Maren Morris stepped onstage at her hometown stadium in Arlington, Texas, in October to sing a song with the night’s headliner, Taylor Swift. “I . . . categorize myself as a superfan,” Swift told the audience. “I listened to [her] album over and over. I know soon she will be playing stadiums this size.” Then they performed Morris’ pop smash “The Middle,” Swift pogoing along as her guest belted the huge hook.
“It was a lot to take in,” says Morris, who calls Swift a personal hero for her ability to move from the world of Nashville country to the bigger stage of dance pop “and keep it so consistently great.” “The Middle” proved that Morris can do that too. Recorded with Russian-German EDM hitmaker Zedd, it’s been streamed half a billion times on Spotify, and it broke records as a dance hit. Morris knew the song was a game-changer the first time her manager emailed her the demo: “Within 10 seconds, I was hooked.”
She’s been working toward this moment since she moved from Texas to Nashville six years ago, following the lead of her childhood friend Kacey Musgraves. Morris, who grew up loving Kris Kristofferson and Dolly Parton, worked behind the scenes at first, signing a publishing deal and landing songs on albums by Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson, but she wasn’t satisfied. “You have this idyllic dream in your head built up about a place, and then you move there and some of those dreams are dashed,” she says. That changed when Morris’ gospel-steeped 2016 single, “My Church,” became a hit. Her second LP Girl, featuring the empowering title track, is due in March and Morris hopes it will further her crossover ambitions. “Five nominations proves to me that I don’t have to do anything a certain way or the way it’s been done before. I just pick the projects that I’m passionate about,” she says.
But Morris does admit she was surprised by her particular country nominations at Sunday’s Grammys. “Maybe with ‘The Middle’ I expected one or two, but I was very shocked at the nominations for ‘Dear Hate’ and ‘Mona Lisas,'” says Morris. “Dear Hate,” her moving ballad with Vince Gill released after the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest festival shooting, is nominated for Best Country Song and Best Country Duo/Group Performance. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” her contribution to the Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album Restoration, is up for Best Country Solo Performance.
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“They asked what my favorite song to cover would be and I originally wanted ‘My Father’s Gun,’ but Miranda Lambert had already held that one,” says Morris of how she ultimately chose “Mona Lisas” for the project. “I wanted to make it different enough where it was my own identity being poured into it, but also not take away the magic that is that song.”
Clearly, it worked: not only did Morris, who will perform at the Grammys, earn a nomination, she also earned the praise of its creators. “I already got the seal of approval,” she says. “Elton and Bernie told me it was one of their favorite covers they’ve ever heard.”