The open road may be a religious experience for Maren Morris, but it serves as a classroom, too.
With “My Church,” the single that shot Morris from up-and-comer to genre champion in a matter of weeks, she likens a long drive blasting outlaw country greats like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to a Sunday sermon, stressing the spiritual cleansing and the powerful combination of open windows, high speeds and loud radio.
Thanks to “My Church” and the not-so-guilty pleasure it brings with its straightforward, soaring chorus, Morris’ might as a performer has quickly made her one of the most-talked about musicians in Music City. Offers started rolling in for festivals and major country tours long before her debut full-length, Hero, saw its release on June 3. Keith Urban’s was one of them, and that’s where Morris has spent the majority of her summer: With the exception of the occasional festival gig (like Bonnaroo, which she played to a tiny but dedicated crowd that knew nearly every word of her set a day after Sam Hunt enthusiastically covered "My Church"), she’s been warming up Urban’s crowd and walking away from the mic with new members of her congregation every night. She’s taking notes on and offstage, too.
“With Keith’s record that he put out, Ripchord, it’s very forward-thinking, and it just sort of reinstated that it’s a really great fit of a tour for me to be on,” she says, taking a breather from tour at home in Nashville. It’s a rare moment of stasis, as Morris will be back on the road with Urban from August 4 into the fall. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve gotten to see how we really mesh. I feel like his fan base really get what we’re all doing because he’s always been really refreshing to listen to but really traditional in a lot of ways. Blending those two worlds, making them feel joined in a way that’s really symbiotic, it makes sense.”
It’s only a matter of time before Morris is headlining amphitheaters of her own. In addition to the immediate success of Hero—which boasts “My Church” as its lead single and a ton of real talk-spouting earworms that aren’t afraid to shout about booze, love and heartache—Morris has been counted one of the most compelling voices to redefine country music for female songwriters.
In a recent Billboard feature, Morris—together with Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Aubrie Sellers, Mickey Guyton and Cam—discussed the changing tides in Nashville, as the Ol’ Boys Club of Music Row has been rendered out-of-touch thanks to a new generation of women who shine in the studio and onstage. Morris—who cut her teeth in Nashville writing songs for Kelly Clarkson and Tim McGraw—is proud to be in the company of these women, and she’s prouder still to be a part of a force that’s changing how one of the most traditional genres of American music starts to find a balance. In other words, less Stetson-sportin' dudes and truck talk, more women writing songs that go beyond the heartbroken ballad.
“To be in that change is an honor, but also it bolstered me in the community that I love and respect so much,” she says. “I’ve been a student as a songwriter and hopefully always will be with heroes of mine here. I just feel so supported by this town, and there are going to be so many more artists coming out—girls and guys—that are changing the conversation and the game, being respectful to the genre while moving it forward. In order for it to survive, it has to happen.”
As excited as she is to participate in this change, country's rising prominence in pop plays a part in that, too. One of the best things about Hero is that it's amorphous when it comes to genre classification: If Morris didn't namecheck country greats and identify as a country performer herself, "Drunk Girls Don't Cry" and "I Wish I Was" would fit as snugly into a pop or rock playlist as it does a country one.
That artists like Justin Timberlake are hopping onstage with country crooners like Chris Stapleton, or Beyoncé works a twangified track like "Daddy Lessons," into Lemonade, is further proof that country isn't stuck in a gingham-checked box painted with cowboy boots and cacti.
"Even in elementary school as a kid, there was this secret society that listened to country music," she says, laughing. "We had to be private about it! It wasn’t cool to like country! I remember as a kid loving Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill, and classic country—Loretta and Dolly and Johnny. I just felt like this has always been cool. Now it’s like, you have it written about in Rolling Stone and you see all these collaborations happening between the genres.
"Now you don’t have to hush yourself about it in a public setting," she continues. "It’s always been cool to me and a lot of people, but now it’s being widely accepted as a formidable genre."