In a world where Lil Nas X has an unbeatable country smash, it’s hard to blame the likes of Maren Morris — who was performing in Texas honky-tonks at the age of 10 — for branching out. In the wake of 2018’s ubiquitous, super-poppy Zedd collaboration “The Middle,” Morris, 29, drifted far from the twang of her debut album on this year’s Girl, delving into R&B and pop, and even showing a hint of reggae. But she also just completed an altogether rootsier album with her new supergroup, the Highwomen (with Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby) — even if they weren’t sure the experiment would work until their sessions with producer Dave Cobb. “It was so nice to realize in the studio that we all sound great together,” she says. “We were joking that we got married — and then got to know each other.”
Everyone loves the line “What’s your time machine/ Is it Springsteen or is it ‘Teenage Dream’?” from “A Song for Everything.” How did you come up with it?
I was on the bus, writing and thinking of the bands that really were the soundtrack to our youth. I grew up on a lot of Springsteen because of my dad, and [Katy Perry’s] “Teenage Dream” is one of the greatest songs of all time — a perfectly written pop song. It’s hard to choose a favorite Springsteen song. I saw the River tour twice, and I love that whole album: “Hungry Heart,” “Point Blank.”
Your parents played a lot of classic rock. Was there any band you flat-out hated?
Luckily, I was never exposed to any crap. My dad loved Zeppelin and Pink Floyd; my mom was obsessed with Fleetwood Mac. I listened to a ton of Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan and Carole King. There were a lot of influences before I ever heard country music.
You posed for a tasteful topless photo in Playboy and people freaked out. What was your reaction?
I mean, I think everyone needs to calm down. Maybe people thought that when the magazine comes out, I’m gonna be completely nude, which is hilarious. I’m cool with my body, but I wouldn’t do that. I hear, “You’re my daughter’s role model and I won’t be bringing her to your shows anymore.” I’m like, “How about you be your daughter’s role model?” I mean, Dolly Parton was on the cover of Playboy in the Seventies. If you think country’s going to hell, well, Dolly did it!
You were a young country fan when the whole Dixie Chicks backlash happened. How did it affect you?
I remember not fully grasping what it meant. But even at 13 or 14, I knew it was really gross that people were running over their CDs and making bonfires of them. It just didn’t feel right. It was completely unfair treatment of a group of women just voicing an opinion, like any dude has in the history of time. They just happened to be in a genre where it’s not cool to ever air that opinion.
Sheryl Crow was one of your heroes growing up. What’s it been like to record and perform with her?
She’s such a lovely, calm presence and has so much wisdom. There wouldn’t be the Highwomen without Sheryl Crow. Her music was so impactful in the Nineties, when there weren’t a ton of female voices that were writers and musicians and were saying something that mattered. And the beauty for me was that she didn’t have to choose between artistic integrity and being commercially viable and catchy.
How hard was it to make all the different genres work together on your new album?
“The Middle” made me less afraid to hit every nail on the head. But I didn’t know until we got to the mixing phase if the album was going to feel cohesive, because it was so many genres in the melting pot. We did that on my first record, but this one felt like more of a pressure cooker — I have fans this time around! So I, initially, was a little afraid that all of these colors and sounds weren’t going to fit, but the amazing players helped it all make sense. And I think that especially in the streaming era, I don’t want to hear the same thing over and over again. I want to see the bounds and leaps that an artist can convey in a single record.
When you moved to Nashville, you thought you were just going to be a songwriter, not a performer. Where was your head at that point?
My only experience of touring was in Texas at bars, where I was background music for people getting hammered. That was the only context I had for being an artist onstage. So when I moved to Nashville, I was like, “The Texas circuit was enough for me, so I’m going to be behind the scenes and hopefully write great songs for major artists.” And it wasn’t until a few years and clocking a few hundred songs that I realized I did miss being the voice.
And writing your future hit “My Church” made you realize you had to become a singer again, right?
My publisher brought me to L.A. to team with writers there. Ironically enough, I wrote “My Church,” which is a very country song, out there. And I had a panic attack at the thought of someone else recording it. I felt like I would break out in hives if someone else sang those words. That had never happened to me before.