Facing the Music
Maren Morris promises to not only put a new shine on country, but potentially parlay her fresh blend of styles into pop stardom, as well.
When Maren Morris arrives in Tulsa for a show at the Brady Theater (Oct. 27), it will be more than just a glimpse of pop-country’s latest poster child. As a Texas native, Morris is inarguably rooted in classic country, but her affinity for marrying it with elements of pop, rock, blues, and R&B takes it all to another level.
Morris’ major label debut, Hero, arrived in June 2016 and immediately began turning heads, scoring a No. 1 hit on country radio with lead single “My Church” followed by the equally catchy, but far glossier single “80s Mercedes.” Anyone with an ear to the ground shouldn’t have been surprised, however. After independently releasing a five-song EP on Spotify in August 2015 and drawing 2.5 million streams in the first month, the big labels took notice and Sony Music Nashville signed Morris to a contract, officially releasing the EP in November 2015.
Around the same time, Morris landed in Rolling Stone’s top 10 country artists you should know list, drawing comparisons to female artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow to Meghan Trainor and Kasey Musgraves. By the time Hero arrived, Sony had its promotional machine in full swing. That certainly helped, but don’t be mistaken for a moment: Morris is far from a product of the Nashville machine. If anything, she is the antithesis of the manufactured pop-country that’s been flooding the radio in recent years, even if her music incorporates all of the elements that are typically found in those songs.
Perhaps that’s because Morris is a songwriter first and foremost. After learning to play guitar and beginning to perform professionally at the age of 14 and releasing three independent albums as she developed amid the Texas music scene (as well as attending University of North Texas), she packed up and moved to Nashville in 2012, landing a publishing deal with Yellow Dog and writing songs for a number of other artists. Most notable amongst those writing credits are probably Tim McGraw’s “Last Turn Home” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Second Wind,” as well as tracks for Brothers Osborne and Aubrey Peeples.
“I started playing all around Texas; any bar or club that would let me in there,” she says. “I was the only kid in school that had a job on the weekends.”
Not only did that time in Nashville add to Morris’ writing skills, but it gave her a maturity and discernment beyond her years, telling Rolling Stone: “I think being solely a songwriter helped with perspectives. I learned to write from different points of view and not just something I would say. Being the everyman in the writing room helps a lot; you have to be selfless and not have an ego when you walk in there. That’s the antithesis of the artist mentality.”
Paying those dues in the writing room and on the road, not to mention sharing the stage with artists like Pat Green, Radney Foster, and Marty Stuart, paid off in spades with the arrival of Hero. Not only did Morris incorporate what she learned from Nashville and her Texas roots in traditional country, but she also worked the elements of pop, soul, and R&B that flow out of her so naturally.
Sure, “My Church” plays directly into the hands of country radio and this past spring’s ballad “I Could Use a Love Song” is perfect for pop-country playlists. Morris’ appearance on Thomas Rhett’s summer hit “Craving You” has kept her squarely in the country spotlight as well. Give Hero a closer listen, however, and you’ll find far more than pop-country convention.
One listen to “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” screams hit single, even though radio stations would likely scramble in confusion. Think Trianor’s mix of doo-wop bounce and bass heavy groove run through Gretchen Wilson country girl rebellion and sass. Yes, on paper it’s a train wreck. But filter it through Morris’ soulful and sassy delivery, and all makes perfect sense.
Elsewhere, “Bummin’ Cigarettes” burns with a soulful smolder that blends seamlessly with Morris’ Texas twang, and “Company You Keep” mixes Memphis soul and a bit of hip-hop delivery. None of this fits any convention or formula, but it works simply because it flows out of Morris so naturally and honestly — and the fans have responded to that honesty.
The fans aren’t the only ones who have responded, though. Hero landed at No. 13 in Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums of 2016 list, which was just the beginning. In 2016, Morris won the New Artist of the Year category at the CMA’s (Country Music Association awards) and was nominated in four additional categories. She followed in 2017 with four Grammy nominations, including a win for Best Country Solo Performance, and an ACM (Academy of Country Music) award for New Female Vocalist of the Year (along with three additional nominations), as well as a handful of other annual award ceremonies. Just recently, the CMA announcements included three nominations: Female Vocalist of the Year, as well as Music Video of the Year and Music Event of the Year ( for “Craving You” with Rhett).
Recently tapped as the opener for a 2018 U.S. tour by Niall Horan (of One Direction), Morris’ pop sensibilities will undoubtedly be magnified even more as she reaches an even broader audience.
105 W. Brady | Tulsa
Oct. 27: 8 p.m.
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