OUT OF ‘THE MIDDLE’
Maren Morris: No Longer a ‘Girl,’ Fully a Record-Breaking, Genre-Blurring Woman
Maren Morris crossed over from country to pop with the chart-topping single ‘The Middle.’ For her sophomore album ‘Girl,’ she refuses to pick a genre.
With her sophomore album Girl, Maren Morris broke the record this month for the highest number of streams by a female country artist in the first week of release. The new number: nearly 24 million.
“It was certainly a shock,” Morris tells The Daily Beast, though she doesn’t exactly sound surprised. But as she continues, it becomes clear this was a big deal. “Breaking that record proves to myself, the industry and my label that you don’t have to choose between the critical acclaim side of a career and the commercial aspect.”
For an artist as successful as Morris, it is surprising she felt conflicted—or rather, expected to feel at odds—with her career. First gaining critical acclaim and a Grammy for her debut album Hero, Morris reached crossover success just a year and a half later with the song of 2018, “The Middle.” The contagious track featuring Zedd and Grey was heard as often on the radio as it still is in the aisles of Target.
In the three years since Hero, each headline, review or interview was almost always accompanied with a question: would she make the leap to Top 40 pop or recede back into country? Morris won’t go so far as to call the genre interrogations frustrating. Having spent her formative Nashville years as a songwriter for Kelly Clarkson and Jessie James Decker, she understands radio stations—the backbone of country music—need to know where to slot her. But, frankly, it is a bit tiring. “I don’t exactly understand the whole carpetbagging ‘You’re abandoning your genre behind to go be a pop star’ front,” she says, once again with little inflection. “I’ve never claimed to be any of those things.”
On Girl, Morris offers a time capsule of the modern countrywoman. She opens with the title track, “Girl,” an instant, soulful rebuke to country stations, media outlets and even fellow singers trying to pit her against other female country artists. She adds, “I always think about the scene in Mean Girls, where Lindsay Lohan wins Spring Fling Queen and she ends up breaking the plastic crown apart and throwing it into the crowd.” Minutes later, on the twangy tune “A Song for Everything,” she recalls her high school days of getting drunk and smoking weed while listening to Bruce Springsteen and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Morris says that tune “was born out of a Tiki bar conversation with my co-writers.”
She’s come a long way since those early Hero days, when the country pop star rocked long honey curls and sang with a distinct twang about driving her “’80s Mercedes” down the highway blasting Johnny Cash. Now she’s straddling a silver foldable metal chair at her live shows with a sleek lob while telling her husband and fellow musician Ryan Hurd to get his ass home on the ’90s R&B girl group-inspired track “RSVP” because she “ain’t wearing nothing / nothing you can’t take off me.” It’s a standard—demure even—sentiment compared to most pop stars. But it’s almost unprecedented in country, where Morris is bringing female sexuality to a genre often focused on women as sex objects.
But don’t expect her to go full “Partition”-style Beyoncé with backup dancers, intricate light shows or cinematic stage videos. “I’m not this choreography queen,” she says. For her 40-show Girl tour, instead of picking some fork in the road between pop and country, she is blazing an entirely new path. Her Nashville songwriter roots show in the sparse stage arrangement: an acoustic guitar and live band, while she highlights herself as an “artist becoming more and more confident and into herself” with rainforest-scented smoke, cotton candy-scented bubbles and an expansive neon purple staircase. It’s there on stage that Morris establishes what kind of artist she is. “The period at the end of the genre battle sentence is just to look at the crowd,” she says.
Morris attracts an audience beyond straight men in cowboy hats and girls in jean shorts. Suddenly—finally—her voice bursts with excitement as she recalls one particularly devoted fan from the kickoff show for her first national tour in early 2017 at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. “There was this gay guy in the front that had choreographed moves for every single song,” she says, letting out an infectious laugh.
While pop stars like Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez are often expected to be vocally supportive of the LGBT community, it’s not a job requirement for country artists. Those that do, like Kacey Musgraves and Jennifer Nettles, are rightfully praised for it. Maren joined their camp years ago. “There was really no difference between my gay friends and me,” she said of her high school friends. “We would all goof off in musical theater together.”
Now as a record-breaking, award-winning artist, she’s only become a bigger advocate. “So much of this is about action and not just a cute caption or phrase in an article that people latch onto,” she says. It’s not a groundbreaking sentiment: Practice what you preach. But in a genre where critiquing President Bush infamously killed the Dixie Chicks' career for a time—which Morris references on the defiant “Flavor”—it’s notable that Morris wears a shirt sprawled with the word “Feminist” at a faux-Women’s March in her “Girl” music video. That’s her “cute caption,” a simple statement of support. But, make no mistake, she’s followed it up with action.
“Common” is one of just two collaboration tracks on Girl, featuring Americana singer Brandi Carlile. Morris was adamant about having another female duet on her album. “There needs to be way more of them,” she says, having grown up listening to both “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy and Monica as well as “When You Believe” by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
Carlile, herself experiencing a big year following what Morris likens to a her “A Star Is Born” performance at this year’s Grammys, is an out lesbian finding success in the country genre and, as of recently, a new pal to Morris. “We’ve struck up this great, positive friendship over the last year,” Morris says. She remembers having dinner alongside her husband Ryan and Carlile’s wife Catherine Stephard. They discussed Ryan and Morris’ recent wedding, Catherine and Carlile’s two daughters and the fear that Catherine, who is English, could be extradited due to the Trump administration’s unstable immigration policies. Morris, who grew up in the “very Southern conservative” city of Arlington, Texas, was viscerally moved by her new friend’s story. “Talking about that just really opens my eyes even more to the privilege us straight people have that we don’t think about until you really hear another account for it,” she says.
Of all the points to discuss with Morris, from the new album to the Girl tour to her record-breaking week, it’s her advocacy that she ponders the most. She doesn’t give terse answers, per se, though she doesn’t always have “any new revelatory statement” to answer routine questions with. But that’s Morris’ strength. No matter what she sings about, what she stands for or who she is, Morris is “always going to be the one with the megaphone talking about it,” she says. Then she admits, “Anyways, I’m rambling.” And thank God she is.