Up-and-Comer Maren Morris Ditches the Country Playbook

The latest trend in mainstream country music seems to be Gen X cowboy crooners teaming up with the pop-star likes of Demi Lovato, Elle King and Pink for duets that might endear them to younger audiences. These crossover pairings actually sound pretty good, but the dynamic is creepily Richard Gere-ian, like a divorced finance exec hitting on his kids’ cute babysitter.

When younger female country artists like Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris chuck the tried-and-true playbook, though, the results are often delightful. One of the year’s best singles is Musgraves’s remixed interpretation of Miguel’s “Waves,” with Miguel himself chipping in vocals. In 2014, Musgraves headlined a CMT Crossroads episode alongside tourmate Katy Perry. On their own, the musicians release starkly different material; Musgraves’s delivery is decidedly dulcet, while Perry soaks her songs in melisma. But together, the two exhibit an easy chemistry born of mutual admiration. Watching Perry spontaneously smile with her eyes closed as Musgraves ignited “Firework” gave the track a gravity it wholly lacked before.

When Musgraves goes pop, however, she insists that it’s a lark, describing her own music as “country as shit.” When country and pop commingle, Nashville’s finest are careful to brandish their bona fides in the next breath — but not Maren Morris. Last month, Morris’s Hero became the first debut album since Sam Hunt’s Montevallo, in 2014, to reach number one on Billboard’s country-albums chart in its first week.

Morris didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Now 26, she put out three records on independent labels prior to Hero’s release; last year, a self-titled EP introduced listeners to the album’s first two singles, “My Church” and “’80s Mercedes.” She’s also a pal of Musgraves, who’s a year older and also hails from Texas.

“Our parents would take us to the same talent shows, and that’s how we met,” Morris says by phone from Nashville during a brief break from touring with Keith Urban. “I would just crash on her couch when I’d come here to visit. She had a publishing deal, and I didn’t really know what that was. I thought it was the coolest thing ever to sit in a room all day and get paid to pull ideas out of your brain.”

There are a handful of tracks on Hero that could easily be mistaken for Musgraves’s renderings. When Morris operates in her lower register and at a relaxed pace, the two sound a lot alike. But Morris often rhymes like Rihanna, finishes her notes with a Beyoncé-like trill and has a penchant for enormous choruses. The sexy, commanding “How It’s Done” and “Once” are pure R&B; you finish the album forgetting that you found it in the country section.

“I didn’t try to make those songs adventurous,” Morris explains. “That’s just how they came out. The content fit what I was going through at the time. I felt it would be a disservice to leave them off this album, even if they’re more R&B than country. That’s really detrimental creatively.”

On Hero’s bounciest tune, “Rich,” Morris sings, “Boy I’d be rich, head to toe Prada/Benz in the driveway, yacht in the water/Vegas at the Mandarin, high-roller gamblin’/Me and Diddy drippin’ diamonds like Marilyn.” Coming out of the mouth of someone like Luke Bryan, these lyrics would sound buffoonish. But the diminutive Morris is confident and spunky enough to pull them off.

Speaking of Diddy, Morris would love for him to be in the video for “Rich,” but the hip-hop mogul isn’t part of her dream Vegas posse. For that trip, she’d tap the eclectic trio of Rihanna, Bruce Springsteen and filthy-parody singer Wheeler Walker Jr., the title of whose latest album, Redneck Shit, contains Morris’s favorite curse word, which is peppered liberally throughout Hero.

“Obviously, ‘shit’ seems to be the recurring favorite,” Morris concedes. “If we had a ‘shit’ counter on the album, it has to be around seven or eight times.”

Maren Morris with Keith Urban
7 p.m. Friday, July 22, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheater, 6350 Greenwood Plaza Boulevard, Englewood, 303-220-7000, $25-$99.50.