Maren Morris: ‘Country music shouldn’t always be about the guy’

Talented and outspoken, the rising country star is part of a new generation of female American singers intent on ‘being the aggressor, not the pretty scenery’

On 20 January this year, Maren Morris paid tribute to the departing Obamas by posting a photo on Instagram of the couple dancing at a White House ball. For most millennials, this would be a pretty standard gesture, but the 26-year-old country newcomer might as well have left a box of matches on her doorstep. Within hours, a wave of comments from incensed rightwingers compelled her to add a postscript, quoting Maya Angelou: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

It’s the morning after the O2’s Country 2 Country weekend. At last year’s festival, Morris played on a tiny supporting stage; last night, it was the main arena. We meet in a Mayfair club where she’s been doing photoshoots, her sculpted curls and fake lashes making her resemble a vampy Reese Witherspoon. A week ago, Buzzfeed reported on Nashville’s increased resistance to talk politics in the Trump era. Country is famously prudish and reactionary – it took the Dixie Chicks 14 years to come back from criticising George W Bush – so I comment on her relatively daring Instagram post.

She insists that it wasn’t partisan. Prior to the US election, she expressed dissatisfaction with both Clinton and Trump’s campaigns, but took particular care to distance herself from the latter. “I just didn’t want my country fans thinking that just because I’m in this genre, I’m voting for Trump,” she says, adding that it’s “about as bad as I thought it was gonna be with him.”

She won’t say who she voted for (or if she did), but says it’s a matter of privacy rather than professional circumspection. “I think if you listen to my album you could probably gather that I am not the most gung-ho conservative ideology-leaning person,” she offers. “I care about women’s rights and reproductive rights and my gay friends being able to keep their marriages official. You don’t want your genre to disown you for it – and I don’t think they would now – but you still see that sort of hatred and vitriol that comes with disagreeing with the conservative agenda.” She laughs gravely, making her fringed ankle boots shake.

Morris is enjoyably forthright, but supremely poised in the way of young, ambitious American pop stars. It’s unsurprising that she had that Maya Angelou quote at her fingertips. When I quote past interviews, she remembers exactly what publication they came from. She has a youthful drawl, but she’s authoritative, rarely letting slip a “like”. It doesn’t seem like devil-may-care sloppiness or cool-girl contrivance, but a sign of someone who’s grown up with social media and understands how to manage an image.

Watch the video for My Church.

Musically, she’s equally savvy. She’s duetted with Alicia Keys, who told her “country and soul are cousins”, and her love of pop, R&B and hip-hop shines through on her 2016 debut, Hero. Her Grammy-winning debut single, My Church, is secular gospel that likens belting along to the car radio to a religious experience; and Rihanna could sing the swaggering Rich, a song about monetising crap boyfriends that doubles as a comment on making a living as a songwriter. Morris is expanding country’s boundaries, though she says it’s just the product of her tastes as a 90s pop fan rather than a calculated attempt to reach more people.

If success had hit in Morris’s teens, she might have conformed to country’s expectations. (“I would have been a total nightmare,” she laughs.) As a kid in Arlington, Texas, she idolised local hero LeAnn Rimes and persuaded her parents to start letting her perform on the local honky-tonk circuit. She recorded a few albums and employed her own band – it was pretty serious. But by the time she was 20, she wanted to get out of Texas, “wipe the slate a little clean and start from a place where nobody knew my past music,” she says.

She moved to Nashville, and worked her way into the professional songwriting scene. Success came fast, with co-writing duties for Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson. But as she submitted more tracks, her publisher kept sending back a note – “I love this song but I don’t know who to pitch this to because it’s so uniquely you.” Morris recalls: “I remember at the time I was really frustrated because my bread and butter was pitching these songs so I could get a cut on the record. But I realise now my publisher was telling me, you’re an artist, you’re not just a songwriter.”

So Morris started writing explicitly for herself. She was going through a breakup and feeling frustrated by the female artists she heard on the radio. “All these songs are about him, they’re all about chasing him down or winning him over, and I just hated it because I wanted to talk about something other than falling in love. I was exhausted at hearing the same perspective over and over in a different tempo.”

If she was going to write about love, it would be “the really ugly bits”, like ill-advised hookups and being the heartbreaker. “Being the aggressor and not the pretty scenery. I wanted to write about sex and relationships and things that twentysomethings are actually dealing with in this weird time of our lives where we’re not quite ready to settle down and have babies and get married, but we’re not as naive as our teenage years,” she says. “We’re in this really fun window, so why aren’t more people writing about it in a really smart way?”

In August 2015, Morris picked five songs she had recorded with pop-leaning producer Busbee for a self-titled EP, which she posted to Spotify as an independent release. It got more than 2.5m streams in a month, mostly thanks to My Church appearing on some influential playlists. The traditional gatekeepers behind which the country industry operates were left scrambling to sign her. With a fanbase and a near-completed album, she was able to negotiate complete creative control. “Even when I signed my deal with Sony, it was basically take it or leave it,” she shrugs.

Hero was released last June, and went straight to No 1 in the US country chart, and No 5 on the general Billboard 200. It earned her the best new artist gong at November’s Country Music awards – the same night that the Dixie Chicks made their comeback – and four Grammy nominations (she won best country performance for My Church). Most significantly, she was nominated for best new artist alongside peer Kelsea Ballerini – the first time, incredibly, that more than one female country act featured in the category. The country press tried to stoke a rivalry, but Morris and Ballerini made clear that there was none. “We root for each other,” says Morris. “If there is any competition, it is a healthy one.”

Morris performing with Alicia Keys at the Grammys in February.
Morris performing with Alicia Keys at the Grammys in February. Photograph: Frank Micelotta/Rex/Shutterstock

Morris’s strong bonds with other female artists hark back to the Texas honky-tonk circuit, which made her wise to the industry’s tendency to contrive catfights. In her mid-teens, she befriended singer Kacey Musgraves, and the pair looked up to Miranda Lambert, who was a few years ahead of them. “I don’t know if there’s something in the water in Texas, but there’s a lot of us really ballsy women that have something to say,” says Morris. “I’ve always looked up to both of them as women that really kicked the door down and don’t really sound like anyone else, and aren’t constantly writing about the guy.”

Country remains fairly dude-centric. In 2015, “bro country” reached its peak in a critical mass of male artists for whom a hot date entailed fishing and drinking “Bud” with a girl in tiny denim shorts, romancing her in the aisle of a convenience store, then adjourning to the back of his sweet truck. That summer, prominent radio consultant Keith Hill used a bizarre analogy when he advised stations to avoid playing female artists if they wanted to get ratings. Female artists were “just not the lettuce in our salad”, he said. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban… The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” Inevitably labelled saladgate, “it threw a brighter spotlight on the fact that there are far more limited spots for women than men on country radio playlists,” says leading country critic Jewly Hight. “There’s only room for one woman artist of each ‘type’.”

It’s a dispiriting revelation, but Morris sees a silver lining. “As a woman in country, you’re sort of this rare diamond,” she mocks. Her boyfriend is also a writer-artist. “He’s starting out, and I think it might be harder for guys now because there’s so many of them. You listen to the radio and there’s 10 dudes and they all sound the same, but when the girl comes on, you probably know who it is because it’s so distinct. There are guy artists that instantly get No 1s because someone heard it on the radio and thought it was a bigger artist because they sound so alike.”

This probably sounds far-fetched, but a recent Billboard report did poll radio programmers bemoaning a loss of identity in male-fronted music, citing six male-led songs in the country airplay chart with the word “girl” in the title. (“Can someone please consult a thesaurus?” one DJ begged.) “If you’re being played on the radio and you’re a girl, whether they love it or hate it,” says Morris, “they’re gonna damn well know who it is.”

Morris and her peers are leading the industry, which is why she can afford to challenge country’s political taboos. “What happens when Nashville outsiders become country’s big stars?” the New York Times’s music podcast, Popcast, asked recently, using Morris as a central example. She could go further: irreverent, savvy, and genre-literate, Taylor Swift’s path from country to mainstream pop seems open to her. But right now, Morris isn’t interested. “I feel so at home in country, and I think I’ll always be rooted there,” she says. Still, she never wants to limit her audience, and her ambitions are skyrocketing. After last night’s Country 2 Country performance, “I got off stage restless because I realised I don’t feel like a fish out of water any more. I feel like I earned the right to be up there.”

It’s no arena, but in November, Morris will return to London to play the venue where the Dixie Chicks scorched the earth with their anti-Bush comments in 2003. “Did they do that at Shepherd’s Bush?” Morris asks, as she leaves. “Oh shit…!”

Maren Morris’s UK/Ireland tour starts in Dublin on 12 November. Hero Deluxe, featuring three new tracks, is out now


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Maren Morris review – acoustic warmth from country chart-topper
This low-key set ahead of a big-room tour next year shows off Morris’s powerful storytelling and luminous voice

Caroline Sullivan

27, Nov, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
Maren Morris and the country singers attacking gun violence at the Grammys
After the country music community’s notorious silence over gun control, a new generation of stars will voice their opinions at Sunday’s award show

Rachel Aroesti

26, Jan, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
Maren Morris: Girl review – country or pop, or stuck in the middle
After a lauded debut album and a dance hit, Morris seemed poised to go mainstream, but her follow-up to Hero is unconvincing

Laura Snapes

08, Mar, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
The 30 best films about music, chosen by musicians
Anna Calvi, Neil Tennant, Nadine Shah, Wayne Coyne, Nitin Sawhney and Anna Meredith pick their top five music movies

Interviews by Jude Rogers and Killian Fox

18, Aug, 2019 @6:59 AM

Article image
Kevin Rowland: ‘I’ve expressed myself in the way I wanted’
Soon to release a cover album of his favourite songs, the Dexys frontman talks about his Irish roots, his grudges – and why he wore a dress for Reading 1999

Sean O'Hagan

08, May, 2016 @7:30 AM

Article image
Supergrass: ‘We’ve always been about manic energy’
Britpop veterans Supergrass are back on the road – the Observer catches up with them in Amsterdam

Nosheen Iqbal

23, Feb, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Kitty Empire: best rock and pop of 2016
Mavericks were lost, Dylan bagged a Nobel (and then went quiet), the Knowles sisters sparkled, and grime moved centre stage

Kitty Empire

04, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Lockdown playlists for every mood, part two: chosen by Norah Jones, Joe Talbot and Flohio
Music stars pick soundtracks to get you through the next phase - for when you’re feeling peaceful, spiritual - or full of energy

Jude Rogers

24, May, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Kacey Musgraves: from liberal misfit to country’s biggest star
The Grammy-winning country star talks about Nashville, being inspired by her horse and microdosing with LSD

Kate Mossman

20, Apr, 2019 @2:59 PM

Article image
Nabihah Iqbal: ‘What’s the point being me if I’m going to keep quiet?’
The lawyer turned outspoken creator of multifaceted guitar-based pop is a trailblazer for Asian women in rock

Tara Joshi

31, Mar, 2018 @5:00 PM