Maren Morris stepped out as one of country's most exciting new stars on 2016's Hero, packed with poppy anthems that echoed everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Taylor Swift, and lyrics that didn't hold back ("Throw his shit out in the yard," she demands in the breakup stomper "Drunk Girls Don't Cry"). Hero earned Morris, 26, four Grammy nominations (more than any other country artist this year), among them Best New Artist and Best Country Album. It's the culmination of more than a decade of work, including failed auditions for The Voice and American Idol, and songwriting credits for Kelly Clarkson and Tim McGraw. Morris finally broke through with "My Church," a gospel-style tribute to cruising while blasting classic country. Says Morris, "I snuck in there at the right time with that song."
This isn't your first experience with the Grammys. When you were 15, you attended something called Grammy Camp. What happened?
[Laughs] About 60 high school students across the country were flown to L.A. for a two-week workshop. We toured Capitol Records, and I remember a songwriting seminar with Jimmy Jam and David Foster. It was the first time I had ever flown on a plane by myself. It was pretty badass of me. Everyone else at school was playing soccer or doing theater.
How did you hear you were nominated?
I slept through the first announcement, and I woke up to my phone vibrating like crazy. I thought there was some sort of horrible weather alert. My mom was the one who told me. It was a very crazy thing to wake up to.
You name-check Diddy and sing about being a Nineties baby on Hero. What makes you nostalgic for that decade?
I remember thinking the Nineties were uncool: "I landed in the generation where nothing happens." But now I'm like, "Holy shit!" I'm so influenced by Sheryl Crow as a songwriter. I liked Hanson, who actually played their own instruments. I've always had this weird fascination with the Nineties.
What was your favorite part of playing Saturday Night Live?
Speaking of the Nineties: seeing Kenan Thompson. I remember watching him in Kenan & Kel and All That. He's been in the SNL cast for, what, 10 years now? I also got to meet Lorne Michaels at the afterparty at 4 a.m. We talked about how his daughter lives in Nashville. It was a huge check off the bucket list.
Your first gig was at a place called the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth, Texas, when you were 10. How can you be 10 in a saloon?
In Texas, it's legal for a kid to be in a bar with your parents. You can also drink – not that I ever did. A famous gunfight happened there. I would play for people while they looked at memorabilia. I would play three- or four-hour sets, which I cannot believe now. It was a Springsteen move.
You tweeted that you spent your New Year's Eve talking about Springsteen.
I'd never seen him live until recently. My music director is Max Weinberg's drum tech, so we got to see Bruce's guitars underneath the stage and watch the show from, like, two feet away. I could see the label on his jeans. I was like, "Oh, my God, he is so good-looking, he does not age." After seeing him play four hours, I was like, "I have no excuse to perform an off show."
"After seeing [Springsteen] play four hours, I was like, 'I have no excuse to perform an off show.'"
If you could see the label, could you see the size?
Yeah, I did peek in there. I sound so creepy. But I love him.
What did you learn after moving from Texas to Nashville seven years ago?
You can't be rolling into town with stars in your eyes. A lot of people get to Nashville and immediately start selling themselves: "Let's go to lunch and talk about the business!" Then you realize everyone is talented here. If you're patient and work your ass off and get really good, there's going to be a space for you.
How do you feel about the backlash against bro-country lately?
It had its day. There was no room being made – for not just women, but a more diverse sound. I would feel exhausted when I turned the radio on and heard song after song where I couldn't identify who the artist was anymore.
The songs on Hero aren't afraid to talk about drinking and hooking up. You don't hear a lot of other women in Nashville being so open in their music.
I feel like that's what twenty-somethings are doing, and that's what I'm doing. It's about being in that space where you're not in high school anymore, but you don't want to be a child bride. These days it's OK to not immediately jump into those gigantic commitments. I touch on sex and being sort of the aggressor in the relationship. I feel like people have identified with that.