On August 14, 2015, Maren Morris released a five-song EP. There was no PR campaign, and the release was anticipated only by a short tweet: "Miiiiight have an EP coming out. Miiiight be tomorrow on Spotify." It wasn't long until the nonchalance about the quiet release would dissolve—at least around Music Row.
"'Everyone in the digital department is freaking out that you, an unsigned artist, have this much traction this quickly,'" one friend at a major Nashville label—a label that had passed on Morris's music previously—called to tell her in the frantic weeks that followed. Already, then-independent Morris represented a new kind of country star: one who didn't need to be made-over and market-tested to enter the airwaves with confidence.
"I think within two weeks or so, it hit a million streams," says Morris of the EP's buoyant single "My Church," an ode to windows-down, volume-up drives soundtracked by country greats. When the singer talks, she does so with confidence and the occasional laugh that someone else might try to tell her what to do. "It was shocking to us all because it was a huge risk to take, but it also proved to every label in town that this is a huge platform that's not being utilized enough by the labels."
Let's be clear: in most genres, releasing your own music online in the beginning isn't "a huge risk." It's an obvious first step. But in commercial country, terrestrial radio is the gatekeeper and major labels are virtually the only route to regular airplay. Sure, there are exceptions—last year, a radio DJ's rogue play of unsigned artist Chris Janson's "Buy Me a Boat" took the song to number one—but when you're talking about an industry that has managed to make misogyny a mantra, the odds aren't exactly in a female artist's favor. In today's exclusivity-loving, content-driven media landscape, an artist with a record to shop and multiple deals on the table could seriously hurt their leverage by self-releasing material to lackluster reception. But Morris and her team were determined to bring "My Church" and the five-song EP to Spotify before they signed any dotted line.
"It was important to us early on. My manager Janet [Weir] and I really felt strongly that before we made any sort of big decision, we really wanted to utilize the platform of Spotify," Morris says. "They'd been around a while, they'd implemented this playlisting system that was really dial-moving, and it just intrigued me to approach it in a grassroots way."
Once "My Church" landed on one of Spotify's popular country playlists, its immediate rise gave Morris a boost in confidence that affected her leverage at the deal table, too, and it wasn't long before she joined the roster at Columbia Nashville.
"I basically had a full record already done before I signed. It was like, 'Take it or leave it, this is the sound. There is no 'A&R-ing' this, there is no artist development,'" she says. She's speaking for herself, but as Sony snatches up viral sensations like Kane Brown, Warner Music signs Aubrie Sellers after a buzzed-about indie record, and songwriting vets like Brandy Clark and Chris Stapleton are getting major-label debuts released their way, it starts to feel like the 26-year-old Morris is speaking for plenty of country's new voices as they quit battling the big guys and make a place for themselves on Music Row. "'I'm developed, and this is the album. If you love it, great. If you don't, what we are doing independently is working so far.'"
Morris operates with that same intelligent self-assuredness in conversation. She's sharp but unpretentious and down to earth. Her songs are peppered with minor swears common in real speech but still uncommon in Nashville songwriting. She's not hesitant to fire back at critics who make a fuss over her clothes ("It's like, okay would you say this to Jason Aldean? Shut the fuck up!") or give her shit for going to a Dixie Chicks concert (apparently there are still people who are angry at the Dixie Chicks), but she also doesn't talk down about one kind of music or person or thing in order to build up another. It's easy to feel connected to her. Morris found her footing in Nashville with a group of substantive songwriters who are coming for mainstream country—from Kacey Musgraves to Brothers Osborne and her boyfriend Ryan Hurd—and you can feel the shared excitement when she talks about any of their successes.
"It would be really lonely if there were people that didn't get at all what I was doing," she says. "But that's sort of the special thing about Nashville. It's like this music camp that your parents never pick you up from. I've been fortunate enough to fall into a friend circle that is all really supportive of each other."
Take it or leave it, this is the sound. There is no 'A&R-ing' this, there is no artist development.
Morris may have found a camp of fellow creatives in Tennessee, but she'd gotten a taste of touring and performing within the expansive and insular Texas music scene long before moving to Nashville at age 20. Her story as a performer started with singing at chili cook-offs as a 12 year old. She quickly progressed into writing her own songs, playing clubs shows in Dallas and hitting honky-tonks in Fort Worth. She didn't realize what an early coup it was to arrive in Music City with that kind of experience.
"No matter where you go, if it's Dallas, or Fort Worth, or Austin, they each have their own fixed scenes," she says. "There's a really strong songwriting scene in each of them. That was a prominent thing I realized from an early age: that people were writing their own music. That was just so interesting to me as a kid because I always loved to write poems and short stories. It wasn't until I got a guitar that I started putting them to music."
She'd spent her life getting a lesson in career savvy, too: This year the Morris family is celebrating two decades of owning and operating a small business—a hair salon—in Arlington, Texas. Morris traces her moves in the music industry partially back to the role models she had in her parents. "I have always been a hard worker. I think my parents instilled that in me. They busted their asses for my sister and me to have incredible lives. I think that still carries on with me today and the decisions that I have to make now, as sort of the CEO of myself," she says. Those smarts paid off as her music career got traction. "We just always sort of did it our own way. A lot of it was just out of ignorance, but you figure it out."
Maren came to Tennessee seeking a career as a songwriter, not an artist. She had a catalog of hundreds of songs and was beginning to get cuts for other artists before a theme started to emerge in the feedback from her publisher.
"I'd get these e-mails back: Hey Maren, we really love this song. We are all racking our brains to figure out who to send this to because it's so uniquely you. It just has you written all over it," she says. "When I first would read those e-mails, I'd be like what the fuck? This is my livelihood. This is my job… I think after a while it started to sink in that they were telling me, 'How can we pitch this to another artist when this is you? You should be doing this.'"
To hear Hero producer busbee tell it, Morris's peers didn't need so much time to figure out that her name belonged on album covers and not buried in the liner notes. busbee, who has worked with chart-toppers like Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, and Keith Urban, called Maren about recording together almost immediately after hearing the young writer perform original music for the first time."It was probably a week later," he says. "I was like, 'I'm just floored by what you do, and I want to be involved.'"
What resulted was a full-length album for the playlist generation. At a time when traditionalists are clamoring for a more classic country sound and radio programmers are favoring party-hard homogenous male voices, actual listeners are more likely to consume their country music right alongside hip-hop, pop, folk, rock, and whatever the hell else they feel like listening to—and Hero reflects that. "My Church" name-checks old-school country legends, but "Rich" riffs on the idea of hanging out with Diddy, and tracks like album opener "Sugar" would find a fine home in pop radio. "I'm a cup of tea with a touch of cream but something's missing / So I'm gonna put this nice and sweet / Baby would you be my sugar?" is of the lyrical ilk that might be gag-me sweet if not for a damn catchy chorus delivered with full, slightly rough vocals from Morris. "How It's Done" is a sexier number you could easily re-imagine as an R&B jam, and "Second Wind" was originally cut by Kelly Clarkson—an unsurprising piece of trivia considering the song's soaring high notes and overtly uplifting message. Commercial country may be scrambling to define its sound, but Hero skips from trend to trend without pausing long enough to stale.
"You know, we both listen to all kinds of modern music," busbee says. "It's not trying to be something it's not. It's not like I put purposely hip-hop beats on top of this thing… It's all- inclusive in a sense: organic-leaning, plenty of low end, kind of punchy, crunchy sounding. It's very her without being divisive."
These are songs that vary between confession and side-eye with an endearing grace. The teasing "Drunk Girls Don't Cry" is a sarcastic note to friends with shitty boyfriends, while "Rich" leaves Morris herself humorously taking on the role of perpetual woman scorned. Her intensity, both lyrically and vocally, are at their best on album closer "Once," a power ballad in which she cops to being a "traitor" and a breaker of hearts between refrains asking, "When it's all said and done, don't forget that you loved me once."
After a while it started to sink in that they were telling me, 'How can we pitch this to another artist when this is you? You should be doing this.'
"That's the special thing about songs: sometimes the meaning of them hits you way later," Morris says. "I don't know if there is another part of your brain that turns on and accesses emotions that you aren't quite ready to talk about in real life, but the music room is sort of a safe space."
"I Wish I Was" is a chief example of this flip-flop. The bluesy number holds the lyric from which the album's title was taken: "I'm not the hero in the story." But for all the times Morris casts herself as a villain, the overwhelming takeaway from Hero as a whole is that Morris is a human, with flaws and poor choices and humor and humility and confidence—and a sense that none of those qualities should be mutually exclusive.
"I've really owned up to a lot of things that I wasn't owning up to back then," she says, specifically of "I Wish I Was." "To make the move to be an artist is a selfish one in a lot of ways, because you are not a team player anymore. You are really driving the boat. I don't think it's a bad kind of selfish. I think it's a really necessary choice to make if you are going to do this and it makes you happy."
Since that quiet EP release, "My Church" has gotten the major label treatment, which pushed the single up the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and Morris has become Nashville's newest darling. She recently received five CMA Award nominations, a tie with critically acclaimed, commercially successful industry vets Eric Church and Chris Stapleton. Her latest single, Hero's "'80s Mercedes" has cracked the Top 20 on the country charts and is generating millions of digital streams in its own right, and she's finishing up the final dates of an enormous summer tour with Keith Urban.
"You write the music from an honest standpoint, and once you release it out into the world, you really can't control where it goes or who is listening to it—that's the beauty of it," she says.
Hero is no middle finger to Music Row, but as Morris celebrates her growing recognition, the way she found the spotlight feels like a beacon for less conventional new artists, too. Headlines about new Nashville tend to revolve around the idea that somebody's showing up to "save" country music, but Hero and the intuitive decisions that yielded it are more about evolving for the future than preserving the past. Morris is a case study in country stardom for the modern age: capable of success on her own terms, whether that's the old way, her own way, or some way in between.
All photos by Caleb Smallwood. Follow him on Instagram.
Dacey Orr is a writer based in Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter.