticizing the constricting patterns of small-town life, rather than celebrating them—and she’s just the tip of the talented iceberg. Rosen’s article links to several women making great music; I would add, along with Clark and Monroe, rock-and-rollin’ Lydia Loveless, traditionalist Zoe Muth, and Joy Williams of the sadly disbanded The Civil Wars—not to mention gems like these coming out of the unabashedly female-focused drama Nashville.
This wealth of musical charm and lyrical innovation has had me thinking about Lindenberg’s words for months now. All but ignored by mainstream radio, portrayed as sex objects by their male peers and reduced to singing backup for them, the women of Nashville are finding brilliance in the shadows. In every facet of life tackled, these women are complicating the simple (false) lines sung by so many dudes in so many interchangeable drawls. While the good ol’ boys light joints at a nonstop party, for instance, the women are in more desperate straits, and digging deeper: Clark’s run-down heroine knows “Sometimes the only way to get by / Is to get high,” while Monroe’s narrator tries to break her man of old, acceptable patterns: “Give me weed instead of roses, / Give me whiskey ’stead of wine.” Now these—these are real people, people I recognize. “Make it new,” bossed Ezra Pound, but the poet Alice Fulton has rebutted: “It will be new // whether you make it new / or not.” The important word in Fulton’s rejoinder is you, the writer behind the words. The songs I love by Clark, Monroe, Musgraves, and others feel written, worked at, struggled over, not spat out by some generator with its dial set to “country.” Their instrumentation might be traditional, but the songs are what Pound meant when he said new: not quite like anything else.
“New is a hooligan,” Fulton continues, “It breaks the reckoning frame and rests / in pieces.” Besides chipping away at controversial (for country) topics like marijuana and gay rights, female singers are breaking up the bedrocks that lie beneath so many country clichés: religion, conservatism, traditional gender roles, and the glorification of rural life. Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Hush Hush” by the Pistol Annies condemn outdated notions of female decorum which still hold sway in many small towns, while Clark’s twanging, lovely “Pray to Jesus” deals with entrenched poverty: “We pray to Jesus and we play the lotto, / ‘Cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow.” The song’s biting send-up is softened by Clark’s tender handling, expressing empathy for her subjects even as she knocks down the walls of the world in which they live.
Played after “Girl in a Country Song,” any guy to come on the radio and praise his lady’s baby blues, tan legs, or bare feet sounds downright ridiculous. Didn’t you get the message, bro? Which isn’t to say I think we’ve seen the end of interchangeable mannequins stuffed into bikini tops and daisy dukes and propped in the passenger seat—not by a long shot. But recognition of this silliness is the first step, and rejecting it is another. Maybe the next girls to take up the fight will follow the examples set by Clark, Monroe, et al., will not only reject the tropes they’ve been shoved into but offer alternatives, drawn from their own very real lives. You never know—maybe Maddie & Tae are those girls. They’re only eighteen, after all. And maybe, just maybe, if these girls do well enough, country radio will take a chance on some women. In the meantime, I’m grateful those women are making music, and making it new.
The video for “Girl in a Country Song” opens with a robotic voiceover: “No country music was harmed in the making of this song.” True enough. But there’s always next time.