BY JEREMY BURCHARD Wide Open Country
“I’ve cussed on a Sunday — I’ve cheated, and I’ve lied. I’ve fallen down from grace a few too many times.”
Just like that, Maren Morris introduced herself to much of the country world. The first verse from her first major label single “My Church” is by no means a fair summary of Morris’ character, but it is a ringing endorsement of her lyrical honesty.
“I’m always perplexed by someone who is as young as she is and already has it figured out,” says Shane McAnally, one of Morris’ co-writers, the 2014 Academy of Country Music’s Songwriter of the Year and co-producer of several works, including Kacey Musgraves’ two critically acclaimed albums. “She’s one of those rare artists who, at her age, already knows who she is. She’s a badass.”
Morris has recently found herself the object of much affection: she’s been named an “Artist to Watch” by us, SiriusXM, Billboard, The Huffington Post, Rolling Stone Country and several others. Her debut EP landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers Albums chart and No. 27 on the Country Albums charts.
But what few people realize is that Morris had been grinding it out as an artist for a decade before moving to Nashville — where she set her sights on being first and foremost a writer, not an artist.
The 25-year-old Morris is young for a music format that often sees an artist’s first significant success in his or her early 30s, but her music is more mature than some of the 40-year-olds on the radio every day. Part of that development happened at a young age, when she started putting in her “10 years and 10,000 hours.”
“I didn’t come from a musical family, but I realized I loved to sing around age 10,” says Morris. The Dallas native eventually picked up a guitar and started gigging around town. “That grew into me being on the road for most weekends of the next 10 years of my life.”
During that time, she earned the stage experience most country artists don’t get until their twenties. She released three independent records from 2005 to 2011, visited Texas radio stations and acquainted herself with one of the few true music scenes in the country.
In 2012, she even won the “Artist On The Verge” award at the New Music Seminar — an award that put her in touch with BMI vice president Jody Williams and “set the wheels in motion” for her to move to Nashville, as she puts it.
“Once I moved to Nashville, I learned so many people had to move there to find a music scene, and I realized how lucky I was to come from one in Texas,” says Morris. She took her time making the shift. “It happened naturally — if I had moved to Nashville looking for a record deal when I was 17 or 18, I would’ve been a nightmare,” she laughs.
But the decision to finally uproot took some eye-opening from a friend who had made the same move before her.
“Maren and I grew up singing around a lot of the same places down in Texas,” says Kacey Musgraves. “I came to know her early on as the tiny girl with the huge voice. She and her family were always very sweet to me.”
“Our parents would take us to a lot of the same auditions for talent shows and opries,” adds Morris. “It’s a big state, but a small-town vibe. That’s the music scene there.”
Musgraves agrees. “We were lucky to have an attainable platform by growing up in Texas around a strong music scene,” she says. “It was a good example to have in front of us, and set goals early-on that eventually led us all to Nashville and the things we’re doing now, I’d say.”
So when Morris started making trips up to Nashville, Musgraves would let her crash at her house. She took Morris to see her publisher and showed her the ropes around town.
“Kacey played a big role in my life just by getting my ass to this town,” says Morris. “I had no idea before I moved here that songwriting was a ‘five days a week’ job. She enlightened me and it was really cool to see because I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can actually write for a living and go into an office.’ I felt like it was very grown up, even though you’re still writing songs.”
And that revelation had Morris falling in love with the idea of focusing on songwriting.
“I had this moment in Texas where I didn’t know if I could do the performing side anymore,” says Morris. “I felt like my growth was stunted. I was young and hadn’t seen the world or lived anywhere else. I felt like, if I’m going to do anything, I need to be a better songwriter so I can hone what I want to say into something that is cohesive.”
Through meeting with publishers, Morris eventually signed with Big Yellow Dog and got her chance to co-write with the big dogs (pun intended), like McAnally — who was thoroughly impressed.
“She’s one of those rare artists who, at her age, already knows who she is. She’s a badass.”
“I wouldn’t have even known that Maren hadn’t focused solely on writing years before I met her,” says McAnally. “She’s definitely an old soul and I feel like she’s been writing songs well beyond her years. There’s no way her years line up with the life experience in her songs.”
Not surprisingly, the first song they co-wrote together, “Company You Keep,” ended up on her first EP. McAnally says it’s a great example of what makes Morris a “writer’s writer” and so fun to work with.
“I always say the songs are in the rocks,” says McAnally. “They’re always there, you just start chiseling away to find them.” For instance, the hook of “Company You Keep” feels so cleverly obvious when you hear it: “It’s all about the company you keep — so come on, keep me company.” But it takes time to get there.
“When you hear that song, you assume that’s what we started with, but it wasn’t,” says McAnally. “It came in the middle of the write and Maren was willing to get there and work for it. That took me years to learn. Even if we spend an hour on one verse and we get to something better, we’ll change it.”
Despite the high praise, Morris remains pretty humble about her writing chops. “I still to this day wonder why [McAnally and co-writer Luke Laird] sat in the room with me because I was so green,” she laughs. She attributes her stable of co-writers with helping her find her writing voice, but her singing voice ultimately brought her back to the world of being an artist.
She’d had success as a writer, getting that elusive “first cut” with Tim McGraw (“Last Turn Home” from Sundown Heaven Town), and was writing with McAnally and Chris DeStefano when she decided to cut loose on a vocal demo for a song they were writing.
“Not to brag or sound like I’m being pompous, but for my demos and work tapes, I never wanted to over-sing or overdo the vocal because I wanted it to be palatable and heard by an artist who can hear themselves in it,” she says. “When we wrote ‘Second Wind’ I wanted to just sing my ass off.”
McAnally sent the song to Kelly Clarkson.
“The first thing Kelly said was, ‘Who is that singing?’” says McAnally. “She wanted to hear more of Maren, and her voice really does that to people.” The song ended up on the deluxe version of Clarkson’s GRAMMY-nominated Piece By Piece. “To be a writer and have something cut that’s country and pop, it validated me as a writer because I look to write every genre,” says Morris.
But it also brought out the performance bug in Morris, who decided to record some songs in the famous RCA Studio A in Nashville before she had any label support, “just for fun.” Those sessions led to songs like “My Church” and the beautifully melancholy “I Wish I Was” — a song partly inspired by a former relationship and featuring a killer guitar part by the Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne, who Morris had met before their recent success as well.
“My co-writers and I wrote it in under an hour and it was just flowing out of us because we had all experienced it at one point in our lives,” says Morris. “That song was really special to me even though it was heartbreaking; it ended up rounding out the EP really well for me because it combines all of my musical influences and it’s just one of the most honest songs on the EP.”
That honesty eventually led to Morris inking a deal with Sony Music’s imprint Columbia Nashville. Only a little over a year after Morris shifted her focus to writing, she was back in the saddle as an artist. It’s a feeling her pal Musgraves knows well.
“It’s a big decision to decide to move forward and pursue being an artist,” says Musgraves. “It takes a lot of strength mentally and physically, thick skin, determination, dedicated hours, and tons of traveling where you don’t have the time to create. Being a songwriter is very comfortable. You sit on a couch for hours each day and use your brain. The worlds are totally different.”
“It feels like as she’s continued the process of writing, her songs have gotten a lot more ‘her’ in the fact that it would be harder and harder for people other than her to record them,” says McAnally. “The same thing happened with Kacey; musically they don’t sound anything like each other to me, but they both know who they are, and it’s like people realize that and say, ‘I couldn’t do it like Maren.’”
“Ultimately, if you’re creating songs that are coming from your heart it’s satisfying to be the one to share those with people that will relate and connect, and I think that’s what makes me and writers like Maren decide to want to give the artist thing a real shot,” says Musgraves. “That, and knowing that if the artist thing didn’t work out for me I could always be happy going back to being a songwriter.”
Morris enters the fray at a time when country music is ready for more substance and has been slowly, but surely embracing it. Soulful country songs may be all the rage lately, but Morris has risen in town so quickly partly to her supporting other artists, not feeling threatened by them.
“[Maren and Kacey] champion other talent,” says McAnally. “They’re not worried that if something happens for somebody else that it won’t happen for them. I see them out backing other artists. They have a strong conviction for supporting unique voices. It feels similar working with them, the end product is just so different.”
“I don’t listen to the radio and feel dejected,” says Morris. “I feel inspired when I listen to the radio or watch an award show because I feel like there’s room for everybody. We’re all trying to get better, but I don’t look at it negatively, I feel inspired. To come in as an artist and be the truest form of myself as an artist and being excepted. I feel like it’s shifting for there to be more diversity.”
Morris finds a happy medium between being soulful and poppy, being honest and doing it in a commercially attractive way. And as a proud Texan living in Nashville, she can personally say the often promoted rift between the two of them is not what is appears.
“I think the divide is a lot less than people try to make it out to be,” she says. “It’s so widespread — what do we consider Texas music? Hayes Carll, Bob Schneider, Radney Foster, Wade Bowen? There really is a big pool of artists, and it’s fun because I bump into a lot of Texans up here.”
She hears Texas and Nashville intertwine all the time. “Even that new Eric Church record — I feel like I heard a lot of Texas influence,” she says. “It’s super rootsy and gritty; when I first heard that song Mr. Misunderstood I felt like I was listening to a Texas artist. It made me nostalgic for home.”
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images
Much like Morris’ personal life, she’s found a strong balance between the resources, networking and professional nature of Nashville, and the foundation she built in Texas. “I feel like both worlds can coexist,” says Morris. “The blend of it being authentic and rebellious, but also commercial; there’s a way to blend those two and it not be so exclusive to each other.”
And she still pays plenty of homage to her home state, like filming her music video for “My Church” in Austin, Ft. Worth and other parts of the state.
“It was the coolest experience of my life getting to shoot my first music video in Texas during the most beautiful week,” she says. “It was a great homage to my home state. And I do think in my heart of hearts I’ll end up back in Texas, whether it’s a home or whatever; I’ve always loved Austin. But Nashville has been an amazing home for me the past several years.”
Most of what will likely be Morris’ upcoming record has already been written and recorded, but she’s taking her time with the release — which will “probably be after the summer.” For now, she’s on the road promoting “My Church” to radio stations and gearing up for a smorgasbord of shows, including opening dates for artists like Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban and overseas dates, something she’s done once or twice before.
“I’ll never forget taking a trip with Maren to France to sing at a remote country music festival,” laughs Musgraves. “It was really fun and slightly bizarre, and one memory involves her almost getting arrested because she accidentally threw away her train ticket and we tried to hop on anyway. I definitely thought she was gonna be taken away forever.”
Let’s hope not, because country music needs her.
“She’s a small person with this giant personality and giant talent,” says McAnally. “It’s like, ‘Holy shit this person knows who she is.’ You can be thrown by the fact that she’s young and she knows who she is and what she wants to do. I’m just glad to be along for the ride, and hell yes I’ll be writing with her again if I have to beat down her door.”
If she impresses new fans and radio programmers the way she’s impressed Nashville, Morris is going to have one hell of a year.