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Watch Country Singer Maren Morris Take a $235,000 Mercedes for a Spin
"I feel like Richard Gere in American Gigolo," says Maren Morris as she drives through Nashville's tony Green Hills neighborhood.
The 26-year-old breakout country star -- with a No. 1 hit, an opening slot on Keith Urban's summer tour and a chart-climbing debut album, Hero (Sony) -- is not wearing gravity boots, or blasting Blondie's "Call Me." She is driving her dream car, a Mercedes-Benz SL roadster: a direct descendant of the classic 450 SL that Gere drove in the 1980 film.
"I remember the opening scene of him driving this convertible Mercedes up a stretch of highway," says Morris of one of her all-time favorite movies as she throttles the twin-turbo-charged V-12 engine from the diamond-quilted leather seat of the $235,000 super-convertible, the most potent and pricey in the automaker's lineup. "Just that image of him looking like a total badass, with a very rugged but all-American landscape in the background."
That vision stuck in Morris' mind while growing up in Arlington, Texas, where she lived with her sister and parents who ran a local hair salon. But not because fancy cars signify success to her. "I didn't grow up around a lot of souped-up automobiles," she says, proudly announcing, "I love my Prius."
Instead, for Morris, a car and, specifically, "driving and listening to music" is "an emotional and aesthetic thing," she says, syncing her iPhone's music stream to the convertible's 900-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo. "I think of that scene in the movie as just total freedom."
It's this spirited take on cars that inspired Morris' raucous night-out anthem "80s Mercedes" (an ode to a vehicle that makes her "feel like a hard-to-get starlet") and more obliquely in her gospel-tinged hit "My Church," which celebrates the in-car playlist. "I drive to clear my mind, like many people do. It's like, once you get in the car, whatever song you put on, it's so symbiotic. Your mood could change in a second."
Morris knows about shifting moods. She came to singing unexpectedly, surprising her parents at age 11 at a Christmas party with a rendition of "Over the Rainbow." After a decade of performing in "every club, honky-tonk and bar" in Texas, she left the stage to pursue writing in Nashville, penning hits for Kelly Clarkson, Tim McGraw and the TV show Nashville. Yet she longed for the spotlight: "I wanted to write the songs but also connect with people with my voice behind the microphone."
With her success, Morris has been party to a reopening of the recent gender divide in the top tiers of country music. "As a songwriter, I witnessed the lack of diversity on the radio," she says. "So, to now be sort of in the fold of it changing -- not that I started it ... but little by little."
She cites her childhood heroes -- Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Sheryl Crow and Loretta Lynn -- as powerful examples of what she hopes one day to achieve. "I just love Dolly so much, and Loretta. They both are songwriters that knew what they wanted to say, they were bucking a system. If you think about 'The Pill' by Loretta, that was totally blacklisted back then. But she revolutionized and liberated a generation of women -- country listeners and beyond -- that were sort of in that box and were able to break out of it."
Morris sees herself, and country music, as versatile, capable of encompassing many different genres, and richer and more rewarding for the accommodation. "It's not just women, but other voices," she says. "It was so homogenized for a second."
Her stance on sisterhood and diversity, however, hasn't yet cast her publicly into a political camp in the upcoming presidential election. "I got so into the last election -- I was a huge Ron Paul fan," she says, while parking under a shady oak. "But between all the candidates this time, there isn't one that I've locked into. Just whoever can put into law that Chick-fil-A opens on Sundays."
This article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.