When Maren Morris walked out onto stage at Austin City Limits Festival last Friday, she did it in perfect fashion: with Janis Joplin's "Mercedes-Benz" playing as her entrance music. That one song choice brought so many of the right pieces together for the up-and-coming Arlington native: a nod to a trailblazing female singer, a shoutout to a fellow Texan and a foreshadowing of Morris' own most swaggering song, "'80s Mercedes."
The 26-year-old Morris hadn't played a show in the Lone Star State since her major-label debut, Hero, came out in June, or even since her self-titled EP came out last November. So for her Texas fans, the stop in Austin last weekend was their first chance to see her since the country music breakout, who saw five Country Music Awards nominations last month, including Album of the Year. And she didn't disappoint.
Morris' set started with a hiccup, as an apparent miscommunication on the part of the festivals organizers (they later took responsibility) meant she got underway 20 minutes late. But that didn't phase Morris, who strutted onto stage clutching a gold mic and proceeded to play a 35-minute set that didn't seem to lose any songs from the delay, based on the ones she's been playing on her previous tour stops.
Hers is, for lack of a better term, a decidedly millennial approach to country music — and that's meant in an entirely complimentary fashion. Morris is at once a throwback to classic country and not at all concerned with what genre it is that she pulls her inspiration from. At times during her set in Austin, the music locked into a straight R&B groove, while at others Morris broke into a rapping cadence — though crucially, she didn't actually rap, a line that, say, bro country doesn't know not to cross.
And boy, that voice. Hearing Morris in person really drives home just how strong of a singer she is. "I Could Use a Love Song," for instance, gave her a chance to really lean into her singing, while the slow burn of "Once" demonstrated a soulful versatility beyond the familiar country twang. She can be sweet and tender at one moment, and a take-no-prisoners ass-kicker the next.
That attitude has a lot to do with the comparisons Morris has received to Joplin. "Sometimes you got to be the bad guy," she said at one point, a line that could easily have come straight from the late Houston-born singer. But Morris isn't simply a renegade, nor is she trying to be an outlaw. If anything, she's an example of what the country establishment can do right: Having moved to Nashville at 22, she worked her way into the machine, learning alongside the best in the industry.
Morris reflected on that leap of faith during her set at ACL. "I wrote this song when I moved from Texas to Nashville," she said, introducing "Second Wind," a song she co-wrote that was recorded by Kelly Clarkson. "It was a crazy time in my life." But that all helps make Morris a unique role model, not just in country music but in any genre: a singer with crossover appeal who actually writes their own songs, rather than buying a share of the credit.
Moving to Nashville has likely paid off in other ways as well, as despite her relatively short time on the road this year Morris already has a healthy polish as a performer. (No doubt she was also helped by her years performing at Johnnie High's Country Music Revue in her hometown.) At ACL, she did far more than stand in place and sing; she dipped, dived, swayed and swung her arms, throwing in leg kicks for emphasis with her big, black knee-high boots. Basically, she's got all the right stadium moves.
But at heart Morris is still a Texas girl, which has as much to do with her attitude and taste for bling as being a child of the millennium. As she wound the set down with her two biggest hits, "'80s Mercedes" and "My Church" — which she played on her own black Gibson and got the whole crowd singing and waving their arms in unison — she shouted out her home state once more.
"Texas is where it all started for me," Morris said. "This song wouldn't have happened if I weren't raised in the best damn state in the country."
AUSTIN CITY LIMITS FESTIVAL continues at Zilker Park in Austin this Friday to Sunday, Oct. 7 to 9.