It's a Monday morning, and rising 26-year-old country star Maren Morris is driving through Nashville on her way to rehearsal. In a week, she'll kick off some opening dates for Keith Urban that coincide with the June 3rd release of her major-label debut, Hero.
Given that Morris' breakthrough, "My Church," is a booming praise song about the redemptive power of the radio (as presided over by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash), you might expect her to be cruising to some classic country. But she's a woman who doesn't draw boundaries in the music she makes, or listens to, so right now she's blasting Ginuwine's 1996 bump-'n'-grind classic, "Pony." "I'm doing this Nineties night on Tuesday here in Nashville with a bunch of friends, and I'm singing on that song," she says, laughing. "I'm going to learn all the harmonies."
Morris grew up a shy kid in Arlington, Texas, who found her confidence in singing. "I did choir, soccer, some theater," she says. "The only weird thing about my life was that I was playing honky-tonks on the weekends." She started singing in clubs at age 11, released her first independent album at 15, and by 21 had already put in a full decade touring around her home state. But a trip to Nashville to visit fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves suggested a new career path: songwriting.
"She showed me around her publishing office," says Morris. "It opened up this world for me: People go in, Monday through Friday, sit down and write a song. I was like, 'Holy shit, this is the best job ever.'" Morris saved her money and, three years ago, drove a U-Haul to an East Nashville house she'd found on Craigslist.
She scored cuts for Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson, but eventually she hit a snag. "I kept getting e-mails back from my publisher: 'These songs are great, but I don't even know who to pitch this to because it's so uniquely you.'"
Last year, she released a five-song EP, and radio play for "My Church" helped fuel more than 2 million streams before she landed a deal with Sony Music Nashville. The pop hooks on Hero recall Morris fave Sheryl Crow, and like her friends Musgraves and the Brothers Osborne, she's part of a new wave of Nashville musicians making their moves by doing things their own way. "To turn the radio on and hear so much more diversity, it's so refreshing," she says. "That voice that cuts through what you've been hearing, it's inspiring."