Feature Stories

Maren Morris Forged Her Own Path From Texas to Nashville and Country Stardom

For being barely 25 years old, Maren Morris is no newcomer to the stage. At just 11 years old, she played her “first real show with a band” at Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue in Arlington, the legendary North Texas weekly variety show that has seen such talents as Kacey Musgraves, LeAnn Rimes and Kitty Wells grace the stage. Now, Morris is poised to become one of Nashville’s hottest young stars after the release of her self-titled EP earlier this year landed her at the top of Billboard's Heatseekers chart.

At some point after that show at Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue, Morris became a fixture on the Texas music circuit. “It’s hard to say exactly when it all started or what show it was, but I started touring when I was 11,” says Morris. “I played all over Dallas and Fort Worth, and eventually I was touring the whole state.” In the beginning, Morris was just a singer, singing along with pre-recorded tracks. At age 13, her father bought her a guitar, taught her three chords and Morris started writing her own songs.

“I had no idea what I was talking about back then,” she admits. “I was just living vicariously through other songs or stories that I would hear. There’s not a lot of good content to write about when you’re 13 years old, so you just have to kind of fake it.” For the next several years, she continued to play across the state of Texas alongside up-and-comers like Musgraves, until she decided to move to Nashville at 22 to find a fresh start.

“Texas is really special in that we have our own music scene, our own music chart. It’s almost a genre on its own,” says Morris. “It feels like you can make a great living just touring the state because it’s so big, but eventually I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to become a better songwriter, so it seemed like a no-brainer to move to Nashville, where some of the best writers in the world live.”

Morris’ move to Music City was also a way for the fledgling artist to liberate herself from the music and image that she’d been cultivating since she was 11 years old. Having moved to Nashville to focus on becoming a songwriter, she was greeted by a community that couldn’t care less about her image or former life on the stage in Texas. “The songwriting community in Nashville really is all about your talent. It’s not about your image, and you have to be humble. You have to be kind. You have to have zero ego when you walk into that writing room,” she says. 

Morris had also liberated herself of any preconceived notions about her being little more than a kid, a novelty act who’d started on the stage too young to be taken seriously. “In a way, I was just known for being that little girl on the stage after a few years of playing in Texas,” she says. “It’s been so great to come back to Texas after having been a writer here for a couple of years because I feel like I’ve found this confidence in my writing that I was proud to take back to Texas and explore. The support that I’ve had from home has made it so much more fun to put music out.”

Morris had to reinvent more than her music, though, to be successful in Nashville. “I never busked, but I felt like I was emotionally busking,” she says. Longtime friend Musgraves, who Morris met when they were both playing the same local opry houses and talent shows as kids, was there for support. Still, Morris had to work hard to break out of her naturally shy shell. 
“I moved here alone, so I had to make myself go to writer nights and writing rounds and network with people,” she says. “You can’t come here thinking that you are owed anything. You have to be humble and sit back and listen and I feel like the first few months I was here, I didn’t like telling people that I had this history of performing. I just wanted to prove it from day one with a bit of a clean slate. You have to really pay your dues, because every single person is incredibly talented in this town.”

Fortunately, Morris’ talents started to display themselves quickly. In 2014, Tim McGraw released “Last Turn Home,” a song she co-wrote with Eric Arjes and Ryan Hurd. In 2015, Kelly Clarkson cut “Second Wind,” marking Morris’ second co-writing success. “I saw Kelly Clarkson earlier this year at Bridgestone Arena and she played 'Second Wind' live,” says Morris. “It was the craziest experience. I’d never seen an artist at that level perform something I had co-written.” The hits have kept coming, too: Next year, the Brothers Osborne will release a Morris track on their forthcoming album.

“I was writing the EP before I even realized that I wanted to be an artist again. I started to see this common theme with the songs that I was writing or co-writing, and it all had this really strong, independent point of view that I had subconsciously been craving from the music scene,” she says. From there, she started exploring her sound, finding a strange fusion between roots music, country, pop and R&B. More important, though, she just wanted to hear more good country music on the radio.

“I’m not trying to dog any artist or genre, but to me, there is a lot of diversity missing from the radio. I miss turning the radio on and getting punched in the soul with a great lyric,” she says. “The female perspective has been lacking, at least here lately.” When that female perspective does appear, though, it hasn’t exactly been what Morris wants to hear, either. “There really aren’t love songs that I have written for this record because that’s not where my head was at, but also as a girl, I’m sick of hearing about them,” she says. “I’m 25 years old, I want to represent my generation in this moment, and it should be OK to be a young woman and not just want to gush about some dude.”

The result is the fierce and fun Maren Morris, the extended-play she released in November. The first single, “My Church,” is about finding a sort of religion in country music, with Hank Williams and Johnny Cash leading worship. In terms of sound, the album is in the vein of Sheryl Crow pop-country with hints of Texas twang. Even without the support of radio play, Morris’ EP shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart, and “My Church” has over four million loops on Spotify.

After that Heatseekers debut, Morris is no doubt headed for the mainstream. Other tracks on the album, like “80s Mercedes” with its sort of electro backbeat and pop-driven sound, and the soulful, almost bluesy “I Wish I Was,” round out Morris' sound and exemplify her versatility as an artist. No doubt, she is Carrie Underwood or Kelsea Ballerini or Cam’s heir apparent on the charts.

At present, she is gearing up for what will no doubt be a grueling and whirlwind 2016. Right now, she’s doing interviews with radio stations to promote “My Church,” which will be released to radio as a single in the coming weeks. Morris was originally scheduled to go on tour with Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley as he launched his solo effort, but that tour has since been canceled. Instead, she’ll announce plans to head out on the road in January of next year.

At which time she will, of course, head back to where it all began – Texas. "The support I’ve had from home has made it so much more fun to put music out. I talk to my friends here who are writers and are from all over the country. The common theme is that they had to move to Nashville to find a music scene,” says Morris. “They came from middle-of-nowhere towns. I grew up in such a solid scene, and that makes me feel really lucky.” 
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Amy McCarthy