Maren Morris Brought the Spirit of Texas Country to Pop Music at House of Blues and Gruene Hall

Maren Morris performs at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.
Maren Morris performs at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.
Mike Brooks

Maren Morris
With Devin Dawson
House of Blues, Dallas
Thursday, March 23, 2017

Gruene Hall, New Braunfels
Saturday, March 25, 2017

Maren Morris had a pretty good homecoming last week in Texas. The Arlington-born singer, who won her first Grammy last month, made a brief run through the Lone Star State on her first headlining tour since releasing her major label debut, Hero, last year.

Thursday's show at the House of Blues in Dallas was her first-ever sellout, and two days later came maybe an even bigger milestone: a sellout at Gruene Hall, Texas' oldest dance hall.

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"It's so great to be home, and Gruene Hall, we sold this place out. I've been wanting to play here since I was a little girl," Morris said at one point on Saturday night at the show in New Braunfels. "I've wanted to play — I've wanted to headline — this place for a long time, over a decade. As a Texas girl, this is on my bucket list."

There's room for debate about just how country Morris' music really is. Nashville has certainly embraced the Arlington native, who turns 27 in two weeks, having bestowed her with the Best New Artist honors at both the CMA and ACM awards (the latter of which hasn't taken place yet, but she's already won the award). Still, her sound is too pop, too R&B to pass the smell test for some country puritans, of which there are many.

But one thing is beyond dispute: Morris is a Texas country girl, through and through. Her drinkin', cussin', shit-talkin' demeanor on Hero has a distinctive Texas swagger to it, and the fact that she bypassed a stop in Austin to go to Gruene Hall reinforces the point. She works for Sony now, which means she's supposed to play places like House of Blues (which she also did in Houston on Friday), not a 140-year-old bar with half the capacity in some sleepy hamlet.

Playing in Dallas (where, ironically, there were considerably more cowboy hats to be seen), her first hometown gig as a headliner after opening for Keith Urban at American Airlines Center last fall, was still a special occasion. Sporting her now-signature blinged-out gold mic, Morris' full show production was on display at House of Blues, complete with wind machines, backdrop lighting and room to execute all her struts and twirls that punctuated the performance.

While the straighter country fare of "My Church" and "Rich" were highlights of Thursday's show, especially with the crowd participation, Morris really thrived at her Dallas stop with her turns at being a soul singer. Her duet with opener Devin Dawson (a great vocal match) on "Company You Keep" was one such song, but "Once" in particular put her stellar voice on display. At its root is a country twang that colors all of her singing, but when Morris reaches for the higher registers it occasionally cracks, and on a slow burner like "Once" the result can be chill inducing. When, mid song, she dropped to a crouch, head bowed, the crowd howled their approval, and it felt like every bit of it had been earned.

In New Braunfels, however, with Morris standing under the Texas flag on the tiny wooden stage, the country almost had to take precedent. Despite the cramped quarters, she still pulled out a number of her same moves, though with a far different effect: When she leaned down to deliver a line or point at someone in the audience, she stood face to face with them, the stage only a couple feet off the ground.

Morris threw in a couple covers at Gruene that she hadn't before, including John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" and the Brothers Osborne's "Greener Pastures," but what really made the difference were the intangibles. Her band played with every bit the same force they had at House of Blues, which not only reverberated through the old building but cut right through it. As the crowd stomped the floor on a revival-worthy "My Church" that threatened to blow the tin roof off the place, what impressed the most was how Morris' voice could soar right over the noise and come through clear as day.

At the end of the day, Morris' greatest gifts are her voice and her songwriting abilities, and while both are rooted firmly in country they're also too versatile to be limited by genre or tradition. More importantly, she's sharp enough to know what a given situation calls for — and like any good showman, she rises to the occasion when a bucket list moment comes along.

Setlist:
Sugar
Drunk Girls Don't Cry
Just Another Thing
80s Mercedes
I Could Use a Love Song
How It’s Done
Bummin' Cigarettes
Company You Keep
Angel From Montgomery (Gruene Hall only)
I Wish I Was
Once
Rich
My Church

Encore:
Last Turn Home
Greener Pastures (Gruene Hall only)
Second Wind/Halo

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