Music

It Only Took Five Songs for Maren Morris to Change Country’s Game

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Head to church with Maren Morris and you’ll find hallelujahs and Holy Ghosts alongside outlaw icons and rings of fire. That’s the premise of her breakout single, “My Church,” a windows-down anthem about finding composure and contentment behind the wheel.

“I wanted to write and capture that feeling that you get when you are not judged. You’re in your car. You’re wherever — wherever you find that peace,” Morris says. “I didn’t want it to feel like it was proselytizing or preaching to anyone. It was my personal experience with spirituality, and I wanted to write it in a really universal way.”

‘That artist bone is always there, whether we like it or not.’

Since its online-only release earlier this fall, the single has garnered millions of streams and led to a signing with Sony, opening gigs for the likes of Loretta Lynn and Little Big Town, and a nationwide radio tour. The song’s strength was immediately clear to Morris, who says it came together within an hour of bringing the idea to the writing room.

“That’s one of those songs that I left thinking, ‘I have to hold onto this for myself,’ ” she says. “That became the flagship for the sound of the EP.”

Morris moved to Nashville from her home in Arlington, Texas, three years ago with the intention of focusing on songwriting. She grew up singing at talent shows and local opries, touring within the state and growing more comfortable onstage with every passing set. The move to Music City might have been a deliberate one to develop as a writer, but the performer in Morris continued to develop as she continued collaborating with other songwriters.

“That artist bone is always there, whether we like it or not,” she says. “I’ve found a confidence in my voice in those writing rooms the last few years.”

Morris’s songs were being cut by artists like Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson, but as she started to collect pieces that felt more personal to her, what would become her self-titled debut EP began to really take shape.

“It was starting to define its own sound,” she says. “I felt like these songs were making a lot more sense for me as an artist than just a songwriter.”

Her business savvy is just as sharp as her talents on- and offstage — and the steps she took to release the EP could affect how her peers approach Music Row in the future. Country music — specifically country radio — is a branch of the music industry that benefits artists on major labels, with a significant amount of support and connections required to make the jump into the regular rotation on air. Spotify, on the other hand, seems to be doubling down on country programming, with incentives for artists to release music exclusively to the streaming service and recent hires like Sirius XM’s John Marks, who boasts a background working with the satellite radio platform, to help pluck yet unsigned artists (e.g., Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt) from obscurity. For Morris, sidestepping the traditional radio route would mean a lot less waiting: waiting to negotiate with the label; waiting to release a single; waiting — hoping — for that single to get traction on country airwaves and warrant a full EP or album release. Once the five-song set was ready for listeners, she released it exclusively to Spotify, snagging a spot on one of its popular country playlists.

“We kind of just wanted to test the waters — I had never released anything on a digital streaming service before, and I really wanted to have it done organically,” Morris says. “The numbers that we got from the streams, just in a few short weeks, were exponential. I think they shocked all of us. It was a good tool to prove that these songs are being listened to.”

Now she’s entering the radio circuit with a leg up on other newcomers. Rather than framing her identity as a new artist around one single, she’s seeing that program directors and DJs have already been able to familiarize themselves with a cross-section of her work.

“I’ve gone into some of these radio interviews and they’ve already heard the whole EP,” says Morris. “That’s almost unheard of for a new artist, for a program director or a DJ to have already heard [more than one single].”

Aside from “My Church,” goofier numbers like “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” and “ ’80s Mercedes” make for apt introductions to Morris’s playful tone and sense of humor, while the bluesier sound on sleeper “Wish I Was” points to her versatility. Morris may be filling opening slots for now, but the strength of her songwriting and the organic, word-of-mouth growth of her fan base indicate that she’s going to be around for a long time. As country fans continue to clamor for a more authentic roster of artists and a tipping point seems to be nigh for new female voices, Morris appears poised to stick around for the long haul. Can I get an amen?

Maren Morris plays the Gramercy Theatre on December 1. For ticket information, click here.