Maren Morris Playfully Crosses Generational Lines In '80s Mercedes'

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

Sister piece to 'My Church' uses judicious throwback references to Don Henley, 'Pretty In Pink.'

It’s amusing to look back at K.T. Oslin’s visual treatment for “80’s Ladies,” which won the Academy of Country Music’s video of the year award in 1988. Oslin and the other women in the cast have big hair and shoulder pads that would’ve looked downright stylish on the set of Golden Girls. And when they drive away from a cemetery at the end of the clip, the vehicle of choice is an ’80s Mercedes.

It wouldn’t feel so relevant at the moment were it not for Maren Morris’ sophomore single, “80s Mercedes.” The two titles happen to rhyme, and they appear next to each other in at least one iTunes collection when it’s sorted alphabetically. When RCA released Oslin’s single, the director of product management was some guy named Randy Goodman. Ironically, Morris was Goodman’s first signing when he became Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO a year ago.

Watch Country Singer Maren Morris Take a $235,000 Mercedes for a Spin

“80s Mercedes” was never intended as any sort of companion to “80’s Ladies,” though the concept amuses Morris.

“Maybe we should string that song throughout ‘80s Mercedes’ and have a moment for ‘80’s Ladies’ in the live show,” says Morris. “That’s hilarious.”

In fact, the two songs look at a bygone era through opposite lenses. Oslin’s found “the girls of the ’50s” experiencing the ’80s in real time, while Morris’ single has a “ ’90s baby” using a relic from the same time period, which she never actually experienced.

“I didn’t live through that, but I love that era so much,” says Morris. “It had such an influence on my parents, whose music collection inspired me to love music and to get into music, so I think it is sort of my homage for that decade and my own decade that I came from.”

Maren Morris Delivers Anthemic '80s Mercedes' on 'Today'

The real companion piece to “80s Mercedes” is “My Church,” Morris’ debut single, which peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Morris wrote “My Church” with songwriter-producer Busbee (“H.O.L.Y.,” “Storm Warning”) on March 11, 2015, in Los Angeles. She got the initial inspiration for “80s Mercedes” during that trip, then wrote the song with Busbee five days later in Nashville.

“I always joke that ‘80s Mercedes’ is the badass sister to ‘My Church,’ because they’re both driving songs,” says Morris. “They both take place in a car, but ‘80s’ is sort of a Saturday-night version to the Sunday morning in ‘Church.’ ”

The impetus for “Mercedes” was a conversation with singer-songwriter Audra Mae, who casually dropped the phrase into a discussion about a guy and his well-manicured car.

“When she said ‘80s Mercedes,’ I thought that would look amazing on a track listing,” recalls Morris. “So my writer brain took over, and I immediately jotted it down.”

She mentioned the phrase to Busbee at his Nashville location, Eastside Studio, at the start of a writing appointment. Morris didn’t have a thematic direction, though she thought it should be uptempo. So Busbee started asking questions, trying to find a path. One of those questions was pretty simple: What year were you born? When she answered 1990, he blurted out what became the hook: “I’m a ’90s baby in my ’80s Mercedes.”

Morris had been listening heavily to the soundtrack of the 2012 movie Drive, which is dominated by atmospheric, throbbing, synth-based tracks. That’s a sound with a distinct connection to such early-’80s new wave acts as Depeche Mode or New Order. Busbee created an almost-anthemic keyboard pattern that’s part acoustic piano, part techno. And it set a proper tone.

“I was a little concerned that she wouldn’t like it, simply because it was piano-driven versus guitar, and a lot of her other stuff isn’t specifically piano-driven,” says Busbee. “But she loved it, so I started pulling up some very machine-y sounding loops, and we just kept going with it. Her voice ties everything -together to me.”

Morris started building images that would somehow connect a car that was built for show to a woman who was getting herself ready for public display. Some of those images would be ’80s-specific, but others — such as the “hula girl on the dash” — worked across several generations.

“The song is really just a fun, energetic way of saying, ‘I’m going out tonight,’ ” notes Morris. “I’m not technically from the ’80s, so I didn’t want to get too kitschy with it, but it was so fun because it was just sort of about the details of those moments. [We gave] a nod to Pretty in Pink, and I was so close to putting Molly Ringwald’s name into the song, but thank God that didn’t end up working out. That would have been a little overboard.”

In that context, the phrase that precedes the Pretty in Pink mention — “got my Ray-Ban shades” — works as an oblique reference to Don Henley’s ’80s convertible classic “Boys of Summer,” with its image of “those Wayfarers on, baby.” That was Morris’ view of the lyric, though Busbee connected the Ray-Bans to another ’80s touchstone.

“For me, it brought the image of Top Gun,” he says. “But to be fair, if we were going to be picky in our song, Ray-Bans are not specifically ’80s. They’ve been through every decade since they came out in the ’50s.”

Morris sang full voice through most of the writing process, and at the end of the day, she laid down a vocal and a set of harmonies. They became the centerpiece of the final product, with engineer Dave Clauss giving her performance a classic sort of echo effect.

“We both love slap delay,” says Busbee. “It’s kind of reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, some of that kind of stuff.”

Busbee played a real bass along with the pulsing keyboard, brought Aaron Sterling in to punch a real drummer into the middle of the programmed percussion, then had guitarist Derek Wells dress the track even more, providing moody coloring that only added to the Ray-Ban/Wayfarer effect for Morris.

“It almost had this Eagles-like Don Henley feel to me,” she says. “It’s surrounded by this bass synth humming beneath the song that gives it that pop quality, but the guitar part really made me think of ‘Boys of Summer.’ That was my initial reaction when I heard it back for the first time. It was still pop and had elements of country, but that guitar part just lent a lot of warmth to a really synth-based track.”

Once “My Church” completed its run, “80s Mercedes” was the obvious next single, released to country radio through Play MPE on June 13. Goodman, the product management executive from the “80’s Ladies” days, had been targeting it for months, and Morris had had that order in mind practically from the beginning.

“It always has been this one-two punch in my mind,” she says. “ ‘80s Mercedes’ veers away sonically from ‘Church,’ but thematically and vocally, they are very similar songs.”

“Mercedes” is No. 32 in its third week on Country Airplay. As it continues its trajectory, Morris probably wouldn’t mind if it performed like “80’s Ladies.” That title won Oslin a Grammy for her vocal performance and took song of the year from the Country Music Association. And those things are just as classic as an ’80s Mercedes: They work in any era.