The Boundary-Pusher: Maren Morris on Overturning Country Conventions

The Boundary-Pusher: Maren Morris on Overturning Country Conventions

Caroline Tompkins for Rolling Stone

After more than a decade of work – including failed auditions for 'The Voice' and 'American Idol' – the singer-songwriter has finally broken through

After more than a decade of work – including failed auditions for 'The Voice' and 'American Idol' – the singer-songwriter has finally broken through

Last fall, Maren Morris was chilling on the beach in Tulum, Mexico, with her husband-to-be and fellow country singer Ryan Hurd (the couple were married last month), when she got an email from her manager. It was a demo for a pop song by the German EDM star Zedd and his songwriting partner Sarah Aarons, who were looking for just the right vocalist to bring the tune to life. "I listened to it right there on my iPhone speaker," says Morris, who just turned 28, with a just a hint of Texas drawl. "Ten seconds in, I was like, 'Oh my god, this is a jam.' I had never felt that kind of energy for a song I didn't write."

Her instincts turned out to be seriously correct. The tune, "The Middle," quickly became the most-added pop radio song in the country after its January release. It's also a perfect reflection of a post-Spotify pop landscape in which country fans are just as likely to stream a Rihanna song as one by Luke Bryan. "There are so many country artists blending into pop," Morris says. "[Chris] Stapleton is on [Justin] Timberlake's song; Florida Georgia Line worked with Bebe Rexha."

Morris was hardly a country purist before hooking up with Zedd. Her acclaimed 2016 major-label debut, Hero, ranged from poppy gloss ("Eighties Mercedes") to reggae bounce ("Drunk Girls Don't Cry") and heartbreak ballads ("I Could Use a Love Song") – all anchored by melodies so earwormy they'd make Max Martin jealous. The album, on which she cowrote every song, made her a breakout country star, and it was clear from singles like "Rich" – which mixed R&B swagger with Steve Miller-tinged rock moves – that a bigger audience was waiting. Late last year she became one of the few country artists to perform on Saturday Night Live, a career highlight that still feels a little surreal. "I'm a huge 30 Rock fan," she says. "Walking through those hallways, I was like, 'This is where it all happens.' It was just a really magical two days."

Hero's biggest hit was "My Church," a love letter to the healing power of rolling down the highway and cranking Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. The song showed her ability to remake Nashville tradition in her own image. "I'm not particularly religious," she says. "I just love being alone in my car and having that that kind of intimacy of singing at the top of your lungs with the windows down. No one is watching you or judging you." She wrote the tune in 2015 with her primary collaborator, the California songwriter Busbee. As with "The Middle," she was instantly sure she had something special on her hands. "That's also a scary feeling," she says. "Because you could so easily ruin it and you're just trying to make it the best it can be."

Morris says that ever since she was a kid growing up Arlington, Texas, where her dad worked as a graphic designer and her mom was a hairdresser, she's had a flood of melodies running through her head. "I'm sure my [Ryan] finds it charming, but almost everyone else in my life finds it annoying that I'm constantly humming," she says, laughing. "My younger sister would always bitch at me when we were kids because I'd be singing nonsense all day long."

After getting rejected from every talent show from The Voice to American Idol, Morris got her start in Nashville as a songwriter for hire – fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves gave her crucial encouragement. Tunes for Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson followed, but in 2015, frustrated that she was having trouble placing her songs, Morris put "My Church" and four other tracks that form the heart of Hero up on Spotify, just to see what would happen.

In its first week, with no label support, "My Church" racked up more than a million plays – and soon every company in Nashville came calling. She signed with Columbia, mainly because the label offered her complete creative freedom, or she puts it, "They were willing to not screw with any of my production."

She's now hard at work on the followup album, with collaborators including "The Middle" songwriter Aarons, which she's taking time to make sure she gets just right. "I think a lot of new artists have some success and then they want to completely reinvent themselves," she says. "And then you lose the people who fell in love with your first album. So I want to strike a balance of continuing the story but also being a little edgy and maturing my sound."