Maren Morris Talks Kelsea Ballerini, Sturgill Simpson and 'Kicking in the Door' of Genre Rigidity

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

The title to Maren Morris’ album Hero carries a bit of irony. It’s drawn from the chorus of “I Wish I Was,” a song about a real-life breakup in which she had to play the bad guy: “I’m not the hero in the story.”

But little more than a year since Columbia officially released  her first single to radio, Morris is filling a hero’s shoes. She and “Humble and Kind” singer-songwriter Lori McKenna are the only country acts nominated for four Grammy Awards in 2017.  She won the Country Music Association’s best new artist trophy and sang both her first two hits — “My Church” and “80s Mercedes” — on NBC’s prestigious Saturday Night Live. Morris launched her first headlining dates, the Hero Tour, in New York on Feb. 2, and she can see it in the eyes of her fans at meet-and-greets: She has become an icon for many of them already.

“It’s really powerful to me and emotional,” she says. “That’s the whole point is just to bring people together in a really positive way, and laugh together and cry together and just be connected through a simple thing of a few chords. I consider it an honor.”

Her fan base is not the only group in which Morris is a leader these days. Her rise in the business comes as part of a communal wave among artists. She’s romantically linked to RCA singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd; she shared a house for much of 2016 with former American Idol contestant Kree Harrison; she met her producer, busbee (Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum), through fellow artist Lucie Silvas; and the Hero liner notes are littered with thanks to other acts who gave her a leg up: Urban, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town and Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton.

Even Morris’ biggest Grammy nomination is something of a team accomplishment. She’s in the running for the all-genre best new artist award alongside Kelsea Ballerini. It’s the first time in history that the Grammys have included two current country artists in that category at the same time (the closest the Recording Academy ever came was in the Feb. 21, 2001, ceremony when Brad Paisley was a finalist along with winner Shelby Lynne, who was shaking off the country label while working a rock album, I Am Shelby Lynne).

In Morris’ eyes, that link with Ballerini signifies a change that Lynne would appreciate.

“It’s kicking in the door on genre line,” she says. “I don’t listen to music in terms of just bracketing it in a genre, and I think for two country females to be in that category, I think it’s definitely paving the way for people to listen to country music without bounds and not consider it a separate entity.”

The acts see themselves as friends within that group rather than rivals.

“It’s really easy to get competitive,” allows Ballerini, “but I’m a fan of hers, and she told me that she’s a fan of mine. It’s really cool to be able to root each other on, even though we’re the new girls. And it’s really important to have more than one.”

Morris is part of a slow rebalancing act in country. The genre overloaded on males during the bro-country era — roughly 2012-2015 — and outside of Lambert and Carrie Underwood, it was rare to find a solo female inside the top 20. The ascent of Morris and Ballerini helped women regain a tad more prominence on country radio, the very medium Morris celebrated in “My Church.”

That song, in particular, represents the multiple influences at work in her music, paying homage to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash in the lyrics while rolling pop-influenced programming elements and the gospel-based McCrary Sisters into the production.

“I grew up listening to a lot of classic country, and I think that shows in my songwriting,” says Morris. “I pay such tribute to the Nashville songwriting craft on my record because that’s just how I’ve learned to write songs. But also sonically, there’s a lot of different sounds being represented, so it’s cool to pay tribute to the past but also be optimistic about the future of the genre.”

Similar to Lambert and Stapleton, Morris is working in a space that overlaps between hooky commercial country and the raw Americana format. She performed a year ago on the Cayamo Cruise (billed alongside Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Buddy Miller, Jason Isbell and Angaleena Presley), and she heads back out to sea in the 2017 installment of Cayamo in the week after the Grammys. That musical association connects her nicely as well with Sturgill Simpson, whose all-genre album of the year nomination for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth shocked plenty of observers. She opened for him in 2013, when she was still unsigned and he was doing a one-month residency at a small Nashville club, The Basement.

“I just remember thinking back then, ‘Holy crap, this guy’s voice is so good’ — it reminded me so much of Waylon Jennings, and it’s just a really classic voice,” she says. “He’s found a niche and a fan base that really identifies with him, and they’re not just country fans.”

Morris’ own voice is what cemented her working relationship with busbee, who sat next to her at a small, private songwriters round in Nashville.

“Feeling her soulful vocal ability mixed with an incredible accuracy of technique, I’d never heard anyone sing like that,” he says. “I just had to be involved, and that’s what started this whole thing for me, just hearing her do what she does.”

Her Hero journey adds another chapter with the Grammys on Jan. 12. Whether she comes away a winner or remains a four-time nominee, it has brought additional focus to one of country’s current artist-development successes. Only recently has Morris had a chance to start considering how to follow it up.

“There’s no grace period between album one and album two,” she says. “But I have some time set aside in a couple of months to really sit down and start writing again. There’s a lot of life left in Hero, and a tour, so I’m taking it one day at a time. The songs will come as they come, and I’m excited because I haven’t gotten to be really creative in a while. I’m excited to get back and do what I do and just write a song.”

It’s a big part of how she found her own voice in a bigger community.


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