"You either have to sing about being scorned by a lover or sing about thinking a boy is cute and wanting him to notice you. That's about as edgy as you can get," says Maren Morris in this week's Lenny Letter – the newsletter co-founded by Lena Dunham. The Grammy-winning Morris took to task the unjust conventions too often applied to women in country music.
Despite awards and accolades, Morris has yet to see a Number One song, and still finds herself answering more questions about her haircut than the content of her lyrics. As Morris points out, the genre is still a volatile place for female singers: though small victories are being achieved, the landscape is still wildly limiting and unfriendly. Just look at the current Billboard Country Airplay chart. There's only one solo female in the Top 20 – Kelsea Ballerini – with Lauren Alaina, who inspired hope a few weeks ago by taking the highest slot with "Road Less Traveled," now completely absent.
Yet, radio aside, part of what made Morris' Hero stand out is that it's not an album of pining love songs. Her debut single, "My Church," was about being spiritually moved by music – at least in that moment, behind the wheel and gently caressing only the FM dial – more than men, and the follow-up, "80s Mercedes," is a freewheeling, pop-forward anthem for a woman who wants to hit the town and have fun, no questions asked, and certainly with no regrets. She's often the one making moves and taking control, and, as she points out in her Lenny Letter, she's part of an industry that has no problem when she performs in a revealing dress – hell, they'll even want to know who designed it – but she better not sing about what happens when that dress ends up crumpled on the bedroom floor. "There are the aesthetic pressures for a woman to be pretty and sexy, but not sexual or have desires beyond winning a guy's affections," she writes.
On the flip side, take a look at the current country Number One: Sam Hunt's "Body Like a Back Road." Hunt sings about being able to easily turn his lover's jeans inside out and head "south of her smile," while on the Number Six song, "Black," Dierks Bentley confesses that he's so overcome with pleasure that he might not, well, last. The women in those lyrics can be sexual, but when they're the artist exposing their own experience with desire – Miranda Lambert's "Vice," for example, and certainly the protagonist behind the wheel of Morris' "80s Mercedes" – it never quite breaks through. Nikki Lane's "Sleep With a Stranger," written with powerhouse Luke Laird and infinitely catchy, never even stood a chance. There are some historical exceptions - Sammi Smith’s sultry “Help Me Make It Through the Night," which topped the charts in 1970, for example – but it's even more jarring that women have been given less permission as time has gone on. Music, like the political landscape, often seems to proffer punishment along with progress: two steps forward, one step back.
We all know where Lambert's frankness landed her: becoming a metaphor for "crazy" on the new Canaan Smith track, "Like You That Way." "You're Miranda Lambert crazy and I like you that way," Smith sings on the single, whose cover art is a woman's rear end. Crazy enough to date, that Miranda, but definitely not crazy enough to get a Number One single off her masterpiece The Weight of These Wings. And certainly no one called Luke Bryan "crazy" when he engaged in the same sort of emotionally reckless post-breakup behavior as Lambert does in "Vice" in his debut single, "All My friends Say". . .except Bryan himself, in the lyrics.
In her essay, Morris talks about what exactly defines a country song. It's not a banjo or a fiddle she argues, but "the core-cutting truth." Morris dabbles in many genres, and, here, she's asking for her fans to go along with her on a ride that might take her into even more creative and hard to define territory. Any artist, male or female, should have the right to explore whatever sonic path they chose without worrying about algorithms and categories, but perhaps there is another argument for why country's women – like Ballerini and Morris – veer into the pop landscape: It's the land of cone bras and kissing girls and liking it, a place where they can not just be the ingénue, but sexual beings who know their own bodies like back roads, and don't have to depend on a man to figure it out for them. As Kelleigh Bannen tweeted the day Maren Morris' Lenny Letter was released, "The genre wants 'women' who aren't actually WOMEN."
When we ask women to be "traditional country" or a purist and not infuse pop, soul or R&B sounds into their music, we're essentially asking them to embrace a genre that frequently places limits on their sexuality. Just ask Loretta Lynn, banned many times over by radio for talking about the pill or pregnancy. The same can actually be applied to male performers: Hunt's detractors often harp on how "non-country" he may be, but his presentation is actually one of few that pushes on male gender norms, which is a very good thing indeed. By delving into inspiration from genres where any kind of fluidity is more acceptable, those decisions give artists some treasured freedom – sonically, lyrically, aesthetically and thematically.
Morris' newest single is "I Could Use a Love Song." It's Number 35 on Country Airplay, and even breaking the Top 10 will be a challenge. It's the most traditionally country moment she's released from Hero yet, but it's also genre-bending and soulful, and, instead of pining for a man, she's pining for songs to have more meaning, and to be honest about love. That may not be a recipe for a Number One country hit, but it's a recipe for country itself: banjo or no banjo.