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MUSIC: Pop-curious Maren Morris is country after all

by Joe Coscarelli, The New York Times | January 25, 2022 at 2:03 a.m.
Singer-songwriter Maren Morris has proven Top 40 chops but has still chosen to call Nashville, Tenn., home on her third album, “Humble Quest,” due out in March. (The New York Times/Kristine Potter)


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was always supposed to be when, not if, for Maren Morris' permanent pop crossover.

A Nashville songwriter from Texas turned irrepressible country headliner, Morris was, from the jump, as fluent in the Spice Girls and Beyonce as she was in the Dixie Chicks and Patty Griffin. She was also a tattooed, spray-tanned, nose-ringed liberal firecracker who posed for Playboy — arguing, hey, Dolly did it — in a stubbornly old-fashioned town especially discriminating about its female stars.

When Morris did dip a stiletto into the Top 40 metaverse not long after her breakout debut album, lending her missile of a voice to "The Middle" by the EDM maestro Zedd in 2018, the result was beyond affirmation: The track became a ubiquitous, multiplatinum smash, with Morris' emphatic "bay-bay!" alone proving her mettle in the pop firmament.

Then came the plot twist: She may have been a sly traditionalist all along.

Morris followed "The Middle" with her second album, "Girl," from 2019, which sounded sleek but not shiny and offered a slow-burning supernova of its own in "The Bones," a sturdy No. 1 record across adult contemporary and country radio stations alike. She also joined the Highwomen, a country supergroup featuring Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby.

STAYING A COUNTRY SINGER

Morris' new album, "Humble Quest," out March 25, is a tripling down on those roots — an intimate, homemade singer-songwriter showcase that forgoes bells, whistles, 808s and genre-stretching ambition for its own sake. Having dug her heels in on Nashville as home, both literally and musically, Morris seems to have realized in real time that the most rebellious way to be a young female country singer was to insist on staying a country singer. Nashville would just have to get used to her.

"I think I got enough of my fill," Morris, who is 31 and adheres to levelheadedness like it's a religion, said recently on her ample back porch, recalling the success of "The Middle" — more than 1 billion streams, Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, Grammy nominations for record and song of the year. "I thought of that movie 'Josie and the Pussycats,' where it happens literally overnight — it felt like that."

"This was massive," she recognized, but maybe not sustainable. "I think I'm ready to go back and do my own thing."

The last two years, in ways cosmic and close at hand, happened to lend themselves to an artistic recentering, not sprawl. In late 2019, one of the singer's closest collaborators, the producer known as busbee, died soon after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Then, in March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States in force, Morris gave birth to her first child, leading to a postpartum depression that may have been affected by the broader circumstances as well, she said.

With live shows and studio sessions on hold, Nashville was also being spiritually upended by the racial justice protests around the country, which landed especially hard in communities and industries that had long avoided obvious problems. Morris released a one-off protest song ("America, We're Better Than This") and, that November, used her acceptance speech for female vocalist of the year at the CMA Awards to spotlight the work of Black women in the genre. "They are as country as it gets," she said.

Through parsing her own usefulness as an activist and learning to reject what she called Nashville's "scarcity complex" among female performers in favor of community, Morris found her footing again.

"I am grateful that she stayed in Nashville — we need her," said Hemby, Morris' friend, bandmate and frequent co-writer. "She's a pillar in our community."

But "Humble Quest" does not seek to hide the hybrid nature of Morris' gifts as a soulful, R&B-obsessed hook machine and a storyteller in a Southern tradition. Instead, she deploys the pop arsenal available to her in unexpected ways, collaborating with a familiar Nashville stable but also songwriters Sarah Aarons, the voice behind the demo for "The Middle," and Julia Michaels, who has worked with Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears.

IN OTHER RELATIONSHIPS

After helming three songs on "Girl," Greg Kurstin, a studio partner known for music with Adele, Foo Fighters and Paul McCartney, produced Morris' entire new album, including the playful, John Prine-esque "I Can't Love You Anymore" and the wedding-ready ballad "Background Music." (Also prevalent in the liner notes: Morris' husband, country singer Ryan Hurd, with whom she landed her first-ever songwriting cut in Nashville years ago, when they were both in other relationships.)

For Morris, "Circles Around This Town," the album's opening track and first single (written with Michaels, Hurd and Jimmy Robbins), is pure autobiography — a pop-country song about moving to Nashville and wanting so badly to write popular country songs. In the lyrics, she even drops a winking reference to the initial hits that established her name in town, "My Church" and "80s Mercedes," hoping to channel some of that earlier, blithe confidence.

"I was like, 'Where's this girl been?'" Morris said of the song's writing process, a turning point that helped to break her out of a lingering 2020 funk. "It was so refreshing."

Ultimately optimistic and zoomed-in, with tributes to her son ("Hummingbird") and husband ("Tall Guys," among others), the album does not dwell on her recent upheaval. But Morris' path to becoming a utilitarian superstar, steady atop her platform, is encapsulated economically on the title track, "Humble Quest," when she sings, "I was so nice till I woke up/I was polite till I spoke up."

A RISK-TAKER

Vocal and forthright, though not always flawless, on issues of equity in Nashville, gun control and the casual use of racist language by the country superstar Morgan Wallen, Morris has been praised as a risk-taker in the face of the genre's circled-wagons orthodoxy. But she has also been dinged as overly self-assured from both sides, and sought to document on her album the all-purpose humbling she has received from the universe in recent years.

"Knowing that I'm not the educator was a big pill to swallow," Morris said, recalling how she chimed in amid the Wallen uproar, and then maybe wished she hadn't. "Twitter is such an enticing app because it's like, 'Oh, it's so warm in your pocket — the whole world. I can immediately shoot this off.' And yeah, I just cringe sometimes when I'm like, 'oh God, like, did that need to be in a tweet?'"

"I just know that my allyship has to be more proactive and not reactive," she added.

Change has come to Nashville in recent years, though "it's not moving nearly fast enough," Morris said. "I think there are crumbs given out to people to make it feel like there's progress. But once you're awake to it — how the system protects itself — you can't close your eyes again. So you kind of have to be the squeaky wheel."

She tries to keep in mind a big question: Are you willing to burn down the system that serves you? To demonstrate Nashville's chumminess, Morris pointed out that her husband was a writer on one of Wallen's singles, while an early Wallen EP featured a song written by her.

"I've had the matches," Morris said. "But I feel like it's not going to be in a tweet, it's going to be with my own actions and decision-making."


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