Maren Morris Mixes Cash, ?Christ and Marconi In 'My Church'

Maren Morris photographed on Dec. 15, 2015 at Le Sel in Nashville.
Robbie Klein

Maren Morris photographed on Dec. 15, 2015 at Le Sel in Nashville.

Promising new country singer's first single owes its existence to a break-up and the radio.

Plenty of country songs have used Christianity as a literal or figurative theme.

Others have tipped a hat to the radio, sometimes in an overt attempt to gain programmers’ favor.

Still other titles in recent years have referenced Johnny Cash or Hank Williams.

But it would be tough to find a song that mixes Jesus, terrestrial radio and the Man in Black, as newcomer Maren Morris does in her debut single, “My Church.” Oddly enough, those cliches are combined in a way that makes them fresh, as Morris casts the inside of her vehicle as a sanctuary where she’s able to taste sweet revival through the music beaming from the dashboard.

“There’s nothing made up about this,” says songwriter busbee (“Storm Warning,” “Summer Nights”), who co-wrote and co-produced “My Church.” “It’s an emotion that’s really real to her.”

The emotion, and the sincerity behind it, were indeed paramount when the Nashville-based Morris showed up at busbee’s studio in Los Angeles’ Glassell Park neighborhood in early 2015. She had just experienced a breakup two days before she had boarded a plane for a writing trip, and she found herself in “a weird place” the day before the appointment. Morris was both emotional from the split and frustrated by her lack of a solid idea. So she did what she often does to clear her head: She got in the car and went for a drive with the radio turned up.

“I was really thankful just to be out of Nashville for a second,” she remembers. “I was driving around, and all of a sudden it just hit me — the title, ‘My Church,’ popped in my mind. I was maybe looking for some sort of salvation in that moment on that writing trip. It was an escape for me — and not really a religious one, just something to get out of my own head.”

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The drive improved her mind-set, and she walked into the studio the next day feeling a real conviction about “My Church” and what it could represent.

“Country music is my religion in a way,” she says. “That’s what I grew up listening to. When you think about Johnny Cash’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ and Hank Williams — where do I even begin with his catalog? — it’s church to me. And I know it is for a lot of other people, too.”

She had neither a melody nor any lines to support the title, but she had the faith. And busbee was an instant believer. He suggested a couple lines — “Can I get a hallelujah/Can I get an amen” — that they originally thought they would save for an a cappella bridge.

“But as we were writing the verse and he was building the track,” she says, “I sort of looked at it and I was like, ‘Man, that is really catchy, and I want to hear it more than once. Maybe this is the chorus.’ And so we tried it, and it ended up working out.”

And it worked out fast. The song itself was finished in about an hour, almost as if it was given to them.

“There’s a lot of ways to think about writing, and I do think the opportunity to be creative is a reflection on the Creator,” says busbee. “I don’t really know if it works where the Creator goes, ‘I want this song out there,’ and sends it to you or not. I have no idea how it works, but there are times where you feel like something is coming through you.”

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Perhaps the biggest anguish came in the Cash/Williams lines. It was busbee who threw out the first volley — “Cash leads the choir” — and Morris set it up nicely: “Hank brings the sermon.” They followed that with a couple of titles, and out of the 177 singles that those two Country Music Hall of Famers have charted, busbee and Morris found a pair that contrasted nicely: “It gets my ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ burnin’ hotter than a ‘Ring of Fire.’ ”

They briefly discussed writing a bridge to add an extra element, but discarded that idea in favor of a musical change of pace. They inserted a 12-?second guitar solo, then went into a breakdown, repeating the chorus with only vocal harmony and drums.

“That moment where it breaks down is kind of like when you open the door of a church and you hear [the congregation] through the foyer,” says busbee. “And the last chorus is like when you open the door to the sanctuary and the entire church is singing, so to speak. It wasn’t that thought-out, but that’s the feeling I get now as a listener.”

Once the song was finished, they spent another hour making a solid demo. He laid down the tracks, and she sang both the lead vocal and a stack of high harmonies on top of it. Those vocals are the ones that ended up in the final product.

“There was just a feeling that day, and I didn’t think I could get back in that head space,” says Morris. “Sometimes you just have to know when to call it. So all [my] vocals that you hear on ‘My Church’ are from the day that we wrote it.”

Busbee built the rest of the track around her performance, using some of the pieces from the demo and adding other parts later. He played most of the instruments, including bass, and brought in drummer Aaron Sterling and guitarist Derek Wells to complete the band. The final piece came when he got the McCrary Sisters to provide gospel harmonies in a session at Nashville’s Sound Emporium.

“It’s sort of full circle for me,” says Morris, “because they’ve sung on Johnny Cash songs, and to have them singing backup for a song that mentions him, uh, yeah.”

Morris wasn’t signed to a label at the time, but her manager went to Spotify to start building an audience. She got the attention of Spotify manager of label relations Copeland Isaacson, who inserted a couple of Morris’ tracks into high-volume playlists. In a matter of weeks, Morris had collected 2 million streams. She ended up with several labels competing for her services, with Sony Music Nashville ultimately winning the battle.

SiriusXM picked it up as soon as an EP was available, and a few terrestrial stations jumped on it even before Columbia officially sent it to broadcasters via Play MPE on Jan. 5. “My Church” is already at No. 21 in its fifth week on Country Airplay and at No. 17 in its third week on Hot Country Songs.

Her mix of Jesus, Johnny and Marconi is obviously connecting. ?Maren Morris’ portrait of music as a spiritual experience is getting both a “hallelujah” and an “amen.”

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.