Last fall, Carrie Underwood invited duo Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June to join her for a medley at the CMT Artists of the Year Special. A few months later, she made sure both groups had prime placement in her live performance of her new single, “Southbound,” at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
On one hand, the cameos served an obvious purpose: Maddie & Tae and Runaway June are the opening acts on Underwood’s new tour (the Cry Pretty Tour 360). But this seemed like more than tour promotion — Underwood was sending a message. In a genre where female artists are routinely excluded from radio airplay, tours and festivals, she showed that it’s really not that difficult to showcase women in country music.
“We didn’t set out with the intention of going out with an all-female lineup. We just wanted to identify who would be the most talented, most fun, and put on the best show possible for the fans,” Underwood said in an email to The Washington Post. “There is certainly no shortage of female talent in country right now, but it is more important than ever that we continue to support each other and build one another up.”
Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye were thrilled when Underwood’s camp approached them and are especially proud to be in one of several all-female country lineups this year, including headlining tours from Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris.
“I think this whole tour has made such a statement,” Marlow said. “It’s so cool to watch all of our peers keep trailblazing.”
Maddie & Tae signed on to Underwood’s tour after an unsettling year in which their record label folded. They were quickly signed to a new label deal with Universal, but the abrupt shift threw them for a loop. As they worked through the many changes, for this tour, they also took their live show to the next level.
“This tour has probably been one of the biggest growing experiences we’ve had as entertainers,” Marlow said. “We’ve been pushed completely out of our comfort zone ... this will probably be the tour that taught us how to truly entertain thousands of people.”
For the first time, they worked with a creative director, Chase Benz, who taught them about everything from body language to different ways to walk across the stage: “To make sure that, from every angle, people are entertained,” Dye said, a strategy that is especially important in front of large-scale arenas. While some might assume choreography is the main way to keep crowds entertained, “it’s about so much more than dancing, it’s about being in the right mind-set.”
Maddie & Tae, who are releasing new EPs, have also been surprised by the intense reaction to their latest single, “Die From a Broken Heart,” about a devastating split. Sometimes when they play it live, Dye said, the song even gets a louder audience reaction than “Girl in a Country Song,” their career-making No. 1 hit in 2014, which poked fun at “bro country” tropes.
Runaway June is also on tour with a hit single off their new album, “Blue Roses”: Last month, “Buy My Own Drinks” — an infectious track about relishing in your independence after you break up with someone — became the first Top 5 song on the country radio chart by a female trio since 2003, when the Dixie Chicks released “Travelin’ Solider.”
The trio, made up of Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne, said that along with the song’s “cool groove,” they think it’s connecting because the lyrics (“I can buy my own drinks, I can pay my own tab, at the end of the night when they cut on all the lights, I can call my own cab”) capture such a universal feeling.
“Everybody’s kind of been there,” Wayne said. And after releasing two other singles to radio over the past several years only to watch them stall around the Top 30, it was “surreal” to watch “Buy My Own Drinks” climb the charts.
“We’ve been playing the radio game for a long time ... we put in so much work on the other singles,” Mulholland said. “This song felt special. It had its own legs and pretty organically became a single really quickly after we wrote it. It’s really fun to watch from the outside.”
In addition to testing out which other songs hit a nerve with listeners, they have also seen themselves evolve as performers playing for such large crowds this year: “You can’t help but change in an environment like this,” Cooke said. The trio is also gratified to see the response from fans, even though an all-female tour is a rare sight out of Nashville these days.
“I think Carrie is doing it in the best way, where it’s not promoted as ‘Come see this chick tour!’” Mulholland said. “It’s just advertised as an amazing tour, and that’s how it should be.”